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.