Typewriters are making a comeback in Berkeley

Joe Banuelos, owner of Berkeley Typewriter, shows a vintage Olivetti machine. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel

By Edward Derbes

Typewriter sales have gone up in Berkeley over the past few years, and the owners of the city’s two typewriter stores can’t quite explain why. But, whether it’s the vintage appeal or just because people want to write without the distraction of the internet, the two stores aren’t complaining.

Berkeley Typewriter is on University Avenue, a  few doors down from the year-old Trader Joe’s and across the street from Performance Bikes, where a Grand Opening sign is still displayed in its two-story window. The store has been operating from its squat storefront since the 1930s. Joe Banuelos, its third owner, has run the shop for nearly twenty years.

Joe’s brother, Jesse Banuelos, who works as a typewriter technician at the store, said most of the new customers are in their 20s and 40s. “It’s attorneys,” he said. “They prefer to type on these kinds of machines. They tell me, ‘They look cool in my office.’”

A fascination with vintage typewriters also accounts for the recent rise in sales, said Joe. In particular, people in Japan are buying typewriters built in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The store will charge $250 to repair a classic Olivetti, but that machine can be resold for $1,000 in Japan, said Joe. “They buy them because they are antique. There’s a big demand because they are part of American history.”

Restored vintage typewriters can sell for as much as $1,000

Jesse has worked as a typewriter technician for 43 years, 20 of them at Berkeley Typewriter. The store’s main business is office machines, such as printers and copiers, but typewriter orders still come in anywhere from Vermont to Los Angeles.

“A lot of people call in from around the country (for typewriter parts),” he said. Many of them are old customers from the Bay Area who have moved elsewhere, but some find him on the internet. “If you type in ‘typewriter repair,’ it comes up with Berkeley Typewriter.”

Jesse said that he sold a typewriter for $350 just minutes before this reporter’s arrival. Most of the restored typewriters in the store sell from between $295 to $400. One recent morning, a customer, who did not want to give her name, spent $40 for a couple extra rolls of ribbon for her Olympia typewriter. She told Jesse she was taking them with her to Montana, where it’s “not so easy to get these”.

Typewriter sales have been going up steadily for the past five years nationwide, with the New York Times calling it a “growing movement”. “I can’t explain why, but people like them,” Jessie said.  “Even the students—they have all this computer stuff, but they want a typewriter.”

Herbert Permillion, who runs California Typewriter Company on San Pablo Avenue, said he was also at a loss to explain the trend.  “I’m almost in awe to some extent, but then I can sort of understand that some people tend to reach back and some people want things a little simpler.”

California Typewriter Company was opened as California Typewriter on Shattuck Avenue by  Glenn Tuttle in 1949. Permillion bought the shop in 1981 from its second owner, Joseph Mundy, at its second location on University and moved it to its current location on San Pablo in 1986. There was a lull in typewriter sales for a while as computers took over the market, but, recently, sales have picked up.

Permillion’s daughter, Carmen, who works at California Typewriter, said that the “creative types” are mainly the ones in the market for typewriters these days. “It doesn’t get you all caught up with everything else on the computer. You know, you can really get more focused and think about what you’re doing.”  

Sarah Kobrinsky, an Emeryville artist and writer, recently brought in a typewriter to be repaired at California Typewriter. She started using typewriters while living in England a few years back when her friend gave her one as a birthday gift. She never felt able to keep up with technology, so she has continued to use typewriters ever since.

Typing on a typewriter is a sensual experience, Kobrinsky said. “You’re using many more of your senses,” she said, adding that she likes the heavy-hitting feel and sound of the keys. “It just feels much more intimate.”

She uses her three typewriters to make little books and quick presents. She also has some of her typewriter-created artwork on display at Jered’s Pottery, her husband’s pottery shop on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley.

Ken Alexander, California Typewriter Company’s technician, said there may even be a longer future to the typewriter trend. While tinkering with a broken printer, he told about a nine-year-old girl who recently came in with her mother.

