Typewriter Tom lives with his two sisters in an apartment above his shop on Elgin Street, just outside Melbourne’s central business district. He fixes typewriters for a living, or at least he used to. “It’s not a viable proposition,” he tells me. If he didn’t own his shop, he’d have gone out of business 20 years ago.1 But it’s all he knows, and he’s not about to quit.
Walking into Tom Koska’s shop is like stepping into a time machine. Old fax machines, photocopiers, spare parts, and all manner of obsolete technology fill the space.2 He has typewriters, too, of course — including a manual Arabic and an automatic Hebrew one — but these are overshadowed by the larger machines.
A narrow, weaving path leads you through the mass of vintage machines to an old desk covered with more “junk.” The wall here is lined with small shelves containing hundreds of typewriter ribbons and spools and other spare bits for more brands than even Tom can tally off the top of his head, accumulated over half a century.
If it has moving parts, Tom can probably fix it. But Tom is master of a dying craft, lost in the march of technology. His customers come from miles around, learning through word of mouth and a few Internet posts about one of only a handful of typewriter technicians in Australia — and perhaps the most broadly skilled of the lot.3
That’s how I found him, too. Or rather it’s how my girlfriend discovered Tom, as she searched online for a typewriter to give me as a birthday present in March this year. “Use this to write your first book,” she said, minutes after sneaking a heavy blue Craftamatic manual typewriter into my living room unannounced. It took me by surprise, this mechanical beast from before my time. But I instantly fell in love with my typewriter. And I’ve been grappling ever since with the question of why.
Soul in the machine
We used to take typewriters for granted. They were just part of the background noise. “You won’t be surprised to hear that we didn’t notice the sound of typewriters back [in pre-computer newsrooms],” Robert Messenger recalls. He’s a veteran journalist and the proprietor of the Australian Typewriter Museum. “But, then again, we didn’t notice the cigarette smoke, either. These things were just part and parcel of where we worked, our environment.” Like computers in the ’90s, before Apple turned them into a fashion statement with the original iMac, typewriters were mere work tools. Now they are old, obsolete, and quaint, and people accustomed to today’s planned obsolescence can wonder at their resilience.
Messenger describes it well: “Twenty-five years or more since I last used a typewriter in a newsroom, I now gaze at these magnificent things in wonder — and wonder how I didn’t notice their simple beauty and brilliant mechanical designs back then!”
My greatest surprise, as I surveyed the typewriter landscape, was at the sheer variety of them. My Craftamatic is typical of the vision I had for non-vintage typewriters, which I always imagined as being like the black Underwood in Tom’s shop window. But then there are box-like automatics from IBM, beautifully engineered Remingtons and Olivettis, workmanlike Brother and Olympia machines, Smith/Coronas, Royals, Adlers, and so many more brands with models that targeted specific occupations and needs.
There are “portable” typewriters, ranging from the size and weight of early laptops to beastly things as heavy as a bowling ball once you take their enormous case into consideration. There are all sorts of frills for paper alignment, noise reduction, transistor radios, and anything else that might have clinched a sale. And they come in every imaginable size, color, and shape — today’s mobile-phone market has nothing on the 20th century typewriter space.
I left my research more confused than I began, so I asked an expert.
“A good typewriter has a keyboard with well-spaced keys and a snappy yet smooth typing action,” Messenger explains. It is engineered and designed to precision. Mine, Tom assures me, is a good one. I still can’t tell, perhaps because I haven’t seen a bad one.
I doubt that the young people who seek out Tom from time to time know the difference, either. They don’t particularly care. “The funny thing about the young people is they like these old black ones,” Tom says. “You know, antique ones, but I only have a few left.”
Return of the typewriter
It turns out that typewriters have made something of a resurgence in the past decade. It began in America, spurred by a perfect combination of nostalgia, retro-chic, technology fatigue, and, paradoxically, interconnectedness — it’s easier than ever to track down people with similar interests and to find old things on social networks and secondary markets. The recent popularity of television shows such as Mad Men only served to magnify the trend, pushing prices up and providing documentaries such as The Typewriter in the 21st Century an easy platform for media attention. (See also Gabe Bullard’s “Restoration Hardware” in Issue #17.)
I couldn’t find a clear origin to this renewed interested in typewriters — indeed, many people, including famed film director Woody Allen, actually never stopped using one. But I did spot a commonality among the burgeoning typewriter-blogging, or “typecasting,” scene.4 It’s a love for the focused nature of the machines, which stand apart from the chaos of modern computing.
A typewriter cannot order pizza, search Google, play music, and check the weather, all while idly processing more information than a person 2,000 years ago would encounter in their lifetime. It doesn’t even have a USB input. “When you sit at a typewriter, you write,” Messenger tells me.5 “You don’t scroll back, you don’t get distracted, you don’t make changes as you go, you just keep writing.” It’s just you, the words on the page, and the clank of the keys.
