Berkeley’s California Typewriter, star of documentary, closes shop

Sometimes even a feature-length documentary isn’t enough to save a business. After 70 years servicing manual and electric typewriters, printers and business machines in Berkeley, California Typewriter is shutting down. The San Pablo Avenue shop is set to fully close by March 31.

The storefront has not maintained regular hours since January, when a banner announcing the shop’s closing appeared on the side of the building. For potential customers, it’s been catch-as-catch-can while owner Herbert Permillion and his daughters, Candy Permillion and Carmen Permillion, negotiate a timeline on the vacancy and the sale of the property and of the business. 

I enjoyed it while it lasted,” said Permillion, who began working in machine repair in 1967 as a technician for IBM selectrics, and for several decades was the repairman for UC Berkeley, which at the time was an IBM campus. Permillion purchased California Typewriter from the previous owner in 1981 and moved the business to the present location, 2362 San Pablo Ave. (at Chaucer Street), in 1986. He and his daughter Candy co-own the current storefront property, which includes an attached apartment. Carmen occupies the apartment, which will be included in the eventual sale. 

Permillion began considering closing the business around a year ago. He cites declining sales as a big factor. “I don’t think it was making as much off the street as it could have been,” he said. But it was also something he felt ready to move on from, likening it to a relationship that had run its course. 

“[We] had a lot of time together, and now we’re separating,” he said. “We’ve got more bridges to cross.”

Although the discussion to shut California Typewriter has been going on behind closed doors for more than a year, the family is not united in how to move forward. “There’s some disagreement behind the scenes of how this is supposed to go down,” Candy Permillion said. “We’re not on the same page quite yet and that’s what we’re trying to get to.”

The shuttering has still been seen by some involved as too swift. “It’s kind of an abrupt end. It’s too blunt,” said Carmen, who has worked as the shop’s sales manager on and off since 1986, and consistently since 1993.

“I get the fact that it might be time for a change, that [Herbert’s] career might be over,” she said. “But for the customers, I feel for their loss already, because there are not too many places that offer what we do.”

The family is focused on vacating and selling the property. Herbert hasn’t put much thought into how to pass his retirement beyond that, but he has considered a few options.

I used to get a lot of stuff from the [Alameda] flea market. So there’s the possibility that I could get a stall or something like that on a Sunday,” he said. “I have several hundred — four or five hundred at least — machines that I haven’t been able to liquidate just yet. Some of them are kind of old and collectible and I just don’t want to throw them out.”

Aside from that, “Maybe going to Hawaii for a few days.”

As for the business, he doesn’t expect he will be able to sell it because there are just not that many people interested in typewriter repair, and he is prepared to write it off as a loss. If I could sell it, I would,” he said. “But at this point, that doesn’t seem to be one of the options.”  

California Typewriter was once one of a half dozen typewriter repair services in Berkeley, most of which were clustered around downtown. For several decades, Herbert was the repairman for UC Berkeley’s collection of IBM Selectrics. As demand for typewriter services slowed, the competition closed, until California Typewriter was one of only two remaining typewriter repair services in Berkeley — the other is Berkeley Typewriter — and one of only a handful still operating in the state.

A 2016 documentary called California Typewriter, featuring celebrity typewriter fans Tom Hanks, John Mayer and Sam Shepard, made California Typewriter, if not the most famous typewriter repair shop in the world, then at the very least the typewriter repair shop with the most extensive film credits to its name.

“It’s a shame, there’s so much love in the community for the shop.” — Filmmaker Doug Nichols

Filmmaker Doug Nichols spent five years, from 2011 to 2016, composing California Typewriter, a feature-length ode to analog. The documentary handles far more than a single repair business — delving into subcultures, conventions, sculptors and even typewriter orchestras — but it is anchored in the Berkeley shop.

“I really did it for the love of making this film, but also I really wanted to help them,” Nichols told Berkeleyside. “That’s why I even titled the film ‘California Typewriter’ to help bring them notoriety and business.’”

Nichols first came to the shop to get an Underwood typewriter serviced, as he could not find a repair shop near his home in San Anselmo. Then, after getting to know the people behind the counter, he began the production of his film, during the course of which he acquired 85 typewriters, most of which he had repaired at California Typewriter.

“It’s a shame, there’s so much love in the community for the shop,” he said. “I really wanted them to succeed.”

Nichols notes that he still plans to have his collection serviced in the East Bay at Berkeley Typewriter on University Avenue.

He can even get his machines repaired by the same technician.

Ken Alexander worked for 20 years at California Typewriter as the shop’s principal technician on manual typewriters. But these days he’s working three days a week at Berkeley Typewriter, “though that number will likely go up,” he said.

Alexander is also one of the main characters in Nichols’ documentary. The filmmaker had expressed some hope that Alexander might buy the business and property from Herbert.

“Working [at California Typewriter], the world came to me.” — Ken Alexander

“If I had the money, sure,” Alexander said with a laugh when Berkeleyside caught up with him at Berkeley Typewriter. “If I had the financial backing I definitely would like to buy that business and keep it going, but I can’t afford it, unfortunately. But I would love to have taken that business over, and you can put that on the record.”

Much as he wants to keep working in typewriter repair, Alexander is matter-of-fact about the closing of California Typewriter. “Times change, peoples’ needs change, and you have to go with the changing times,” he said. But, while he doesn’t argue with Herbert’s decision to retire, he doesn’t think the business itself had to close. “We have a lot of fans out there,” he said. 

“I’ve had people come in, they’d just got off the airplane, they’d come out here to visit somebody but they stopped at the shop first,” he said. “Working over there, the world came to me.” 

Still, the shop continued to rely on local and walk-in customers, rather than shifting to a greater web presence to try to capitalize on the success of the documentary and reach a global customer base. “I just don’t think that they really took advantage [of the film],” said Alexander. “We should have tried to do more online sales.”

At this time, there is no plan for a closing event for the seven-decades old store. However Alexander said he hoped they might do something in the way of a going-away party, to celebrate the shop’s history, Herbert’s retirement, and to clear out and sell off existing stock. “That sort of thing,” he said. “I think it would be a nice thing to do.”

“Maybe we can put something together. That’s what I’m thinking. Maybe,” Alexander concluded. He turned back to his repair work, tuning a Smith Corona, the same variety typewriter that he’d begun his career servicing decades before. He tapped at the keys till the carriage reached the end of its run, ringing the bell in the back of the machine.