Typewriter Man

The need for a new letter on an old manual machine leads the author to the shop of Martin Tytell, now in his seventh decade as repairman, historian, and high priest of typewriters.

I WRITE on a manual typewriter, but don't bug me about it, okay? I know that recently certain machines have been developed that produce manuscripts more efficiently than a manual typewriter ever could. When these machines began to take over, people constantly asked if I used one; for a while that was the fact about me people seemed most interested to know. When I replied that I didn't, people usually became vexed, or in some cases nearly enraged. The arguments that followed were of a pattern. Those in favor of the new machines described their many advantages, never failing to include the ease with which the new machines could move paragraphs around. I defended myself with explanations that started out mild and reasonable and quickly descended to a whiny "I just don't like them!" None of this got anybody anywhere. Then one day a champion of the new machines pinned me down on the subject, extolling them, as usual, and finally confronting me with the inevitable question: Did I use one? My panic began to mount as I saw what lay ahead -- the arguments, the rebuttals, the recriminations. I took a deep breath. "No ... I mean, yes!" I replied. Satisfied, the prosecutor moved on to other topics, as my heart rate returned to normal.

Then suddenly that question was not around anymore. No one has asked me it in years. I guess the victory of the new machines has been so complete that there's no longer a need to hunt down resisters. Why bother? Time will take care of us. Meanwhile, I continued to write on the same Olympia portable manual I had bought with my first paycheck from Oui magazine, in Chicago in 1973. I liked it so much that when I got a little money I bought other Olympia manuals, fancier models, but all of them used, of course. They are perhaps not the best manual typewriters ever made -- experts often give that distinction to Underwoods or Hermes -- but they suit me, and I've stuck by them. The hell of it is, though, that after about twenty years they start to break. One afternoon in 1994 the e key on my favorite Olympia stopped working. E is not a rarity, like @ or %, that you can mostly do without. I was living in Brooklyn at the time. I called around and found a guy there who claimed to be able to fix anything, typewriters included. When he returned the typewriter to me, all the keys were at different heights, like notes in a lilting tune, and the e bar hit the ribbon hard enough to make a mark only if you helped it with your finger.
The Manhattan Yellow Pages has so many listings under "Typewriters" that you might think getting someone to fix a manual would not be hard. The repair places I called were agreeable enough at first; but as I described the problem (Fixing an e, for Pete's sake! How tough can that be?), they began to hedge and temporize. They mentioned a scarcity of spare parts, and the difficulty of welding forged steel, and other problems, all apparently my own fault for not having foreseen. I took my typewriter various places to have it looked at, and brought it home again unrepaired. This went on for a while. Finally, approaching the end of the Yellow Pages listing, I found an entry for "TYTELL TYPWRTR CO." It advertised restorations of antiques, an on-premises machine shop, a huge inventory of manuals, and sixty-five years of experience and accumulated parts. The address was in lower Manhattan. I called the number, and a voice answered, "Martin Tytell." I told Mr. Tytell my problem, and he told me he certainly could fix it. I said I would bring the typewriter in next week. "You should bring it in as soon as possible," he advised. "I'm an old man."

I got on the subway to Fulton Street right away and carried my typewriter up the stairs to his second-floor shop at 116 Fulton. I saw that he was indeed an old man, standing on a teetering stepladder and moving a heavy typewriter onto a high shelf while a woman's voice offstage told him to be careful and reminded him of his recent heart surgery. He climbed down and shook my hand. He was wearing a clean white lab coat over a light-blue shirt and a dark-blue bow tie. His head was almost bald on top and fringed with white professor-style side hairs that matched the white of his small moustache. His blue eyes were slitted and wary and humorous, and all his features had a sharpness produced by a lifetime of focusing concentration down to pica size. He examined the typewriter and gave me a claim check and told me I could pick it up in a few days. His shop fixed the e and completely overhauled the machine and got it running better than it ever had.

I ended up going back to see Mr. Tytell many times. I moved from New York to a distant part of the country, but when I returned for visits I brought typewriters for him to repair. I met his wife, Pearl, and their son, Peter, who's fifty-two. Both Pearl and Peter are handwriting and document experts who often testify in court cases where written evidence is involved. Mr. and Mrs. Tytell have been married for fifty-four years. Pearl Tytell is handsome and petite, with unwavering blue eyes and long silver-blonde hair, which she wears in a braid wrapped carefully on the top of her head. For clothes she favors suits in subdued colors or pleated skirts in dark plaid, and neat white blouses with a cameo brooch at the throat. She looks like someone you would believe on the witness stand. Her habit of accuracy provides running footnotes to the autobiography her husband likes to tell. The shop is mostly floor-to-ceiling shelves of typewriters in cases or wrapped in plastic sheets, boxes of typewriter parts past numbering, and disassembled typewriters on benches, all in a labyrinthine layout beneath fluorescent lights. Mr. Tytell works in one part of the shop and his wife in another, invisible but nearby among the shelves.


WHEN my father was a communications officer on aircraft carriers in the Second World War, he sent his family letters typewritten on flyweight airmail stationery. He single-spaced and made almost no mistakes. To his younger brother in the hospital he described everything about the ship Boxer -- the war had ended by then, and censorship had eased -- that caught his eye, from the shadow of the bridge moving through the clear depths to the formations of the fighter planes above. His ship was the flagship of a convoy, and so carried both a captain and an admiral. He described how the one would send the other a message via the communications room, to be typed up in many copies and passed along in a procedure that took a long time, especially considering that the two men were at command posts separated by just a flight of stairs. He brought home sheaves of Navy documents in his sea chest. Many were stamped TOP SECRET in red ink and had holes punched in them and signatures affixed. They had to do with maneuvers and requests obscure to me, and the capture of a German submarine. They were on paper so light you could almost see through it, and their carbon-copy typescript was fuzzy and thick.

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