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Odd jobs

Typewriters ring on in the fringes

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2009
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Typewriter repairman Tom Furrier admits that he's a dinosaur. He's one of the few typewriter repairman in the Boston area who fixes typewriters only, and not those newfangled computers, faxes, and printers as well.

When Furrier first started fixing typewriters almost 30 years ago, no office was complete without the sound of clicking typewriters. The typewriter repairman was a common sight, making service calls to offices to fix gummy keys, broken springs, cracked rubber rollers, and busted return mechanisms.

Today? Furrier once went to a law office to fix a typewriter but the twentysomething receptionist didn't know what a typewriter was. "She kept pointing to different boxes, saying, 'Is that a typewriter?' or 'Is that one there?' I told her 'You're standing right next to it.' "

But Furrier, who is also a typewriter collector and salesman, stays in business because typewriters are still used for forms, envelopes, and labels in law offices, town halls, hospitals, and funeral homes. "There are certain forms that still have to be typewritten and that are not computer-friendly, such as death and birth certificates," says Furrier. "Every maternity ward has a typewriter, as well as funeral homes, which might seem strange in this day and age, but is good for me, of course."

Furrier also fixes the typewriters of many writers who still tap out their drafts because they like the sound and the tactile experience.

"A lot of writers tell me that the sensory feedback from typing is different from the computer, and that typing slows down the thought process," says Furrier, who also counts a local psychiatrist, physicians, and artists among his clientele. "Some doctors even recommend typewriters to their stroke victims, to help them build hand strength and eye coordination."

It takes 30 minutes to an hour to fix most typewriters, and Furrier says a typewriter repairman can earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Furrier, who has a degree in forestry, says he wanted to work with his hands and finds great satisfaction from fixing a broken typewriter.

"I decided a long time ago that I was only going to fix typewriters - it's typewriters or nothing," says Furrier. "I like working with this old technology of motors, belts, pulleys, and levels."

How does it feel to be a typewriter repairman in the age of computers? I get calls from all over the country, from people who want their typewriters fixed. Someone called me from Atlanta, which is a huge city with four million people, but not one typewriter repair shop. Another person was in Paris for the summer, and his Selectric broke, and he couldn't find anyone in Paris to fix his typewriter, so he had to drive an hour and half outside the city to get it fixed. So we are a dying breed.

Up until the 1980s or so, there were millions of typewriters in offices all over the country. What happened to them all? Most are in landfills. Many offices just threw them in the Dumpsters. Some people did bring the machines home with them; a few workers told me that when they retired they were able to bring their typewriter home with them.

You have a lot of different typewriters in your shop, from portable electric Smith Coronas to IBM Selectrics. What's your favorite typewriter? I like the older vintage manual typewriters, such as Royal, Olympia, Olivetti, Underwood, and Remington, and in particular, the really shiny, black lacquered machines from the 1930s. They have glass-topped keys with metal rings around them, which people love, because your fingers fit into them beautifully. They sell from $100 to $400.

Where do you get the typewriters that you sell at Cambridge Typewriters? The really nice, pristine stuff comes from collectors who pick up the machines at conventions. I also get typewriters from eBay and from people who are cleaning out their attic or homeowners who are downsizing.

And where do your typewriter parts come from? I have a graveyard in my basement, where I store tons and tons of old machines from every manufacturer. And there are supply houses that still make parts for newer machines, including ribbons.

What's the oddest request you've ever gotten? One man used to come in every week and order a typewriter that could communicate with the dead. We'd tell him, "Yes, we ordered that, it's on back order."

I've seen earrings and necklaces that use typewriter keys for ornamentation. Do you sell typewriter parts to these jewelry artists? No. I don't like to see nice machines cannibalized for jewelry. It bugs me.

People say they love the sound of a typewriter bell. Yes, the typewriter bell is a neat sound, and every brand has a different sound. When I do a repair, I always make sure the bell has a nice sustain to it. When the bell rings, it should fade out slowly. The Smith Corona has a loud distinctive bell, and the Royal has a nice pitch to it. But I don't like the ring on a Remington machine.

Do you meet lots of people who don't even know what a typewriter is? Surprisingly, typewriters are really popular now among teens and preteens who want to try typing on a typewriter. It's a cool fad and they want to get that typewriter vibe.

Will typewriters ever make a comeback? No, I don't think so, but I think there will always be a curiosity about typewriters. Typewriters will never go away completely - they'll be around for a long, long time to come.

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