Knows the Type

Knows the Type

I t’s a long, slender office on the second floor, above and behind Ashley’s Ice Cream on York Street—the sort of place where you’d expect to find a personal injury lawyer, maybe, or the accounting department for a dental hygienist across the hall.

In this particular office at 282 York #201, though, what you’ll find instead is something of a museum, and behind this office’s desk, you’ll find a one-of-a-kind tradesman, and a bit of a jokester too. Manson H. Whitlock has been working with and in and around typewriters since the 1920s, and Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop has been in business, in one form or another, since the ’30s.

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It’s tempting to frame this story around how a 96-year-old typewriter repairman has watched, over the decades, an industry die around him, or to contrast the present with the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, when business in the typewriter department at Whitlock’s, his father’s Broadway department store, grew so strong that Manson H. was able to spin it off into his own storefront on York. We could juxtapose  Whitlock’s quiet days now against the bustle of a shop hitting record sales numbers in the ’70s, or against the fact that his store used to bring in solid revenue just by cleaning and storing typewriters for Yale students and professors over their summer breaks.

And Mr. Whitlock offers quotes to back those narratives up. He says he’s “just hanging around for the occasional customer who needs something done that no one else is foolish enough to bother with.” He calls the business a losing proposition that doesn’t “begin to even pay for [his] parking space.” But Whitlock’s quite a character, and you can’t quite believe lines like those.

No, Manson Whitlock gets up most weekdays these days, puts on his tweed jacket and his nice silk tie and his beige sweater vest, then makes the twenty-minute drive into New Haven from his Bethany home to spend the morning working in his typewriter shop. He has two or three walk-in customers per day, and a higher number of calls promising future business. It’s not big business, but it’s not non-existent either.

Actually, typewriters seem to be making a comeback. They’ve taken on a sort of retro, hipster cache along the lines of record players and 8-bit video games and DeLoreans. There are online communities for typewriter enthusiasts and a vaguely steampunk version of blogging where people type their posts on typewriters—“typecasting,” it’s called—then upload scans of the typewritten pages. For my part, I discovered Whitlock shortly after my girlfriend bought me what turned out to be a slightly broken 1954 manual Royal for my birthday.

Mr. Whitlock knows nothing about the Yahoo! typewriter groups or the typecasting forums. He’s heard tell of simple, cheap machines going for as much as $400 on eBay (my girlfriend paid quite a bit less, I was proud to tell him), but he’s never seen the Internet. He’s never used a computer. The telephone at Whitlock’s Typewriter has a rotary dial. He’s a dictionary-definition luddite, but Whitlock knows something is changing in his business: “They’re starting to come back again,” he said to me while restoring a 1930 Underwood. “People find typewriters have become ‘cool.’” (You can just hear the quotes when Mr. Whitlock uses a word like “cool.”)

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I do believe him when he says he loses money on the business, though. I’m sure his revenues are enough to satisfy the York Street parking meter where he leaves his old, black Subaru for three hours every day, but he probably really doesn’t make the rent. Not because he can’t, but because he chooses not to. Whitlock knows the value of his knowledge and skills and the arsenal of typewriter bits and pieces he’s amassed over the decades. He’s got shelves and shelves of catalogs and instruction manuals and parts lists (and a 1978 New Haven city directory, in case you’re ever looking for one), but he works from memory and pure mechanical ability. There isn’t a typewriter supply still in business, but Whitlock’s walls are lined with decades-old Remingtons and Smith Coronas and Olivettis and Woodstocks and others that he cannibalizes for parts, with little drawers of margin stops and ribbon feeds and typebar resets and escapements and on and on.

He knows the uniqueness, and implied value, of his experience and collection—“People keep telling me that,” he says—but the invoices I saw while I snooped around in his shop had prices like $15.90 and $26.50 and $21.20. He bills for the parts based on something like what they must have been worth decades ago, and he only charges for his time—even then, usually just a 5- or 10-dollar fee—on the most complicated of jobs.

Mr. Whitlock spends three hours or so on most weekday mornings cleaning and repairing and occasionally selling typewriters because, he says, “It keeps me off the streets.” When he’s at his house in Bethany—“eleven rooms for me not to take care of,” he calls it—he says he just “goofs off.” And he views himself—as a man who’s focused on one trade for going on ninety years, and who’s lived in the New Haven area and seen everything it’s gone through in that time—not quite in terms of dollars: “Anyone who’s foolish enough to stick with it is crazy.”

It’s hard to say that’s not a valuable sort of foolish, though, a priceless brand of crazy. Where else could I have brought my busted birthday gift to be repaired and had a nonagenarian typewriter repairman tell me he guarantees that he’ll either fix it or give it back to me in a bucket? Nowhere else. That’s where.

Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop
282 York Street #201, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-0157
Open most Mondays through most Fridays, 9am(ish) to noon(ish). Call before you go.

Written and photographed by Jonathan McNicol.

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Jonathan McNicol is a freelance writer and a producer for The Faith Middleton Show on WNPR, where he can be heard almost weekly professing his love for sugary sodas, fast food chicken, and local pizzerias. He lives in New Haven. Follow Jonathan on Twitter.

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