Many Happy (Carriage) Returns

by Jonathan McNicol

It’s a long, slender office on the second floor, above and behind Ashley’s Ice Cream on York Street. The sort of place you’d expect to find, maybe, a personal injury lawyer. Or the accounting department for a dental hygienist across the hall.

Seated at the desk, though, of this particular office, you’ll find the farthest thing from some Saul Goodmanesque shyster. And the last thing the shelves are filled with is ledgers and billing and receiving records and old adding machine tapes.

In this particular office, at 282 York #201, what you’ll find instead is something of a museum. And behind his particular desk, you’ll find a practically literally one-of-a-kind tradesman, a craftsman, 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. And it’s still here today.

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

And Mr. Whitlock will give a reporter the quotes to back that narrative throughline up, too. He’s, at this point, “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, and makes the twenty-minute drive into New Haven from his Bethany home to spend the morning working in a surprisingly thriving typewriter shop. He has two or three walk-in customers per day, and more calls promising future business than that.

The fact seems to be, typewriters are actually making a bit of a resurgence. 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 sort of steampunk version of blogging where people type their posts on typewriters—typecasting, it’s called—and then upload scans of the typewritten pages. I, actually, 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.’)

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 nearly one-of-a-kind pricelessness 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 charges for the parts based on something like what they must have been worth decades ago. And he only charges for labor, for his time, on the most complicated of jobs, and then only a five- or ten-dollar flat fee.

Mr. Whitlock makes the drive in to open the shop most weekday mornings to spend three hours or so cleaning and restoring and repairing typewriters, occasionally even to sell a typewriter, because, he says, “It keeps me off the streets.” Because when he’s at his house in Bethany (“Eleven rooms for me not to take care of,” he calls it), he just, “goofs off.” And he sees his own value—as a man who’s worked in one trade for going on ninety years, as a man who’s lived in the New Haven area and has seen everything it’s gone through through all his life (“Not yet,” he says)—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.

Originally published, in different form, at The Daily Nutmeg, October 10, 2012.