Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Type Casting

I noticed an ad in the Marietta Daily Journal for a "going out of business" sale at House of Typewriters. I guess I'm symptomatic of the reason that this venerable store is closing down; it's probably been fifteen years since I last set foot in the store, and probably twenty years since I actually bought anything there. Computers have relegated typewriters to "novelty antique" status, and that doesn't generate enough revenue to keep a store like House of Typewriters open, I guess.

House of Typewriters sold me my first IBM Selectric II typewriter, a hefty oversized brick-red model with an extra-wide carriage. I bought it back in 1973, along with four "golfballs" of fonts I needed for fanzine production. I was familiar with the Selectric, since my good friend Gary Steele had acquired one back in the late 1960s, when a top-notch Selectric cost about 25% as much as a new car (how he convinced his parents, who were quite frugal, to make such an expenditure I never understood).

Why was a Selectric the typewriter to have? Because it allowed you to change fonts and type styles "on the fly." Flip up a little plastic clasp on top of the golf ball, lift it from the metal armature, drop a new golf ball in its place, close the clasp, and voila--Times Roman became Times roman Italic or Helvetica or Prestige Elite. Pica or elite, bold or standard, standard type or specialty symbols--the Selectric offered an amazing array of options.

Unlike Gary, I never could afford a new Selectric. Instead, Susan and I drove from Cedartown to Marietta to shop the House of Typewriter's used selections. We had intended to get a standard Selectric... but there was that beauty of IBM engineering, extra-wide carriage and all, for only $75 more. Back then $375 was an enormous amount of money (I was still in college, so our budget was quite constrained), but we splurged. It was an incredible machine, and we produced hundreds--probably thousands--of pages of fanzines on that typewriter--and it never once needed any service or repair work. These were office workhorses, designed for a great deal of abuse in a multi-user office environment.

Later on, I bought an IBM micro-elite typewriter from House of Typewriters, also for fanzine production. We used it to do half-sized fanzines; micro-elite was probably the equivalent of 8 point type, and that smaller font enabled us to get almost as much type on a 5.5" x 8.5" page as we could get on a. 8.5" x 11" page with pica type. This was in the pre-photocopy days when we produced fanzines on a Gestetner mimeograph by typing onto those waxy mimeo stencils; the micro-elite was a godsend for maximizing wordage and minimizing cost.

I continued to use both typewriters until the late 1980's, when I got my first Mac. The typewriters were soon relegated to a closet, and eventually I sold them cheaply to a friend who wanted them for fanzine use. For more than a decade, I had no typewriter at all; in 2003, when my dad was cleaning out a storage room at his house, he discovered that he had several typewriters given to him during his years as a sports editor, city editor, and managing editor of the Rome News-Tribune, and he offered me one of those if I wanted it. I took him up on the offer, and I now have one of the 1960's era Royal typewriters that I used during my fledgling days as a writer; it's a boat-anchor of a manual typewriter, and it still works quite well.

I had intended to stop by House of Typewriters to pick up several backup ribbons for the Royal, but never did. Truth is, I only typed a page or two on the typewriter as an excuse to visit an old mechanical friend after many years. I don't envision ever using the typewriter for anything more than nostalgia. Nevertheless, I think I'll drop in and see if House of Typewriters still has any ribbons for this model, and use it as an excuse to revisit the era when typewriters reigned... and to say goodbye to a store that I had presumed would always be there...

1 comment:

Teri said...


I was trying to get a manual typewriter through Freecycle and wound up with TWO of those IBM selectric IIs with the wide carriage. (Both blue). I guess if you get nostalgic for one, let me know ;) I'm trying to figure out if I should buy the type balls and figure out a way to set up a business.