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Click, Clack, Ding! Sigh ...
By JESSICA BRUDER
EVEN by Brooklyn standards, it was a curious spectacle: a dozen mechanical contraptions sat on a white tablecloth, emitting occasional clacks and dings. Shoppers peered at the display, excited but hesitant, as if they’d stumbled upon a trove of strange inventions from a Jules Verne fantasy. Some snapped pictures with their iPhones.
“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.
“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”
Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.
They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.
The subculture of revivalists includes Donna Brady, 35, and Brandi Kowalski, 33, of Brady & Kowalski Writing Machines, who sold the aforementioned Smith Corona Galaxie II one recent Saturday afternoon at the Brooklyn Flea, a market for crafts and antiques.
“You type so much quicker than you can think on a computer,” Ms. Kowalski said. “On a typewriter, you have to think.” She and Ms. Brady began their vintage typewriter business last April. So far, they have refurbished and sold more than 70 machines, many to first-time users. Their slogan? “Unplug and reconnect.”
And typists are reconnecting all over the place. On a December afternoon, about a dozen people hauled their typewriters to Bridgewater’s Pub in Philadelphia for the first in a series of type-ins. (“Like a jam session for people who like typewriters,” said Michael McGettigan, 56, a local bike shop owner who came up with the idea. “You had unions do sit-ins and hippies do be-ins, so I thought, ‘We’ll do a type-in.’ ”)
In the last three months, type-ins have clattered into cities from coast to coast and even overseas. On Feb. 12, more than 60 people turned up at a Snohomish, Wash., bookstore over the course of three hours for a type-in called Snohomish Unplugged. Type-ins have popped up in Seattle, Phoenix and Basel, Switzerland, where they called the event a “schreibmaschinenfest.” Ms. Brady and Ms. Kowalski are planning to hold a Brooklyn type-in at McCarren Park.
Why celebrate the humble typewriter? Devotees have many reasons. For one, old typewriters are built like battleships. They survive countless indignities and welcome repairs, unlike laptops and smartphones, which become obsolete almost the moment they hit the market. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘In your face, Microsoft!’ ” said Richard Polt, 46, a typewriter collector in Cincinnati. Mr. Polt teaches philosophy at Xavier University, where he’s given away about a dozen typewriters to enthusiastic students and colleagues.
Another virtue is simplicity. Typewriters are good at only one thing: putting words on paper. “If I’m on a computer, there’s no way I can concentrate on just writing, said Jon Roth, 23, a journalist who is writing a book on typewriters. “I’ll be checking my e-mail, my Twitter.” When he uses a typewriter, Mr. Roth said: “I can sit down and I know I’m writing. It sounds like I’m writing.”
And there’s something else about typewriters. In more than a dozen interviews, young typewriter aficionados raised a common theme. Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine.
That doesn’t make them Luddites. For many younger typewriter users, the old technology rests comfortably beside the new. Matt Cidoni, 16, of East Brunswick, N.J., keeps a picture of his favorite machine, a Royal No. 10, on his iPod Touch so he can show it off to friends. Online, he is a proud member of the “typosphere,” a global community of typewriter geeks. Like many of them, he enjoys “typecasting,” or tapping out typewritten messages, which he scans and posts to his Web site, Adventures in Typewriterdom. One of his favorite typecasting blogs, Strikethru, is run by a Microsoft employee. In Mr. Cidoni’s world view, there’s nothing technologically inconsistent about such things.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mr. Cidoni said. “I’ve got an iPod Touch. I’ve got a cellphone, obviously. I’ve got a computer.” He also owns about 10 typewriters, which he uses for homework and letter writing at — get this — speeds of up to 90 words a minute. “I love the tactile feedback, the sound, the feel of the keys underneath your fingers,” Mr. Cidoni said.
Tom Furrier, who owns the Cambridge Typewriter Company in Massachusetts, has sold several typewriters to Mr. Cidoni and said that high school and college students have become a staple of his business. “I kept asking, ‘What are you kids doing here?’ ” he said. “But it’s been this growing thing. Young people are coming in and getting in touch with manual typewriters.”
In January, Mr. Furrier rented out a dozen typewriters to Jen Bervin, 39, an artist teaching a weeklong creative writing course at Harvard. When class ended on a Friday, several students begged Ms. Bervin to let them return over the weekend for one last crack at the machines. “Everyone was so excited about it,” she said. (When reached for an interview, Ms. Bervin was sitting in the cafe car of an Amtrak train, where she’d been clacking away on her own typewriter, a German Gossen Tippa from the 1940s, until her cellphone rang.)
What do literary stalwarts of the original typewriter era make of all this? “We old typists, it makes us feel young again to think there’s a new generation catching on,” said Gay Talese, 79. He still uses a typewriter, albeit electric, as does his friend, Robert A. Caro, 75, the Pulitzer-winning biographer of Robert Moses and President Lyndon B. Johnson. They discussed Mr. Caro’s Smith Corona while watching the Super Bowl.
“I’m actually not surprised,” Mr. Caro said, when told of the typewriter renaissance. The tangible pleasures of typewriters are something he’s known about for decades. “One reason I type is it simply makes me feel closer to my words,” Mr. Caro said. “It’s like being a cabinetmaker. It’s like laying down the planks. This is the way it’s supposed to feel.”