Every one of the typewriter enthusiasts I found — whether young or old, collector or first-timer — had this sense that a typewriter shuts out the frenzied world of email and Web browsing in favor of the simplicity of writing and the immediacy of their words on a physical page.
A typewriter is the ultimate minimalist text editor, in a sense, and perhaps the real answer to technophiles seeking to unshackle themselves from the almighty bloat of modern word processors. As Messenger says, “You are the master of the typewriter; the computer is the master of you.” This, I think, is why a few minutes with my typewriter converted me to its charms.
Despite its myriad disadvantages, it’s easier to write on a typewriter. The noisy clanking of keys and the incessant need to manually move to the next line help you build up a rhythm. (Unless you have an electric typewriter, in which case you’re missing out on half the fun.) They block out the world, and they give writing a tactility like nothing else.6
But even conceding that I now prefer the experience of writing on a typewriter to that of writing with a computer or touchscreen device, there are still certain…practicalities to consider. Much like if:book Australia director Simon Groth describes in his recent essay, I am not in a position to work in the old non-digital world. (Nor do I want to — I really like the Internet and my multitasking habits.) I need my words to appear onscreen, in an easily editable format for people to publish or revise. I rely on my iMac, laptop, smartphone, iPad. No longer a tool of productivity and trade, the typewriter now stands as an object of leisure.
The typewriter grants me extra focus, but being temporarily divorced from my digital world proves more bane than boon for anything with a deadline. That is why, I think, Tom is right when he responds with skepticism to my assertion that there’s a resurgence in interest in typewriters. I doubt it’s a fad, but the inconvenience of a typewriter today limits it to a dedicated few — predominantly composed of writers, hipsters, collectors, and old people.7
The times they are(n’t) a-changin’
Business is slow. There may be a surge in interest, but it hasn’t had much impact on Tom. He only opens the shop by request, doing repairs on the spot.8 “It’s not like they’re waiting in a queue,” he remarks. “It used to be like four, five pages of typewriter repairers and resellers. Now it’s only a few private people like myself.”
He doesn’t dwell on this. At 70 years old, he’s “just about” retired. “I do odd jobs, but that’s about it.” He could close his business, clear out all the old stock of faxes, printers, photocopiers, and parts, and rent out the shop space for several hundred dollars a week. “I’m not interested to become a millionaire. For me, fixing the typewriter gives me a pleasure.”
I learned about Tom on the Internet. He doesn’t own a computer, or know how to use one. “I wasn’t even aware that I’m becoming famous in my old age,” he says. People started coming, saying “I found you on the Internet,” and Tom couldn’t believe it. He never advertises; his customers do it for him.
“I haven’t got no business card,” says Tom. “I have no ad in the paper or other advertising. The customers are doing it for me. Even that page on the Internet — I didn’t even realize. I am computer illiterate; I wouldn’t know how to do it.” You build a pretty good reputation after 44 years in business.
Photos by Richard Moss.
If you find yourself in Melbourne, Australia, and would like to visit Tom to talk about typewriters, or to get yours repaired, you can find his shop at 188 Elgin Street, Carlton — a few minutes north of the city’s central business district. Don’t just turn up, however, because he might not be there. He doesn’t have a Web site. Call to make an appointment at +61 3 9347 6311.
Tom arrived in Australia in 1966, after having learned the typewriter repair trade in stints working in Germany, Austria, and the former Yugoslavia. He immediately jumped into work as a typewriter technician for a firm on Elgin Street. He started Elite Office Machines in 1969 with a business partner who later left to be a restaurateur. ↩
My personal favorite is an adding machine that predates my birth, yet remarkably still works as new. ↩
Apparently the knowledge to fix one brand of typewriter is very different than that needed to fix another, and sometimes varies significantly even among different models within the same line. Tom is a generalist, able to fix anything; the norm in the world of typewriter repair was traditionally to specialize. ↩
Yes, there is such a thing. Most of them scan their typewritten pages and post those with a few computer-typed comments, in a bizarre but very compelling take on conventional blogging. They mostly link to each other, too, in a kind of typewriter Web ring. ↩
They also look fantastic on a desk, which is no doubt a key motivator for the fashion conscious. ↩
Plus some people in developing countries where Internet access or electricity can’t be relied upon, but that’s a shrinking market. ↩
I ask about the repair process. “It depends,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a broken thing, like somebody breaks or drops the machine. Mainly it’s servicing it, like cleaning and oiling and adjusting it.” ↩
Richard Moss is the content editor at Archive.vg and a freelance writer focused on games, technology, history, long-form journalism, and interesting people and things. He has the dubious honor of being an expert on the history of Mac gaming, and is crazy enough to have written a book on soccer-management game Football Manager 2012.