Six Degrees From a Typewriter

A popular game suggests that all things in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other. Who would have thought that this applies to a vintage typewriter?

This tale begins when a staff member offered a vintage typewriter for display at the Main Library. Shortly thereafter I displayed the typewriter in the lobby near Borrower’s Services on an equally old oak desk the library had kicking around. Immediately our customers began to try out the vintage machine and the click-clack of the keys could be heard in the library.

This is not a new idea. The book “Notes From a Public Typewriter” edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti is a collection of a series of notes left on a vintage typewriter set up in a book store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The book combines essays with favourite notes (like “I ended up alone on my birthday but being here makes it easy to forget that. Thank you.”) as a nod to community.

At WPL we too began to experience our own unplanned community-building exercise. Jokes, words of advice, famous quotes and reminiscences were typed up, slowly or quickly, on the old machine at the Main, revealing the heart of our community here in Waterloo.

The heartwarming:

“Dear whoever reads this. You matter.”
“You are loved. You are accepted.”
“Love yourself.”
“Books are good for you and books love you too”

Gentle advice:

“Learn something new every day.”

Salutations:

“Hello person who is reading this.”
“Whoever you are? Have a good day.”

Memories:

“My dad had a typewriter like this in his office in Buffalo.”
“This is the typewriter that I learned on in 1950 when I could do 40 words a minute.”

Kids:

“Give me ccccoooookkkiieeeessss.”
“I wish I could use one of these for school. It’s cooler than Google docs.”
“This is old school. How did anyone ever type like this?”

Generations mingled:

“This is an ancient keyboard.”
“It’s not that old. I used to have one!!!”

Suddenly, I began to see images of typewriters everywhere I looked including on the cover of Tom Hank’s collection of short stories “Uncommon Type”. Each of Hanks’ stories features a typewriter almost like it was a character in the story. My favourite “Christmas Eve 1953” tells the story of a World War II vet who has achieved the American dream but is still haunted by flashbacks to Christmas 1944.

Hanks himself is an avid collector of typewriters which he talks about in the documentary “California Typewriter”. The documentary examines the extinction of the beloved typewriter and the movement to keep these “ancient” machines clicking away.

WPL customers really enjoy the sound from yesterday. Customers noting “The sound of the keys clacking is nice.”

In the popular feature film, “You’ve Got Mail“, a cherished neighbourhood bookstore (owned by Meg Ryan’s character) is being pushed out by a big book store chain (owned by Tom Hanks’ character). Another character in the movie collects vintage electric typewriters, rhapsodizing about the hum of the machine and the sound of the keys. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t keep the girl – but he does hang onto the vintage typewriters! The viewer can judge who got the better deal.

If all this typewriter talk has made you want to learn more about the trusty machine, check out the book “The Typewriter Revolution” by Richard Polt. It includes a chapter on care and repair which I may need when unsticking keys and adjusting the ribbon every morning. Curious customers have a habit of fiddling with buttons and adjusting levers and, as one typist freely admitted, “Help! My finger is stuck between the keys!”.

Finally, I seem to be right back where I started – the typewriter. You see, I have my own typewriter story. When I started at WPL almost 30 years ago one of my jobs was to type catalogue cards on just such a machine. I think a WPL customer summed it up best when they so wisely clacked out in short staccato strokes “Remember who you are. Remember who you were”.

— Maureen S.

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