This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.
The people who repair the world’s typewriters tend to have very long memories, but this wasn’t like anything he could recall. On a recent morning, Paul Schweitzer, 81, was trying to adjust to his new, lonely routine.
“I’ve been sitting at home for the last couple weeks,” he told VICE in March. “I’m not ready for that. It feels like retirement.”
For most of the past six decades, Schweitzer has gotten up each morning and traveled from his home in Long Island to his typewriter repair shop, Gramercy Typewriter Company, in Manhattan. The company was founded by Schweitzer’s father, Abraham, in 1932, and Schweitzer began working with his father in 1959, soon after he came out of the Navy, just as he’d always known he would do. As a child of 8 or 9, he was already learning the trade at his father’s elbow. “I’d help him clean typewriters and make ribbons and things. I was born into it.”
And nothing much changed over the years, even as the six or seven pages of typewriter shops in the phone book Schweitzer recalls seeing from the 1950s to the 70s dwindled to nearly nothing, and the phone books themselves eventually disappeared. Typewriter repair used to be its own category in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts which jobs will rise and fall. “The long-run outlook is for steady employment,” the bureau promised back in 1949. These days, typewriter repair is reduced to miscellanea, slotted somewhere under “office machine repairers,” their numbers imprecise; they all seem to be aware of each other. “We’re getting to be one of the only shops in the country,” Schweitzer said.
In that time, he’s watched with slight surprise as typewriters began to make a modest, strangely poetic comeback. “There seems to be a resurgence in the typewriter business,” he said. “It’s mostly the younger people who still have their computers. They just want to write or do poetry or whatever they wanna do. They would prefer to do it on a typewriter. They want to be like Hemingway. They tell me there’s fewer distractions while they’re typing their thoughts, putting them on the paper.” Schweitzer watches them as they come into his shop. “They look around, try out a few different machines, see if they can get used to typing on a typewriter.”
The shop is, in Gramercy Typewriter’s long history, a very recent innovation. Schweitzer was joined “quite a number of years ago” by his son Jay, who’d also always felt drawn to the family business. It was Jay who suggested a year and a half ago that they close their private repair shop in Manhattan’s famous Flatiron Building (the shop takes its name from its neighborhood). They moved into a storefront a few blocks away, where people can walk in, press the keys of an IBM Selectric, marvel at the Hermes 3000, the Royal portable, the Olympia portable. “All very, very nice machines,” Schweitzer said fondly. (He’s partial, if he has to choose, to the IBM Selectric or IBM Wheelwriter, both of which allow users to make corrections.)
But the novel coronavirus pandemic has altered Schweitzer’s routine, like those of millions of other people, and since early March, he has been repairing typewriters in his son’s basement. “It’s put things to a halt as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “For all these years I would go to work every day,” five or six days a week. When we spoke, he’d been reluctantly staying home or going to his son’s house to work for the past three weeks, and he said the change had erased an elemental part of the business.
“I’m not interacting with our customers, which I have done for so much of my life,” he said. “I’m not going out into the field. I’m not going from office to office, taking a bus and a subway and traveling all over the city. Obviously, I really miss that.”
His retired friends, he said, envy his usual lifestyle. “I get up with a purpose every day. I can’t wait to get there. I have people waiting to have their machines serviced and repaired. Some people don’t understand how important that really is.” He has thought, with pain, of all the broken typewriters in offices all over the city, and their owners, waiting for his return.
For Schweitzer, and for the people who repair typewriters, there’s not much to do but wait, fix the machines out in a basement somewhere, and try to remember that a few weeks or months in a long history isn’t much at all.
“Time goes very fast,” Schweitzer said, before heading back to his 61st year of work. “And this will be over soon. I’ll be happy to get back to New York City and our store and to continue on.”
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