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Retro-cool writing machines hot now, thanks in part to social media, celebrity fans and the joy of rediscovering vintage technology

Watch: Keith Ferrer of YEG Typewriters in Edmonton gives a tour of the vintage machines he restores.

Photography and video by Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Keith Ferrer was seven years old the first time he saw one. It was in the Philippines, at a relative’s restaurant in Davao City. The restaurant was shutting down, and there, among the things to go, was a machine that intrigued him. He asked his mother if they could take it home.

“No,” she told him. “It’s too big, and nobody uses it any more.”

And why did a child in 2003 need a typewriter? Well, he didn’t. But he always liked mechanical things, and there was something about that strange, old machine that called to him. So while he wasn’t allowed to take that one, he never forgot it.

And when he moved to Canada a dozen years later and was working, earning his own money, one of the first things he thought about buying was a typewriter.

“Those are the three things that I love: history, mechanics and art,” says Mr. Ferrer, now 25. “And all of this culminates into a typewriter.”

Mr. Ferrer is not the only person to be entranced by a technology once roundly considered obsolete. Suddenly, typewriters are everywhere.

They’re styled into Instagram posts and photo shoots. LEGO recently released one. For those who can’t bring themselves to unplug, there are typewriter fonts and computer keyboards that mimic the look and feel of typewriter keys.

Many typewriters, once given away or thrown in the trash, now sell for hundreds – even thousands – of dollars. (Hello, Original Green Olivetti Valentine for $18,339, “one of the holy grails of modern typewriter collecting.”)

Typewriters are – shift lock – HOT.

But why is this outdated technology suddenly having a moment? Is it a trend of nostalgia – a desire to return to a simpler, less distracted time? Or is there something we’ve been missing about that clack and clatter, that slide and bell, the feeling of something real in a digital age?

Thom Cholowski is a typewriter repairman based in Saskatoon. His collection includes a favourite Underwood (at top, shown off next to his 1951 Buick Roadmaster) and machines by Roxy, Fox and other makers.

“A computer you turn on. It has autocorrect, you can choose the fonts, they’re very analytical machines. Whereas a typewriter has a soul,” says Thom Cholowski, a typewriter repairman and owner of Rebel Typewriters in Saskatoon. “It sounds really funny to impose that on mechanical things, but each machine is different. Each style of machine, each brand, each model has their own unique and distinctive feel.”

Mr. Cholowski, who is in his early 40s, grew up taking apart clocks and radios, and as a young man, completely disassembled his very first typewriter, a Remington. There was something inside that enchanted him.

As a teen in the 1990s, Mr. Cholowski devoted himself to the art of repairing typewriters, seeking out old typewriter repair shops, and looking for training materials and tools at a time when much of that material was going in the trash. While most of the world turned its focus to computers, Mr. Cholowski was getting to know old repairmen, soaking in their stories and tricks before that knowledge was lost forever.

Over the years, he built a shop especially to clean, repair and refurbish typewriters, complete with vintage hand tools and machining equipment to fabricate parts. He even invented a chemical process to rejuvenate the rubber.

For a long time, he says, “people would look at you kinda weird” if you were into typewriters, but in recent years, that changed. Mr. Cholowksi attributes the shift to the release of the 2016 documentary California Typewriter, which included interviews with celebrity typewriter users and collectors Tom Hanks and John Mayer. “It sounds shallow, but basically that documentary legitimized mainstream interest in typewriters and then people started to take a closer look,” says Mr. Cholowski, who is the CEO of a manufacturing company, and whose other passions include steam locomotives and restoring and repairing antique cars, watches, and tube radios.

Mr. Cholowski says after the film came out, people began contacting him to buy typewriters or have old family machines repaired, and the online community of collectors and appreciators – known as the Typosphere – exploded.

Ironically, the comeback of typewriters has been aided by the very technology that replaced them in the first place. The internet is a vast place to buy, sell and share resources, and there’s now a thriving ecosystem of Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and YouTube channels dedicated to, among other things, fixing typewriters, collecting typewriters, maintaining typewriters, talking about typewriters, writing on typewriters, and appreciating – even “lusting after” – specific makes, models and ages of typewriters.

Mr. Cholowski recalls being in the last typing class at his school before typewriters were replaced with computers.

“I remember distinctly the teacher saying, ‘You will never see a typewriter again in your careers,’ ” he says. “And every time I send a machine out or I meet a new person because of these wonderful machines, I remember that teacher’s words.”

When it was time to purchase his first typewriter, Keith Ferrer chose a 1927 Remington No. 2, one of the earliest portable typewriters, and an innovative machine which appealed to him both for its history and design. When the typewriter arrived broken, Mr. Ferrer – who spent his childhood making robots from toys he took apart and was studying engineering at the University of Alberta – set about to fix it.

He quickly found a passion and community, but also what seemed to be an innate ability, a deep connection with a technology that was outdated before he was born.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he says. “I need to look, I need to open it up, but then once I see it, even though I’ve never fixed typewriter like that before, I know immediately how to fix it.”

