MAPLEWOOD • Clackety-clack is making a comeback.
The durable but humble typewriter is gaining a small, devoted following among the smartphone set. That’s a solid, keys-on-paper kind of music to Vern Trampe, who has stayed true to the old contraptions even after the dizzying digital world left him long ago at the space bar.
Trampe, 71, owns Jones Typewriter Co., one of the few local shops that fix and sell typewriters. He and his assistant, Charlie May, 66, learned their skills when the sound of typing was the background noise of commerce. Most of their trade is in repairing electric typewriters at law firms, real estate offices and a few other businesses that still need to fill out official documents with hard type.
But once or twice each week, a young person walks into the shop looking for a typewriter — preferably something in black, with real keys to pound upon — as an antidote to the addictive glow of tiny screens. It inspires Trampe to keep working.
“It’s great to be needed,” he said. “The kids are enjoying machines everybody was throwing away 15 years ago. If nobody appreciated it, we’d just close up. It gives us a real lift.”
So when the rent jumped at 7278 Manchester Road, Trampe and May hauled their inventory eight blocks to 3530 Greenwood Boulevard. The new address is a 107-year-old building in a cozy business district with a small-town feel. Across Greenwood is the busy Union Pacific main line — railroads and typewriters, icons of the Industrial Age. Foley’s Tavern, with Budweiser and Guinness on tap, is two doors east.
Among their young patrons is Casey Miller, 32, who owns the Mud House coffee shop at 2101 Cherokee Street with her husband, Jeremy. They have six old typewriters on display as “accent pieces.”
For a while, she said, they put them within reach of general customer curiosity. “But little kids would bang on all the keys and get the hammers all jammed up,” she said, something her typewriter-era elders would understand.
Casey Miller writes letters at home on a bright orange Smith Corona Ghia portable “with beautiful black racing stripes down the sides.” She likes the solid achievement of tapping words.
“It is so permanent. You have to think about what you’re going to say, and you have to hit the keys with real purpose,” she said. “People in their 20s and 30s like vintage things, like Polaroids and old electric fans — and typewriters.”
“We all need our phones. There is no turning back on that,” she said. “But I love typing a letter than I can see and hold.”
Henry Goldkamp, 25, a local poet and typewriter crusader, has received national attention for his contribution to the budding revival efforts. Goldkamp placed nearly 40 typewriters at locations throughout the area in August and asked people to step up and hammer out their thoughts. He’s collecting them for a book.
A sheet-metal worker by trade, Goldkamp knows about durable goods. His personal machine of choice is an antique Underwood, a venerable tool of old newspaper days.
“I definitely like the feel of the keys more than of a regular keyboard,” Goldkamp said, with “regular” meaning computer. “The sound is soothing, like the lullaby of a subway train.”
August publications such as the New York Times have written feature stories about small groups of young people meeting for “type-ins” at taverns, bookstores and coffee shops. On Aug. 3, the Times published an essay by actor Tom Hanks, who said he uses an old manual typewriter for his personal communications.
“Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap ... like knitting needles creating a pair of socks,” Hanks wrote. “Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions...”
The Jones Typewriter shop in Maplewood is a throwback, of course, with stacks of old typewriters, display cases of ribbons and boxes of parts, including the “bouncing balls” for IBM Selectrics. That was the mainline office typewriter of the last days before computer screens took over.
Old electrics are stacked vertically, like books, on steel shelves. The inventory of manual typewriters includes Underwoods, Coronas, Remingtons and Woodstocks. A pile of old portable cases resembles a scene from the airport baggage area.
All told, the shop has about 400 typewriters. May said many of the electric models are kept for parts.
“You scavenge or make new parts yourself,” he said.
The shop repairs typewriters that people of all ages find in their relatives’ attics and want to put back to work. Older customers want the tensile feel, younger ones seek something old yet new.
But in the E-age?
“Why would you go buy a 1954 Ford? Because it’s a beautiful machine,” May said. “That’s why people buy typewriters.”
Reporter’s note • I am biased in favor of this subject. I keep a manual typewriter at my desk for brief letters. It’s quicker than messing with a short Word document, and new hires in the newsroom find the strange racket charming. My home model is an old Corona portable. And at my first job out of the University of Missouri, at a small newspaper in South Carolina 39 years ago, I used an old black Royal with round keys. My memory, doubtless warmed by nostalgia, tells me that I made it sing. — Tim O’Neil