I had no intention of becoming a typewriter collector. None. Yes I wanted one, but collecting them? That’s crazy. The portable models are 10-15 pounds, desktops over 30—who collects something like that?
When my great-grandmother passed away no one spoke for her typewriter. As a child it was this fabulous forbidden object, taunting me from beneath a dust cover that was wasn’t fooling anyone; under that unassuming cover lurked a creature of irresistible mechanical magic. Now it was mine for the taking, except it was...lost, somewhere in a storage unit.
I do not fault my family for this. Storage units are like parallel dimensions available for a monthly fee. Once an object crosses the threshold it will only reappear when you’re looking for something else entirely. Go in looking for your bicycle, you will find Aunt Audrey’s best wigs. Go in search of wigs, and you will naturally find your bicycle.
This is the way the world works. And so I found myself responding to a Craig’s List ad that would lead to my first typewriter. It was a Smith-Corona that mysteriously typed only in capital letters.
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I thought at first that the shift key was jammed, but in fact there were no lowercase letters. Google would later inform me this was a “mill” model, made for the military and most likely used for transcribing telegrams in WWII.
A few keys were broken, but it was a tangible, irreplaceable, chunk of history. A 15 pound chunk of history, in fact. And if it didn’t come home with me, it could end up dismembered by some crafty lunatic who would sell its tortured remains as “re-purposed industrial chic” on Etsy.
I really had no choice. But after the thrill its history wore off, the prospect of typing all caps missives (HOW HAVE YOU BEEN MOTHER?) wasn’t exactly what I had been envisioning.
Then a friend offered an extended loan of their Smith-Corona Silent. Beautiful twelve point type, easy on the eyes in more ways than one. Soon after that I spotted the now-familiar silhouette of a typewriter case at a garage sale, the same model as my first, but with caps and lower case.
Next an iconic 1900s Underwood No. 5 that needed some serious TLC, and in accordance with the laws of the storage unit, the timely unearthing of my great-grandmother’s desktop Royal.
In less than three months I had gone from laughing at crazy typewriter collectors to being one, and I had to ask myself why.
I could say it’s because all the world’s a screen now; I push “buttons” that aren’t even buttons but pixels arranged to represent the idea of a button, and there is something comforting about being able to peer inside a typewriter and see what makes it tick.
But it’s more than that. This machine revolutionized the way we work— even now smart-phones display a QWERTY keyboard, a layout designed to keep letters frequently used in combination apart so typewriter hammers wouldn’t jam.
It was ingeniously designed and made to last, so much so that they are still capable of doing a job now few people want them for. They lived long enough to witness their own irrelevancy. And perhaps that is why I sympathize with them.
I make my living performing and teaching folk arts far older than any of my typewriters. When I look at this collection of springs and levers, metal and rubber and mechanical know-how, I think I see a bit of myself.
Like the typewriter, I’m good at things some people don’t see the need for anymore. I like the clack of the keys and the ding of the bell, but even more, I respect something that’s good at its job and keeps doing it even if the rest of the world doesn’t see the point.
I suppose that’s why I’ve made a home for wayward typewriters. I want us both to keep doing what we do best for as long as we can.
Sarah Comer of Puyallup is a musician, storyteller and community dance facilitator. She is one of six News Tribune reader columnists in 2018. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org