Article and Photographs by Eddie L. Bolden Jr.
The plugged-in generation taps away with headphones in its ears. Meanwhile, the once familiar clacking, clunking, zinging and occasional pinging that used to be associated with the art of prose is rarely heard.
Inside a shop in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, an elderly man stands behind a brown counter amid typewriters and other obsolete office machines. He has been fighting a daily battle for 30 years, against time and technology and their rapid encroachment on his world.
“It is not easy, but this is what I love to do,” said Sam Vasquez, the owner of the E.S. Business Machines Company, one of the few remaining typewriter repairmen in New York City.
Vasquez’s shop specializes in the repair of classic manual typewriters. The shop also services antique cash registers and adding machines that are still used by some pubs and restaurants.
Drawn to the Technology
Vasquez moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx in 1954, when he was 17. As a high school student, he was drawn to the technology of typewriters, enrolled in a school for typewriter repair and eventually began to work as a mechanic.
“It is a challenge to repair them,” said Vasquez, adding that he loves the work and hasn’t tired of it in 58 years.
Replacing or fixing a ribbon costs $10, cleaning a machine $30. Some typewriters that have been dropped and broken are beyond repair; these machines are no longer manufactured and parts are hard to find.
“I always offer a free estimate to anyone that brings a machine in,” said Vasquez. “It is up to the customer to decide if they want the work to be done here or not.”
Before the advent of computers, smartphones and tablets, typewriters were a widely used tool. Some were bulky and loud, others trim with large protruding buttons.
Tom Robbins, author of Wild Ducks Flying Backward, once said, “At the typewriter, you find out who you are.”
‘Intrigued’ by Machines’ Charm
Typewriters were once at the heart of the business world, and Vasquez got his start in New York’s financial district.
“I used to be down in Lower Manhattan, back when it was big,” said Vasquez, referring to the typewriter business. Being a “Bronx guy,” he grew tired of the commute, and as typewriters were replaced by computers, it became cheaper to operate his repair business in the Bronx.
“Downtown, there were hundreds of repair shops because there was so much work there,” said Vasquez, recalling the heyday of his business in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Now in the Bronx, there is hardly anybody, maybe two guys, which are actually doing this,” he said.
Alone in the store, Vasquez often sits at a cluttered workbench. Pictures of family members cover the walls above him. Classic typewriter models – such as the L.C. Smith, Royal, Olympia and Coronet – sit in the window like exhibits in a museum. He is surrounded by vintage office machines and stationery supplies.
From time to time, eyes peer through the window from the street.
“People are intrigued by the old machines, especially all of the young kids,” said Vasquez. “It’s like something new to them since they are used to the keyboard and all of that.”
Downtown, a Like Mind in a Dying Breed
Paul Schweitzer, the owner the of Gramercy Typewriter Company in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, is one of Vasquez’s few competitors. Only a few businesses left downtown specialize in the sale and repair of typewriters, he said.
“There’s still a demand for typewriters,” said Schweitzer. “But it’s not what it used to be. I used to go into offices that had three, four, 500 typewriters. We used to do typewriter service on hundreds of machines in accounting firms, law firms, and book publishing firms; all these places had typewriters. So now, they don’t have hundreds, but they still have some.” Some old forms, never digitized, still require typewriters.
The Gramercy Typewriter Company was founded by Schweitzer’s father, Abraham, in 1932. Schweitzer began to work in his father’s shop at the age of 21, and, like Vasquez, he has been in the business for more than five decades. Nowadays, Schweitzer works alongside his son, Justin, selling and repairing typewriters.
At Schweitzer’s shop, some typewriters sell for $145, a refurbished machine costs $200 to $400. However, the bulk of Schweitzer’s business comes from fixing HP laser printers.
On a small table behind Schweitzer’s desk sits a green box that contains the contact information of all his past clients. Schweitzer joked that he can locate customers more quickly by flipping through his the note cards than by searching online.
“People tend to pay attention more to a letter that was written on a typewriter,” said Robert Ellis, 24, who stopped by recently to pick up his Olympia SM3, which was being serviced by Schweitzer.
Ellis purchased the typewriter on eBay because he wanted a German keyboard with the necessary characters and accents to write letters to friends and family abroad, he said.
“All my friends think it’s cool. None of them have gone out and got one for themselves, but they still appreciate it,” said Ellis.
Back in Morris Park, Vasquez marvels at the changes the modern office has undergone in his lifetime. While he has no problems with computer technology, Vasquez said he believed there was a place for old-fashioned office machines.
A Niche, a Need, and a Novelty
“There are not really a lot of people coming in, but there are still some people that use typewriters and need them repaired,” said Vasquez. “I’m 77 years old. If I can continue to pay the rent in Morris Park, which is a little expensive, then I will try to keep the business running.”
Today, business rents along Morris Park range from $1500 to $2,500, depending on the location and size of the store. While Vasquez wouldn’t divulge his own rent, the company sits at the bustling intersection of White Plains Road and Morris Park Avenue.
Amid the intimate cafes and restaurants, the convenience stores and the crowds of pedestrians, the E.S. Business Machines Company is more a relic than a thriving business, as the shop has relatively few customers.
But, Vasquez insisted, the shop remains a destination for writers, young and old, who want to practice their craft on a different tool.
As Gramercy Typewriter’s Schweitzer puts it, if you want an old-fashioned writing experience, use a typewriter. On a typewriter, he said, “there are no distractions, you’re just focused on your typing and a lot of the people realize that, and they like going back to the typewriter.”
Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451 who died in 2012, would probably agree. “I do not have a computer. A computer’s a typewriter,” he once said. “I already have a typewriter.”