TOPEKA, Kan. — Even in the constantly evolving age of computers, Bill Mark still gets the call once or twice a month — a typewriter is broken and in need of repairs.
"You get into older people, they don't want to mess with computers," he said of his clients. "They are used to the typewriters."
Mark's shop — Western Typewriter, established 1917 — is a remnant of the era before PCs and ink jets. His only competition is a mostly retired repairman and another shop that mainly works on computers and printers.
"A lot of people that used to be into typewriters aren't into it anymore," Mark said.
There are few people still servicing the once ubiquitous machines, which at this point are used only by devotees who never made the leap to computers, or in businesses like law offices and banks, where they're useful for preparing forms. And although he also gets some business from collectors, Mark must still work another full-time job to pay the bills.
"It's become more of a hobby for me than anything else," said Mark, who is 57. He said he also makes house calls to fix broken machines.
The 1980s were a booming decade for the shops that sold and serviced typewriters, thanks to the arrival of the new generation of electronic typewriters that led many people to replace their older machines. But as computers became cheaper and easier to use, fewer people bought typewriters.
In the midst of the change, some repair shops closed. But a stubborn group stuck with the business.
In Danbury, Conn., Benny DeFazio, 73, still fixes typewriters from his home using the parts salvaged from the now closed shop where he started working when he was 16. Some ask him to repair typewriters their fathers used, others need a fix for the electronic typewriters still used to fill out forms at the office.
But even with his supply of parts, it's become hard to find the right ones.
"It's a dying field," DeFazio said. "It's a shame, but what are you going to do? People have to get along and do things faster today."
In California, fewer people each year bring in typewriters that need repairs to Berkley Typewriter and Clark Business Machines. While they once accounted for almost all of the shop's business, typewriters now make up only about a quarter.
Part-owner Tom Wiard said typewriters are a niche that attract the young, who see them as a retro curiosity, and the old, who struggle to make the transition to computers or remain emotionally attached to their machines.
"Some come and drag in their old typewriter and say, 'My computer is down. Can you fix this?'" he said.
For Mark, the fascination with typewriters dates to his childhood, when he sometimes accompanied his father to the family business to tinker with old machines from the 1930s. By the time he went to work for his father, buying the shop from him in 1987, desktop computers were becoming increasingly popular.
Initially, the newfangled machines gave him little reason to worry. Right after taking over Western Typewriter, Mark sold 115 of one model in three months, winning a trip to Germany.
"It really didn't bother me," he said, "because I didn't think computers would affect typewriters that much."
He was wrong. His father made his living at shop, but Mark works 40 to 45 hours a week at a photo lab on top of the 40 hours a week he spends at Western Typewriter. His wife does the books and fills in when he leaves for his second job.
The basement at Western Typewriter is filled with aging machines — some pulled from his father's garage. One wall of shelving features a charming array of typewriters from the earlier half of the last century, which he restores and sells. The older machines, which can take a full day to repair, don't fetch much more than $125.
On display upstairs are two of his favorite machines, an 1897 model with a wooden base and a 1910 Corona foldover portable typewriter — the same type that military company clerks carried during World War I.
Though he said he knew he won't become rich fixing the old machines, he figures there's enough need for his services to keep him busy until he retires. Death and birth certificates, he notes, are still typed.
"For filling out forms, they are hard to beat," he said. "Same with envelopes."
Mark thinks his father, who died five years ago, was proud that he kept the shop going. But his mother worries.
"'We left all of our problems to you.' That's what she says."
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