Mr. Ferrer, shown repairing a machine at top, has an old chrome typewriter, bottom left, and a Bantam machine made for children with colour-coded keys, bottom right.

Mr. Ferrer’s townhouse in west Edmonton is now home to his highly curated collection of some of the world’s rarest and most interesting typewriters. He has about 50 himself (a relatively modest assemblage in typewriter circles) and another 100 or so that he’s restoring and refurbishing for sale through his business, Yeg Typewriters.

His clients include writers, artists and hobbyists, often seeking a way to disconnect from the screen. (I met Mr. Ferrer after falling in love with a mint green Hermes Baby typewriter he’d posted for sale.) While he enjoys owning typewriters, he says he especially loves putting them back out in the world. What is the point of a beautiful machine, if not to be used?

Traditionally, the relationship between humans and their typewriters could be profound, even spiritual. Danielle Steele has written more than 170 books on the 1946 Olympia she calls “Ollie.” Shirley Jackson had a typewriter she called Ernest, which, in letters, she imbued with a personality and moods. One of the most famous series of photographs of Hunter S. Thompson shows him knee-high in the snow, handgun aimed squarely at his typewriter.

Putting his Olivetti Lettera 32 up for auction in 2009, Cormac McCarthy wrote that he bought it in 1960 and used it for every book, including three unpublished, as well as drafts and correspondence, totalling about “five million words over a period of 50 years.” He gave it up only because a friend bought him an exact replacement.

Accepting a Golden Globe for his screenplay of Brokeback Mountain, author Larry McMurtry reserved his most heartfelt thanks for his typewriter.

Mr. Cholowski took to the craft of typewriter repair as a teen in the 1990s.

Mr. Cholowski looks at finding the right machine for a customer as a kind of matchmaking, an intersection of purpose, design and connection. He keeps about 350 typewriters in stock at his shop in Saskatoon, and customers may try dozens before finding the right one.

“It never fails. Every single time, every person clicks with a machine,” he says. “They will find a machine, they just sit down and they touch it, and they’re like, ‘This is it. This is it. This is the one.’ ”

The right typewriter, he says, can change people’s lives.

He attributes that to the fundamental way typewriters function, how the nickel-rimmed glass keycaps of an Underwood 5 feel beneath your fingertips, how the collision of key and platen breaks the fibre of the paper and drives the ink inside. There is no spell check, no delete, no suggested grammar. Typewriting is a pure reflection of the author’s personality and foibles, spelling mistakes and keystrokes as personal and intimate as a kiss.

As the musician John Mayer says in California Typewriter, “A typewriter doesn’t judge you. It just goes ‘Right away, sir. Right away, sir. However you want it to be.’ ”

Mr. Ferrer, who is working on his PhD in quantum physics and mathematics, says there’s so much interest in his typewriter work he limits himself to a maximum of 10 repairs a month, and refurbishes and sells half a dozen more. Typewriters help pay for his education and bring in money for his family, who sometimes help him with the business, including by taking pictures and assisting with social media.

Mr. Ferrer says some of his friends in the engineering program didn’t know what typewriters were, but have gotten interested in them, even buying typewriters from him and wanting to learn how to repair them.

He types school assignments on an Olivetti Lettera 22, leaving spaces to write equations in by hand, and crossing out any mistakes with pencil or overwriting them with XXXXXs (never correction fluid, which gums up the machine).

“When people try it for the first time, it’s not easy. Sometimes they can’t write an entire sentence or even a word, because it’s different. But then after a while, once you have a typewriter, it will grow on you …,” he says. “I don’t know how I managed to type on all my fingers very fast, it’s kind of inherent. Like it’s a fate that I know how to do that, as well as fix typewriters.”

Mr. Ferrer works on an old typewriter.

Tom Hanks is undoubtedly the typewriters’ highest-profile collector and advocate, a proponent for typewriters as beautiful machines, conduits for creativity and vehicles for thoughtful and enduring communication.

In typewriter circles, people know that if you send Mr. Hanks a typewritten letter, he’ll respond. (He sent Mr. Cholowski a letter and a 1940 Remington typewriter in recognition of his dedication to the machines.)

For this story, I wrote to Mr. Hanks on my new Hermes Baby, which took about 40 times longer than an e-mail, and burned through a small stack of paper as I tried to get it right.

I then mailed it at the post office, as you do with things that are typed on paper. Exactly where my interview request is now, between my hands in Edmonton and Mr. Hanks’s office in California, is a mystery. I could have sent an e-mail to follow up, but that felt like cheating. (Tom, if you’re seeing this, get in touch. It’s never too late!)

Was that more convenient? Definitely no. Was it relaxing? Also no.

But there was something about it. Something slower and more satisfying. I thought more about what I was writing, about the feel and force and sound of my fingers driving letters onto the page, and about those letters turning into words, ink meeting paper in a way that felt different and real and right.

A Canadian-made Oliver from Mr. Cholowski's collection.


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