Saturday, February 17, 2007

Typewriter as Talisman


I love old manual typewriters—the way they look, the way they sound, the way the keys feel under my fingers as they strike the letters onto the page. There is an element of nostalgia for a time I never knew in my attachment to these machines. After all, the ones that I find most appealing predate me by decades. But there’s more to it than that.

I wrote my first stories on a typewriter. It was the late 80s and computers had filtered into the workplace but not many people had one at home. I certainly didn’t. I didn’t even have a typewriter of my own but my roommate cheerfully lent me hers whenever I asked. I had just shifted from writing poetry to writing fiction and I was giddy with a sense of having found my form. When inspiration ran high, I would call in sick to work and spend the day at our rickety kitchen table pounding out a story on my roommate’s typewriter, usually turning out a complete draft by sundown.

I have been feeling anxious lately about the extent to which my day job is squeezing out my writing time. So it’s no surprise that I’m thinking back fondly to a time when my day job wasn’t quite so demanding and I didn’t hesitate to spurn it for fiction.

Yesterday, I decided to buy myself a typewriter. I don’t have the option of reclaiming all my time for writing but I thought that if I got a typewriter for my office at home, even just as a decorative object, it would be a way of symbolically reclaiming the space for writing. It would mark a rebalancing of my priorities.

I toured round several antique stores and came up empty—just a few very ugly electric typewriters on offer that didn’t fit the bill at all. Surely, I thought, there must be a place in a city this size that specializes in old typewriters. Lo and behold, this morning I flipped open the Globe and Mail and found an article about old typewriters as style icons which featured an interview with the owner of The Monkey’s Paw, a Toronto bookstore that sells vintage typewriters alongside second-hand books. As soon as I finished breakfast, I hopped on the streetcar and made my way over there.

I found my typewriter on display in the front window. It’s a portable Underwood from 1940—it’s a thing of beauty and it works. I’m partial to items that are at once beautiful and useful. I doubt that I’ll do very much typing on it, but I like the idea that I can. In any event, its presence is now infusing my office with good writing energy just as I thought it would.

If you share my typewriter fetish, you may want to follow some of the links from the Globe and Mail article. You can find a dizzying array of vintage typewriters for sale online here, jewellery made from recycled typewriter keys here, and a cunning set of typewriter replica bookends here. And if you’re in Toronto, I highly recommend a visit to The Monkey’s Paw, if not for the typewriters, then for the excellent selection of second-hand books.

11 comments:

kimbofo said...

Oh, it's gorgeous!

When I was a teenager I "inherited" a typewriter from my father -- he had used it when he was at teacher's college. It had a red/black ribbon and would never just print red or just print black -- the letters used to be a weird concoction of the two colours!

When I was about 15 I got a new typewriter for Christmas and used it to crunch out all manner of stories, poetry and school assignments!

When I went to university I bought myself an electric typewriter. Unfortunately, the cost of replacement print cartridges used to cost almost as much as the typewriter itself, and before long I had updated to an Apple Mac.

But I still have fond memories of the three typewriters in my life!

Brad said...

I'm green with envy. What a beautiful Underwood. Thanks for this post- it brought back a lot of memories. Now I have to check out the links and find one for my space. :)

Litlove said...

That is one Rolls Royce of a typewriter. I was given a manual for Christmas when I was 12 and I loved it with a passion, although I kept getting my fingers jammed in it. I have to say it never produced any great works (with me at the keyboard) and I upgraded for an electric one in my teens. I was always (and to this day) a rapid but random typist and although I miss the look and sound of the old fashioned typewriter, I don't miss carbon copies and tip-ex.....

Sylvia said...

I think you have a kindred spirit...
http://frequencyofsilence.blogspot.com/2007/02/last-resort.html

Cam said...

The Monkey's Paws: another reason to go to Toronto some day. But, I'd have to drive or pay a bunch in shipping. Books and typewriters? I think I would be able to pass up several items.

I remember using a typewriter that printed in red/black too, just like Kimbofo's. Secretly, I thought the combo-colored letters were beautiful, but it drove me crazy that it wasn't perfect form for assignments. I remember once typing poems (I think they were by Frost) for an assignment in 9th grade, gleeful that the multi-colored letters would bug my persnickity English teacher more than me. I must have thought it a silly assignment.

JCR said...

What a wondeful Underwood! I was initially looking for a typewriter just for display but when I found one in mint condition I couldn't resist... I don't have a problem with ribbons. I don't have the information at hand but if I find it I'll send you where I get mine. (I have a stock). Cheers... you have a wonderful blog.

Mindy said...

I have a favorite necklace made from a typewriter key. When I wear it I feel as if I am proclaiming my passion for writing to all I meet!

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

Between you and JCR over at Frequency of Silence I am becoming more and more tempted!! Monkey Paw, here I come!

Lesley said...

Sounds like serendipity in action! That's a beautiful typewriter.

I learned to type on my mother's typewriter but it wasn't an ascetically pleasing one by any means.

Have you seen the bracelets made from old typewriter keys?

Fraser Elsdon said...

I know this an old post, but I just came across it and wanted to say thanks! I've been looking for a typewriter myself, and I think I found one at the Monkey's Paw. I had a look after reading this post.
Your description of the joys of a manual typewriter is spot-on. Happy typing!

jseliger said...

If you want one, you can still get a keyboard not unlike a typewriter in the form of the Unicomp Customizer, which is a modern version of IBM's famous Model M. I still use one, as the link shows.