Jack Knox: Time catches up with Victoria typewriter shop

Jack Knox mugshot genericVictoria’s last typewriter-repair shop has shut its doors.

To which you reply: Victoria still had a typewriter-repair shop?

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Yes, it did, and it outlasted the rise and fall of Blockbuster Video, pagers, the Discman and dial-up Internet.

But time finally caught up to Type ’N Write, the little store on Quadra just north of Hillside — though owner Jes Vowles hasn’t put down his tools altogether. “I’ve been doing a little bit at home,” the 62-year-old says. He’s still answering the phone.

It wasn’t just the demise of the typewriter that led to his decision to close a store he first opened 35 years ago. There was also the loss of work servicing printers. People throw away printers rather than repair them these days. The arrival of cheap toner cartridges from China dammed another revenue stream.

Typewriters were the heart of the store, though, and both they and the expertise to keep them working are vanishing. An international online directory of typewriter-repair outlets lists only 15, including Type ’N Write, in all of Canada. The only other B.C. entry is Polson’s Office Products in Vancouver.

Not all shops can fix all makes of typewriter, either. Some machines are like old Studebakers and some are like Ferraris, and you need a mechanic to match. Parts can be hard to come by, too; over the years, Vowles bought the stock of a couple of local typewriter shops when they closed.

In Vancouver, Polson’s still does a steady trade fixing IBM Selectrics, intricate instruments that dominated the commercial market for a couple of decades after being introduced in 1961.

“Before computers, the Selectric was it,” owner Art Skill says. “It was $1,500 brand new.”

Lawyers still like using Selectrics because, unlike computers, they have no memory, no digital echoes to reverberate after being discovered lurking deep inside a hard drive. “There are certain subjects in divorce cases, for instance,” Skill says.

Over on this side of the water, Type ’N Write catered to a fair number of older clients who never got the hang of a computer. Other customers were simply passionate about typewriters in the way that some people get gooey about steam locomotives.

“I had one guy fly in from Ottawa to buy one. Then he turned around and flew back,” Vowles said Wednesday. “He didn’t even know what kind of stock we had when he came.” (The man bought a small portable.)

Type ’N Write also enjoyed another niche: young people. “A lot of students are wanting them now,” Vowles says. “I guess it’s fascinating for those who have never seen the inner workings.”

You can’t really call that nostalgia, as nostalgia implies a longing for something lost, and home computers had elbowed out the typewriter before most of today’s students were born. On Wednesday, we coaxed a couple of the Times Colonist’s younger staff, Margaret McConnell and Joanna Andrejanczyk, into trying out an old Underwood that was kicking around the newsroom. Might as well have asked them to figure out a wringer washing machine or a cream separator. (The rest of us resisted the urge to crawl onto an ice floe and die.)

Perhaps it’s because typewriters are disappearing that they, particularly the manual ones, enjoy a certain appeal. In the 500 block of Johnson — do the hipsters still call it LoJo? — is a trendy little stationery shop called the Regional Assembly of Text, where those with a sense of romance can rent time on a typewriter. It costs $2 for 20 minutes or $5 an hour to sit down at one of three stations and type out a card or letter. Some customers like the novelty of it, some like the clunk of the keys, some like the intimacy and permanency of a typewritten note.

Certainly, composition on a typewriter requires a different thought process. Where computers allow stream-of-consciousness writing and editing (or not) on the fly, you have to think a bit harder before committing ink to paper on a manual typewriter. You tend to choose your words more carefully when you can’t take them back, can’t delete your brain cramps and start again. And you make fewer rash decisions when the send button is a postage stamp.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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