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High on old tech

Forget computers and word processors. These fans can't give up on old-fashioned typewriters.

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 5, 1999


Kathy Pinne bought a computer in December intending to use it for work. Instead, she surfs the Internet, plays games and sends e-mail on it. But not work. Not yet.

She just can't give up her typewriter.

The typewriter is a bit noisier than the computer, but it is "reliable, doesn't break down, it's easy and dependable," said Pinne, who does medical transcriptions at her Tierra Verde home. "It's like an old friend."

The typewriter may have evolved into a quaint symbol of old technology, pushed into the background by personal computers and electronic word processors that forgive your errant keystrokes, check your spelling, even comment on your grammar.

But for a determined few people, such as Pinne, the typewriter is still the machine of choice.

Typewriter companies such as Underwood, Royal and Remington are gone. IBM no longer makes typewriters. Smith Corona, a company whose name was once synonymous with typewriters, is trying to reinvent itself after coming out of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. In small offices and home offices where typewriters were once king, Smith Corona focuses on equipment such as wireless telephones and inkjet fax machines, as well as electronic typewriters.

"A lot of the names we grew up with don't exist anymore," said Bob Symanski of St. Petersburg, who has made his living repairing typewriters since he graduated from high school. "Forty years later, I'm still turning screwdrivers and don't regret it in the least."

Richard Ponce has seen typewriters change from indispensable to collectible in more than 35 years as owner of Dick's Typewriters and Business Machines in St. Petersburg. He once sold new typewriters, until office supply stores undercut his profits. He once leased typewriters to businesses, until cheaper models and later PCs dried up that business. He has seen competitors go out of business as the pool of typewriter users dries up.

Ponce now repairs, refurbishes and sells old typewriters from a tiny shop on Central Avenue near 26th Street with typewriters stacked from floor to ceiling and most places in between. He repairs some electronics, such as VCRs and printers. But the typewriter remains the center of his universe.

He shows off a 1923 Royal he is refurbishing. "Is that a pretty machine or what?" he asks. With a magnifying glass, he inspects the distinctive wavy pattern black finish on a 1937 Royal.

His customers can't be categorized: a couple looking for a typewriter -- a manual typewriter -- for their 17-year-old daughter who wants to be a writer; lawyers; others who try computers and migrate back to typewriters.

"They're attached to these things," Ponce said.

Ponce and his longtime friend Symanski appreciate an element in typewriters too often missing in modern products: workmanship.

"I still marvel at some of the design, manufacture and operation of some of the older machines," Symanski said, noting that they work as well now as they did 50 or 60 years ago. There is no built-in obsolescence in these machines.

The appreciation goes beyond those who work with typewriters. It also is evident in a newer breed of typewriter aficionado: the collector.

"To take one apart and try to put it back together today, with modern tools, in itself is quite a feat," said Rich Cincotta of Southboro, Mass., who with his friend Chuck Dilts has become a collector of old typewriters. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they went through to produce such a machine."

For a generation being raised on personal computers and other electronics, it is almost a lost art.

"It's amazing to see a kid look at a typewriter," Cincotta said. "They have no idea what they are" when they see them on display at flea markets. They sometimes ask where the enter key, monitor and disk drive are. "You realize how obsolete these machines have become for all but a few people."

Cincotta and Dilts bought an antique Williams typewriter in 1996, and collecting typewriters became a passion. Now they have 350 and a Web site to share information with other collectors (www.erols.com/chuck101/).

"Your collection starts collecting you," Cincotta said. "I'm afraid the collection has collected us."

Dilts says typewriter collecting is so new that there are no guidelines for people to follow on how much a machine is worth. Some may go for more than $500 but most are less, and many are below $100. Collectors also have started to buy and trade accessories such as tins that once held ribbons.

The men point out that the typewriter can be easier than PCs and printers for addressing envelopes and making labels, and a market remains for people who want a typewriter for college.

Or for work, such as Pinne's transcription typing in Tierra Verde. She types six to eight hours a day. She uses about a dozen ribbons every month or so, which she buys from Ponce. "He's something else," she said. "A wonderful guy. I hope he's there for a long time."

Pinne laughs when she talks about her inability so far to make the transition from her IBM Wheelwriter to her Gateway computer. She tells a story of a recent determined effort to switch:

" "Okay, I'm going to do it today,' " she recalled thinking as she sat down at the computer. "I typed two sentences, it told me I did something wrong and I went back."

She needs classes to learn about Microsoft Word. Classes take time, and she doesn't have the time. "Because of the type of work I do, I use a lot of abbreviations. Word tells me I can't do that," she said.

Even when she begins to use the computer more, Pinne says, the typewriter will stay.

"That's my security blanket," she said.

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