At some point, long before the pandemic, it looked like manual typewriters would join rotary telephones, hand-cranked car windows and kerosene lanterns on the scrap heap of human technology. Nobody makes them anymore, and the only place you’ll find one in Seattle is at Goodwill or antique stores.
Shelley French, however, didn’t get the message. Or at least she wasn’t convinced. Instead, the Port Townsend retiree and tinkerer just opened the doors to Type Townsend, a storefront typewriter shop amid the gift shops, galleries and wine bars on Water Street.
It’s a warm, tidy shop, facing the street, with an assortment of shiny Remingtons, Underwoods and Smith Coronas, all expertly refurbished and finger-ready, displayed on utilitarian shelves next to stacks of 8×10 paper. There’s a fresh pot of coffee in the corner.
But what’s she thinking about? Manual typewriters in a world of 5G and smart speakers and voice commands?
French shrugs. “I’m sharing my love for typewriters.”
And wisely, she’s doing it in town filled with affluent retirees, many of them with time on their hands and yearning to write the Great American Novel that’s been gurgling in their souls since they took high school typing 50 years ago.
So far, so good. In her first 10 days, Type Townsend sold six lovely old typewriters – one for $675 — and taken in more for cleaning or repair.
Which is how Shelley French got into the business. She’s a softspoken, confident woman with wire-rim glasses and silky graying hair, wearing an ink-black apron and comfy sneakers. She worked 40 years in corporate finance, and most recently for Habitat for Humanity in Port Townsend. When she retired in 2019, she decided to write a book. On a typewriter.
“Writers still love them,” she says. “Typewriters open a part of the brain that computers don’t. It’s tactile, linear thinking. A computer keeps interrupting your stream of consciousness, blinking and scrolling and spellchecking.”
French bought an old Underwood at a Port Townsend antique store. It needed repair. She was not daunted by the prospect; her father was an engineer and inventor who passed along his love for anything mechanical. But she needed help, and eventually found her way to a cluttered shop on the fifth floor of a Bremerton office building. There she met Paul Lundy, himself a mechanically inclined refugee from corporate computers. Years ago, Lundy teamed up with Bob Montgomery, who operated Bremerton Office Machines for seven decades, fixing and repairing everything from century old Remingtons to IBM Selectrics. When his mentor died in 2018 at age 96, Lundy took over.
French was hooked. She apprenticed with Lundy for weeks, learned to take typewriters apart, scavenge parts from one machine to rescue another. “The biggest revelation is how incredibly simple they are, and yet how wonderfully precise. All levers and screws and fulcrums.”
She persisted. Last spring, French and her husband drove to California, bought 70 machines from a Sacramento collector and brought them home. Now what?
“I walked by this shop, which had been a handbag and luggage shop, and then a rock shop. There was a ‘For Rent’ sign. It was perfect, including the infrastructure for a corner café with coffee and muffins.”
Her husband, a retired contractor, helped remodel the place. Meanwhile, French teamed up with Griffin Stoss, a fellow enthusiast who will help run it.
There’s another room upstairs that will be used for readings and other events, including “type-ins,” where competitors move around a table from one typewriter to the next, taking up a story where the last writer/typist left off.
Business has been brisk, especially on weekends. Refurbished typewriters are priced from $200. Cleaning and refurbishing can run about the same.
Can she make a go of it? Maybe so on Water Street Port Townsend, where you won’t find anybody selling light bulbs or potato chips or fast-food burgers, but there are merchants peddling Cornish pasties, specialty olive oils, bronze boat fittings and steampunk clothing. To paraphrase a local cliché: The odds are good because the goods are odd.
Made me long for my Olivetti Lettera. Great piece, made me eager for a day trip to PT.
Well, Jane, I’m confident Ms. French will offer a brilliantly-refurbished Olivetti that will serve you proudly through power outages and pandemics. Come n get it. -r
I used to compose articles on a typewriter, now replace by a word processor. The advantage of the typewriter is that you think before starting a sentence, since it can’t be easily erased. Now I just launch into a sentence without much thought, knowing that the delete button is right at hand.
In order to earn my writing creds under the strict supervision of Brewster and Downey at the Weekly I spent many late hours agonizing over the right organization of my thoughts before ever tapping any keys. Simply getting an article down on (relatively) clean typewritten pages was a skill I have long since abandoned. My transition to computer-based writing in the mid-1980s was neither easy nor quick, especially given the clunky inadequacies of early computers. But I came to value writing on a computer vs. a typewriter as an artist might appreciate layering a painting. Computers allowed me to rework and re-order thoughts and sentences without pulling out the bottle of whiteout every few minutes. Something was lost but a lot was gained. I’ll always fondly remember my old typewriters but I don’t really miss them.
This article reminds me how stupid I was to get rid of my old typewriters. Sometimes my fingers still itch for the feel of those keys and the flick of the wrist for the return at the end of a line. Guess I will have to go take a look at Type Townsend.
I developed the habit of typing on 4-part 4-color carbon paper. Some of the first draft pages seemed ok. Other pages improved the second or third time around. Editors were often confounded by my rainbow manuscripts.
I miss typewriters. I even miss my last typewriter: an IBM Selectric that I had been using for years until the company I worked for replaced it with an adorable little Mac desktop computer late in the last Millennium. I have been writing on computer keyboards ever since. I’m not sure where it ended up; probably salvaged for parts.
Even though I didn’t like it very much—it always seemed like the unsavory offspring of a typewriter and some early robot prototype—it was one of a kind. I had cosmetically altered it by attaching a metal stick-on logo that a friend of my husband’s pilfered from the Delorean factory in Belfast where he worked for a time. It was intended, of course, to be applied to the rear-end of a brand-new Delorean automobile, but after he impulsively gave it to me, I impulsively peeled off the backing and stuck it on the front of my typewriter where it adhered with impressive tenacity and looked like it had been there forever. I re-named it the IBM Chimera.
Occasionally, visitors to my office would do a double take and ask me if it was actually a Delorean typewriter. I would tell them, with a straight face, “No, that’s an after-market accessory. And worth every penny I paid for it.” Anyway, if it ever turns up at Type Townsend, please tell the delightful Shelley French to give me a call. I miss that weird beast.