Sunday, May 23, 1999

Ever-beloved typewriters hang on

The Associated Press

        NEW YORK — A familiar face comes through the door, and Mary Adelman says hello to him. The white-bearded author has come to Osner Business Machines to buy a typewriter ribbon — and to make a confession.

        “I discover I use the typewriter less and less,” says a slightly embarrassed Herbert Gans, who wrote seven of his 10 books on a manual machine before going high-tech 10 years ago. “The computer is taking over.”

        The Columbia University sociologist shrugs and surrenders $6.41 for his ribbon. Mrs. Adelman smiles as he leaves. Mr. Gans hasn't fully abandoned his typewriter.

        Not yet.

QWERTY haven
        Hard drives. Megabytes. Web sites. The Internet. With each passing day, the typewriter evolves into Tyrannosaurus Next — a dinosaur sinking in a tar pit of black ink.

        The big typewriter manufacturers are memories now: Underwood, Royal, Remington. IBM left the business eight years ago.

        But Mrs. Adelman and others refuse to accept the typewriter's seemingly inevitable fate: extinction. Her tiny shop, tucked amid the yuppiedom of Manhattan's Upper West Side, is a cramped Jurassic Park for geriatric typewriters.

        Osner dates back to the days when typewriters ruled the earth — or at least to 1941, when the business opened.

        “When you say typewriters are disappearing — they're not actually disappearing,” Mrs. Adelman gently asserts. “It's just less use of the typewriter as a writing instrument.

        “People are buying typewriters to display. We sell a lot for props, too — plays, theater, commercials. And some people are coming back to the typewriter.”

        Mrs. Adelman is not alone — the typewriter lobby is dwindling, but it remains notable for its loyalty.

        It includes Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. His most recent novel, the 727-page A Man in Full, was written and rewritten — as were his previous best sellers — on a vintage typewriter.

        The 33-year-old model, which predates both of Mr. Wolfe's children, resides with them in the family's posh East Side home. It vacations across Central Park at Osner's, where the machine is meticulously maintained.

        In the basement, beneath Mrs. Adelman's counter, the machines are broken down, cleaned and oiled. Upstairs, on wooden workbenches, two veteran repairmen with the touch of surgeons work the machines back into shape.

        The results are stunning: A 1920 Underwood, recently refurbished, sits gleaming on a shelf, the store's dim light reflecting off its burnished silver.

        “It's a work of art,” Mrs. Adelman says proudly.

        Mr. Wolfe is among the great typewriter traditionalists. He disdainfully recounts his single failed venture into the world of word processors.

        What he intended was a single word: “this.”

        What his fingers wrought, instead, appeared quite differently: “tttttttthhhhiiiisssss.”

        Bye-bye, word processor.

        “I had a typewriter touch, not a computer touch,” he says. “I have a very fast typewriter, a 1966 Underwood — like a 1958 Thunderbird. It's very hard to find parts.”

        Except at Osner's. The basement is filled with the corpses of ancient typewriters, machines now cannibalized for parts. Regular customers — a group that also includes playwright David Mamet — often hunt down old machines and bring them to the shop.

        Over a morning cup of tea, Mrs. Adelman will patiently explain the typewriter's enduring allure.

        “Firstly, it doesn't hiss at you,” she says in a soft voice that still carries a hint of her native London. “It's quiet. It doesn't say anything until you put your hands on it and make it — click! — go along.”

What's that awful noise??
        Perhaps, but the typewriter isn't winning many ribbons lately. These days, it's even taking friendly fire.

        At the Writers Rooms in Greenwich Village, once a haven for the hunt-and-peck crowd, a recent uprising pitted the cutting edge against the old guard. A new generation of writers, accustomed to their computers, found the typewriter rattle distracting.

        This fell into the category of what goes around comes around — the typists were annoyed years ago by the beeping sounds when the first computers arrived at the writers' sanctuary.

        The New York Public Library's Frederick Lewis Allen Room, another outpost for aspiring authors, was “typewriters only” just 14 years ago. Today, not a single typewriter is in use, said Jennifer Bertrand, a library spokeswoman.

        “There are one or two stashed away,” she says, “but it doesn't appear anyone is using them.”

        Mention of the typewriters in the library causes her to laugh a bit.

        At the Reading Room in the library's main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, visitors can plug in their laptops while doing research — 30 tables that accommodate 16 laptops apiece. “That's the typewriter of today,” she suggests.

        It's just not the same.

        Mrs. Adelman understands.

        She's now reflecting on some of the typewriter's other charms: They never crash. They never run out of memory. And all a typist needs to know about Y2K is to push the shift key on the first and last letters.

        “I sold a typewriter just last week to a gentleman,” Mrs. Adelman confides. “His computer is OK, but he wants to have a manual typewriter.

        “Just in case.”


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