I heard from a neighbor friend that an older gentleman in our community was having trouble with his new typewriter. His advancing dementia made using his computer difficult, so his family got him a Royal Scriptor II from Office Depot to allow him to still write messages.
Let alone that electronic typewriters are not my thing, that the Scriptor was $300 was damn near offensive to me. I told my friend I’d be happy to help diagnose the problem, but also that I’d be just as happy to donate one of my typewriters. This would allow them to get their money back, avoid plugs and cables, and type on something that was made when people knew how to make typewriters.
My Royal Futura 800 seemed like a good option. I was considering selling it, but since I got it for free I thought it would be better to pay it forward. Like Andy’s toys in Toy Story, I think typewriters just want to be used. All the better by someone who will appreciate that use.
My colleague texted me a picture of a curvaceous mid-century Royal standard with no model name and with unknown functionality. Her mother was looking to get rid of it. I told her I’d probably just clean it up and resell it. That was fine with her, and the price of free was fine with me.
A mystery typewriter! Very exciting. When I popped open her trunk and lifted it towards my car, I suddenly remembered why I don’t collect standards. It was beastly, as cumbersome as a Selectric and longer than it was wide.
Without a clue as to the model name, I consulted the trusty Typewriter Database and found a photo of a very similar machine. It was the photo filename that told me this typewriter’s name, not, deceivingly, what I thought was the serial number but was actually some other parts number in front of the typebars.
Bow down to the Royal Empress:
Long will this gargantuan typewriter live! I could use it as a safe. The serial #MCP-11-8013175 (the P indicates pica font) would place it in 1964 or 1965. I’m not sure which since the other serials in that range seem to be a bit jumbled. It looks gray in the picture, but it’s more of a gray-green-beige mixture. Perfect for a bland office or, as indicated by a sticker on the back, hospital:
My preference is for portables, and not only because of storage limitations. But I can definitely see the appeal of standards like this one. If you don’t collect and just want a reliable desk typer, this Empress could rule over your writing spot until the next millennium. I’ll still be selling it, but I’m happy for whoever is made happy by it next.
Awhile back a patron donated a grey Smith Corona Corsair Deluxe typewriter to my library. She didn’t know why it wasn’t working but didn’t want to spend the time and effort to figure it out.
Little did she know she brought it to one of the few libraries in the area where someone actually cared and could do something about it.
But without a space of its own (or its cover/case), it sat atop a cabinet gathering dust until recently, when we thought we might use it in conjunction with National Poetry Month.
A quick inspection revealed the ribbon wasn’t advancing and the keys would get jammed on the way to the paper. I fixed the jamming easily enough, but needed to do some take-home surgery to properly diagnose the ribbon issue.
Once I got a closer look, I noticed one of the left ribbon spool pawls was out of alignment. This meant the ribbon wouldn’t advance with typing to provide constantly fresh ink. I gently bent it back into place and tried to tighten its binding screw so it would grab the teeth of the ratchet wheel as it should.
Typewriter screws can be pretty stubborn sometimes, especially if they haven’t moved in decades. This particular screw was quite intransigent, so in an effort to compel it into motion I leaned into the screwdriver to give it some extra oomph.
As soon as I did that, the little L-shaped metal arm the pawls were screwed into (not sure of its technical name) bent downward about 45 degrees.
I was so close! Once I’d finished that screw the problem would have been solved and I could go on with my life. Alas, not only did this mistake mean I had to figure out how to bend a small 50-year-old metal arm back into place without breaking it, but I also had to remove the Corsair’s plastic body casing to do so. Which I was really trying to avoid.
Once the paroxysm of profanity passed, I quickly realized I had two options. I could give up and consign a mediocre typewriter to live the rest of its days as an Instagram prop. Or I could persevere until I fixed it.
Ultimately I chose a third way: I indulged in self-pity and gnashing of teeth for a few moments, then took Door #2.
I did successfully remove the shell, which exposed the whole ribbon spool mechanism from the side. Even then I struggled to get enough leverage within the cramped quarters of a typewriter’s innards to bend the arm back up. But I just kept at it and kept at it. Once I decided to endure, I had no other choice.
Eventually I found a tool with the right shape to lever the arm back into place no worse for wear. Back on the planned path after this sudden detour, I restored the remaining parts and screws, wedged the shell back into place, and nodded in satisfaction.
Previous typewriter repairs I’ve done produced similar do-or-die moments. Each time I chose to keep on (except one, a Consul Who Must Not Be Named), the repairs ended successfully. No amount of whining, swearing, procrastinating, or doomsaying made that possible. Only stubborn persistence.
