Berkeley Type-In draws tickled typewriter fans, and teases new documentary

Berkeley Type-In on Tuesday, Sept. 26. Photo: Alastair MacDowell

While South Berkeley was buzzing in the aftermath of Free Speech protests and counterprotests earlier this week, a small shop in West Berkeley hosted a noisy crowd paying homage to a different matter of historical significance, also in the realm of personal expression.

California Typewriter on San Pablo Avenue held its second “Type-In” on Tuesday evening, a participatory celebration of the manual typewriter.

“It’s exciting, fun, joyful, very joyful,” said Sabin Icasiano Johnson of Berkeley, who said she went with her niece at her urging. “And all of the memories it brings back, too.”

She adds: “I like all the clacking.”


For a couple of hours, an enthusiastic, mixed-age group of about 30 die-hard manual typists, manual dabblers, and curiosity seekers filled the shop with the clickety-clack of typewriter keys on paper, in free-form expression.

Typewriters — Royals and Smith Coronas and Olympias — were provided by the store, lined up on tables set up for the event, but BYO (or Bring Your Own) was also welcome, and some did.

Classic manual typewriter ready for action at Type-In at California Typewriter Photo: Kate Rauch

The Type-In was organized by Doug Nichol, a filmmaker from Marin County who discovered California Typewriter seven years ago when googling for a place to fix his Underwood 5, an early-1900s classic. “I could only find these guys.”

He purchased his broken machine on eBay for $6 as a visual art object for his office, he said. Soon after, he was driven to get it running. “It was really weird. It almost had a life to it. I’d push keys that didn’t work and I swear it was calling out to me.”

California Typewriter, operating since 1949, gave his machine legs, and also seems to have given Nichol much more. He was drawn to the store, to its workers and dedicated owners — the Permillion family — to the world of manual typewriters in a fast-paced digital age, to others with the same appreciation.


Worried about the economic future of California Typewriter, which like all small typewriter shops was barely making it, Nichol, a Grammy winner best known for edgy music videos and films such as Madonna: Truth or Dare whipped up a short promotional video for the store. Nichol also makes TV ads.

The short video was circulated privately, attracting actor Tom Hanks who, it turns out, is a major collector and lover of manual typewriters. Soon it was morphing into a longer film, fueled by the stories, conviction, and passion of an array of typewriter enthusiasts — writers, artists, tinkerers, more.

Around this time, Nichol also organized the shop’s first Type-In, drawing a similar group as this week.

On Friday, California Typewriter, a Nichol-directed feature-length documentary opens around the Bay Area, including at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. In addition to Hanks, it includes interviews with singer John Mayer, the late actor-playwright Sam Shepard, and historian David McCullough — all of whom are crazy about typewriters.

The movie’s been out in other parts of the country and at film festivals for months, to impressive reviews.


Nichol, who stresses he’s not anti-technology, is a little surprised and reflective about the early success. “It seems to be striking a chord in people who are a little burnt out on the digital world,” he said. He compares it to the Slow Food movement. “All this is, is slower and a little harder.”

He also remains rooted to his initial mission: helping his typewriter shop. “The big hope is that, with the movie coming out in theaters, they’ll get calls,” Nichol said.

Herb Permillion III, who owns California Typewriter with his daughter, Carmen, said business has already ticked up since the film’s release. They’re getting a few calls a week for sales and repairs, he said.

California Typewriter, namesake shop of new documentary on manual typewriters. Photo: Kate Rauch
Ken Alexander, typewriter repairman at California Typewriter at Type-In. Photo: Kate Rauch

When Nichol showed up with his busted Underwood in 2011, no one had a clue what lay ahead, Permillion said. “I’m quite pleased. It’s a little more than I thought to expect initially.”

He’s even optimistic about his store’s future. And he thinks other typewriter stores might benefit. “It draws attention to us, but also to the typewriter.”

A second surviving typewriter store, Berkeley Typewriter, is also still in business, since 1936. It is at 1823 University Ave.

Ken Alexander, California Typewriter’s long-time repairman, said he saw familiar faces at this week’s Type-In, but also new ones. “A lot are creative people who can’t seem to create on a computer, but they can on a typewriter. The sound of the keys clicking on the paper, that seems to get the creative juices flowing,” Alexander said.

A Typewrite at the Type-In. Photo: Ira Serkes
A Typewrite at the Type-In. Photo: Ira Serkes

Slower. Harder. Meditative. Soothing. Thrilling. Allowing words to sit on the page for a while without easy deletion.

These are a few of the ways the event’s participants described their experiences.

Along with nostalgic.

“In the 1970s I typed my application to the draft board as a conscientious objector on one of these,” said Phil Catalfo, a retired writer and editor from Berkeley, who stopped by with his wife after seeing word of the event in the newspaper.

“It’s hard for me to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been able to type. It’s a survival skill,” he said.

In another sign the publicity for the old-school craft is working, Barbara Mortkowitz, an artist from Sacramento, drove down for the Type-In after seeing a listing on Facebook. She brought her prized machines with her for servicing, a 1920 Underwood and 1950 Royal.

“I’m so happy there are so many people here typing,” said a beaming Mortkowitz, as she went over her typewriters with Alexander. “This is so personal.”

Random selection of Type-In works:

“This is so cool”

“Wow I really missed typing so much.”

“Now is the time for all good men to figure out how to tie their own shoes, and clean up after themselves, and permit their womenfolk to have a break from drudgery.”

“How I long to type in red ink. This is America and we have choice and freedom to choose.”

Lyrics from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb