MAXWELL:  Back to an ancient art _ a typewriter

5/2/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



I am doing something at this very moment that I have not done since 1985, when I bought my first computer, an Amstrad: I am writing a column on a typewriter _ a manual.

The reason? I simply want to see if I can still do it. A few days ago, I needed to address some envelopes and realized that I am 99.9 percent Luddite. I could not program my computer and printer to do envelopes. The instructions read like pig Latin.

“To hell with this nonsense,” I said aloud. I decided to buy a typewriter _ a manual.

Leaving my house, I got that sinking feeling that perhaps no one sold the things anymore. After all, during my seven years at the St. Petersburg Times, I have seen only two manuals and two electric monsters. I asked a few people in the newsroom if they knew where I could buy a manual typewriter, and they looked at me as if I were E.T.’s mama come to Earth in search of her lost boy (or whatever E.T. is called back home).

I drove around downtown St. Petersburg and found a few sad-looking machines in those sad-looking stores where sad-looking people buy sad-looking junk from sad-looking shop owners. Giving up, I returned to the office and grabbed the Yellow Pages. There, I found this place called Dick’s Typewriters and Business Machines Co. Our conversation went something like this:

“Hello, Dick, my name is Bill, and I have a crazy question for you.”

Dick (Richard Ponce) did not say anything.

“Dick, like I said, I have a crazy question.”

Dick waited me out.

“Well, Dick, do you have a good manual typewriter?” I asked, feeling stupid because I did not think he had one.

Dick came to life: “Do I have typewriters? I have a store full of them.”


“How many do you want?”

Thirty minutes later, I was at Dick’s place, 2619 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. His daughter was there with him. Indeed, typewriters were everywhere, from floor to ceiling, some old, some not so old, a few looking like they were freshly uncrated.

“Whoa! You have a lot of typewriters here.”

Dick’s daughter asked me what I did for a living, and I told her. Lo and behold, she and her dad are fans of my column. Wasting no time, Dick showed me several machines, one a beautiful old Underwood, another a Royal. I liked both but did not buy either.

Dick, a good talker, came back with a sleek Olivetti Lettera 25, the kind advertised in one of those slick airline magazines. He inserted a sheet of paper, and I typed. The machine felt great, soft strokes, good sound, nice font. Dick processed my debit card, gave me an extra ribbon and away I went with a manual typewriter. I took it to work and showed it to a few colleagues. Because the Times is a family newspaper, I cannot share what some of the resident wiseacres said. Here is one comment I can share: “Are you nuts or what?” Another: “Too much Merlot, Maxwell.”

I polled about 30 writers, editors and administrative assistants, asking this simple question: “Do you own a typewriter?” Almost all of them repeated the question, very, very slowly, as if trying to figure out what I meant by “typewriter.” One nice lady even asked, “What do you mean by “own a typewriter’?”

“Well, er, like do you own a car? Do you own a typewriter?”

She thought about it a bit longer and realized that she did not own one.

Others were stopped cold by my question: “Let me think. . . . Um–mm.” Some vaguely remembered they may have dumped one of the relics in the attic, in the garage, in a closet, in a shed or maybe they left that old thing with Aunt Zelda in Bridgeport or with Uncle Dave’s oldest daughter in Peoria.

Seven of the people I polled, including my boss, still own typewriters. One news editor has three. A few writers I know in Chicago and New York work exclusively on typewriters, and I hear that their number is slowly but steadily growing. I am not one of them. I will use mine for envelopes, index cards and occasional screenwriting tasks.

The glory days of typewriter giants Underwood, Royal, Remington, IBM and Smith Corona are long gone. You now can find typewriters as curbside trash. We cannot zip typewriter copy through cyberspace. You need a modem for that.

As I started to type this column, I realized that the keyboard does not have the number 1. I would have to use the lowercase L (l). In scanning, the lowercase L (l) translated as a 1 every time _ even when I meant for it to be a lowercase L (l).

Oy vay! Back to my laptop. My manual is still beautiful, though, a piece of ancient art.