The Evanston Literary Festival graciously facilitated me hosting a type-in at the Bookends & Beginnings bookstore yesterday. I was there with my typewriters for about two and a half hours and had about 20-30 people sit down to type during that time.
It was a good mix of people old enough to be familiar with typewriters and young enough to know nothing about them. It was fun to get them started with the basics and then watch their inner lightbulbs grow brighter with every ding of the margin bell.
A collector stopped by and we talked repair and favorite machines. A college student was so enamored with the machines and typing experience that he talked of getting his own. A girl of about 7 or 8 sat down at the Skyriter and started in like she owned it; I learned her family had a typewriter at home so she was a well-practiced typist already!
I brought speed typing tests and writing prompts, but since most of the participants were so new to typewriters I figured it was best to keep things informal and low-pressure. Learning how to make an exclamation point and the number 1 were reward enough for most of them I think.
Overall I’m very happy about the turnout and enthusiasm. Besides selling a few typewriter books for the bookstore, it brought disparate people together in a shared public experience. I’d love to do it again, and find different ways to do public typing and meet more Typospherians in the area.
The bookstore had their own Remington Quiet-Riter, which they said hadn’t been working since they got it. I quickly realized the ribbon selector was set to stencil. The vibrator was still a little sluggish, but it typed fine:
Always interesting to see what people write when trying a typewriter for the first time:
One quiet and serious thirtysomething walked in, sat down, and started typing without a word. He was there for a while, pausing occasionally to ponder his next type. When he left I went over and snapped what he wrote:
Steve K has a nice write-up about the wide-carriage Olympia on display at Moomin World in Finland that’s meant to stand in for Moominpappa’s typewriter. It does look like a wide carriage in the above illustration, though in this one it’s of normal size:
After all these years, Steel continues to use the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she bought used when working on her first book. “I am utterly, totally and faithfully in love with my typewriter,” she says. “I think I paid $20 for it. Excellent investment! And by now, we’re old friends.”
Above all, my old iPad has revealed itself as a cursed object of a modern sort. It wears out without wearing. It breaks down without breaking. And it will be left for dead before it dies.
A machine that’s over 70 years old (!) is still performing exactly as it did the year after World War II ended, and another machine that’s not even 7 years old is now a digital dotard. An iPad of course can do far more things than a typewriter. But if it can only do those things for the length of two presidential terms, tops, is it truly worth the investment?
My 1970 Hermes 3000 originally sold for $129.50, according to the sticker still on its body. That’s about $845 in 2017 dollars, which would get you an iPad Pro or basic laptop today. I bought it last year for $30 at an antique store. It’s in seemingly mint condition all these years later, and I can’t wait to see what words it will produce—from me and any future owners. If the iPad’s “slow death” takes place after only a few years, the death of this Hermes—perish the thought—will be downright glacial.
Yet what Herrman concludes about a tablet is also true of a typewriter: “It will still be a wonder of industrial design and a technological marvel, right up until the moment it is destroyed for scrap.”
A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.
Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:
Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.
what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?
— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)
Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:
I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).
She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:
I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.
And yet, she’s not precious about them:
My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on somesolid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:
Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:
Arriving home after a long weekend in Asheville, I opened our mailbox and saw a letter addressed to me from Playtone, Tom Hanks’ company. Oh shit, I said out loud. I’d typed and sent him a short letter a few weeks ago about my photo of his book and to thank him for being a great ambassador for typewriters. I didn’t expect to get anything back, but got something anyway:
This is the view of my typing station. It is currently manned by my Smith-Corona Electra, flanked by Life from a succulent and Light from an owl lamp, buttressed by a Jackalope typewriter pad I highly recommend, and supported by a typing desk I inherited from my typist grandmother, and it is quickly becoming my bliss station.
The good thing about being known as “a typewriter guy” is the same as the bad thing: people bring you typewriters to buy. After talking with some coworkers about California Typewriter, The Typewriter Revolution, and other typewriterana, one said her parents had some in their attic and she’d see if she could find them. The next week she brought in this 1938 Underwood Portable 4-bank:
She said she’d gotten it at an antique store years ago because it looked cool (she was right) but hadn’t used it since. It’s missing its right margin stop, rubber feet, and ribbon spool covers, but besides that and a little rust on the typebars it types just fine.
Still, with my space for typewriters at a premium, I’m gonna resell it. If the buyer can locate an extra margin stop and a new ribbon they’ll be set with a nice machine.