“I couldn’t believe how intelligent that kid was,” he said. The mother told him that the young girl spent two hours patiently writing on the typewriter that she bought from him. “(The daughter) came in with this paper, and it was so eloquently written for a nine year old. I mean she was using words that, hell, I couldn’t even spell. . . . She was a fascinating kid.”

“She had a sleepover the other night. And all the girls were trying to get on the typewriter.” A case of future generations reclaiming old technology perhaps?

Edward Derbes earned his B.A. in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley last year. He still resides in Berkeley, and can often be found on the front steps of his apartment building reading Kierkegaard and Nelson Algren.

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  • TN

      “It’s attorneys,” he said. “They prefer to type on these kinds of machines. They tell me, ‘They look co“It’s attorneys,” he said. “They prefer to type on these kinds of machines. They tell me, ‘They look cool in my office.’”
     
    There’s a more practical and immediate reason why attorneys still need typewriters. Some legal forms can in practice only be filled out on a trypewriter. You’d think that this problem would have been remedied by now, but my SO attorney tells me that it just isn’t so.

    They make look “cool” but they are needed.

  • TN

    Sorry for the mangled comment above. I’m having a heck of a time editting my comments since Berkeleyside switched to Disqus.

  • Bruce Love

    It is not a mystery why the price of typewriters have recently gone up.   Roughly speaking, they recently stopped making them:

    http://mashable.com/2011/04/26/rip-typewriter/

  • jjohannson

    Just bought a Smith Corona Sterling (manual, ’53) for my eight-year-old at an estate sale.  Twenty bucks.  She loves it, types out her poetry (and occasional grievances).  I dropped by Berkeley Typewriter to see if they could replace the ribbon.  No sweat.

    Young folk are also drawn to rotary phones… but those come with built-in solicitations, unlike typewriters.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mpclemens Michael Clemens

    Good timing! June 23 is the anniversary of the first U.S. typewriter patent. We’re marking the day on http://www.typosphere.net

  • TN

    Lest anyone think that Berkeley Typewriter works only machines about to be featured on Antiques Roadshow, they are our vendors for fixing our computer printers and fax machines.

  • Jim Rosenau

    I use a typewriter because I choose not to have Internet access at work and I am not pleased with my handwriting. It forces me to be more thoughtful and concise since I am not an accurate typist. I like the regimen. I got my machines from people on Freecycle and have swapped with California Typewriter Co. who were helpful and informative.

  • GPO

    The store will charge $250 to repair a classic Olivetti, but that machine can be resold for $1,000 in Japan, said Joe. “They buy them because they are antique. There’s a big demand because they are part of American history.”

    Reminds me of the plot of Toy Story 2

  • Vdeer

    well, we are still tactile humans! And no doubt some of us still like to use our brains for spellcheck!

  • Vdeer

    oh, I forgot to ask about typing paper! They must carry it! That stuff is still my favorite childhood drawing surface…

  • http://www.awkwardengineer.com AwkwardEngineer

    If you’re in the Boston,MA  area, Cambridge Typewriter ( http://www.cambridgetypewriter.com ) has seen a good uptick in business, as well. I bought my typewriter there. 

    I actually keep my blog on a typewriter, scan the articles, and post them to http://www.awkwardengineer.com

  • Ron J

    he looks like ron jeremy.

  • Janet Gioffré-Harrington

    I have what appears to be a 1948 Smith/Corona Sterling in the case. EXCELLENT condition. May be time to sell, any idea of the value?

  • Agnasio Desilva

    The main reason for the increase in typewriter sales is that using a computer these days to compose or document information has become very risky due to both hackers and the sneaky methods used by “legal” snoopers such as Facebook and Google to name a few. Our Company has switched back to typewriters and yes, even the good old file cabinet. The same security measures are actually being used by many government and aerospace entities and have been for years.