At Berkeley’s California Typewriter, the Selectrics Keep Humming

By Cirrus Wood

I didn’t need a typewriter. I’ve never had an editor request hard copy. These days a typewriter is just a decorative toy and using one an affectation, like Civil War reenactment or home-curing bacon. But when I found a 1940s era manual Remington Rand on Oxford Street in one of those free piles that spring up curbside at the end of the academic year, I couldn’t just leave it there.

The defining feature of a typewriter is that it’s not a computer, but a machine whose single purpose is the production of well-marginned documents. It’s an artifact that requires its own diet of artifacts: paper, ribbon, Wite-Out. And there are really only two kinds of people left who still use them. The first, retirees in rebellion against the digital age and its array of glowing, pocket-sized doodads. The second, nostalgia lovers, sentimental for a time when global nuclear war was the only existential threat to American democracy.

Both do their shopping at California Typewriter. So that’s where I went.

California Typewriter opened in 1949 at the corner of Shattuck and Hearst Avenues as a retailer and repair shop of what they used to call ‘business machines.’ It has since relocated twice: first, two blocks south of the original location, and then to its now home at 2362 San Pablo Avenue. (California Typewriter was featured in a recent documentary by the same name, starring Bay Area native Tom Hanks.)

The air inside the shop smells of solvents, ink, and literary ambition. The walls are lined with Remingtons, Underwoods, Olivettis, Smith Coronas, and other ghosts of typewriters past. Herbert Permillion, its third owner, runs the business with his daughter Carmen Permillion, and mechanic Ken Alexander.

Alexander got into the business by mistake. “This was Plan B actually. If I had stuck to Plan A I’d be a gazillionaire now in the computer biz.”

As late as 1986, California Typewriter was one of five retailers and repair services clustered around downtown. “There were so many shops at one point around here that if you were a typewriter guy you definitely had a job around Berkeley campus,” Alexander told me as we sat in his workshop. One of those shops, Berkeley Typewriter on University Avenue, is still there. (As of this writing, there are only half a dozen repair shops left in all of Northern California, and two of them are in Berkeley.)

Alexander is a slim man with a baritone for late night radio. Before taking a job at California Typewriter, he worked at Berkeley Typewriter selling and repairing Smith Corona machines.

“For five years I ate, breathed, and slept Smith Coronas,” he said. “They were probably the most popular machines on campus because they were good but affordable. Pretty much any student could afford a Smith Corona typewriter.”

He looked at my Remington and declared it just needed a good cleaning and some minor repair. He positioned it at his workstation, pulled off the machine’s cover and then plucked, scraped, and fussed at the musculature beneath, removing decades of accumulated dust, grease, and writer’s block. He lavished the Remington with the attention and skill that comes from decades of professional labor.

Despite his decades long commitment to the profession, Alexander got into the business by mistake. “This was Plan B actually,” he said. “If I had stuck to Plan A I’d be a gazillionaire now in the computer biz.”

Ironically, both Alexander and Permillion started out in computing, repairing once cutting-edge machines that now also read as antiquated (dot matrix printers, fax machines, and room-sized devices operating on punch cards and tape drives).

Alexander was studying early computer languages at Contra Costa College and, by his account, “ended up flunking miserably.”

“But the director over there goes, ‘Well, you seem to have a lot of mechanical ability, would you like to take a typewriter repair course?’ And I was just going, ‘Well, what the hell. I dropped out of college. I got to do something.’”

“The 80s came, and everything started going electronic. There was probably a decade or so I didn’t touch a typewriter, unless it was electric. Funny that these things have come back around
again.”

Owner Herbert Permillion built his own career off servicing electric typewriters, specifically IBM Selectrics. “They were right there on the front lines and they were pretty much the top dog in the office machine world,” he said.

UC Berkeley was an IBM campus, so every department had its own collection of machines. And since the campus was vast and hilly, and the typewriters heavy, Permillion would cover his route in a three-wheeled motorized cart. “I’ve gone through some of the action that’s happened at the University,” he said nonchalantly. Once, during the Free Speech movement, he got caught in a crowd on campus. He doesn’t remember who was speaking, but the students surrounded his cart and climbed on top, first to gain a better view, then to spout their beliefs.

Permillion doesn’t go up the hill much these days, but every once in a while he still gets to work on those machines when retired secretaries, professors, and other campus staffers bring in the old Selectrics they took with them into retirement.

“Things have sort of slowed down a little bit, and as a matter of fact sales have been low. But I would say, it’s not bad,” said Permillion who focuses on electric models. “There’s still some diehards around who hold onto them and keep them alive,” he said. “They’re still a good box.”

Finished with the hard work, Alexander took the Remington to the back, where he placed it in a ventilator, took out a bottle of WD40 (“we buy it by the gallon”), and sprayed the open sinews and buttons till it glistened. Then he brought the Remington back to the work bench and cleaned each key individually. “I kind of like this part,” he said

“You know, the 80s came, and everything started going electronic. There was probably a decade or so I didn’t touch a typewriter, unless it was electric,” he said. “Funny that these things have come back around again.”

For all his attention, polishing every button, brushing and oiling each levered key, Alexander has a not-so-dark secret. He’s not mystical about typewriters. He likes them, he’s good at his work, but he doesn’t see the machines as something special. He doesn’t own a typewriter. In fact, he can’t even type.

“Sometimes I want to have one at home,” he said. “But I’m not a writer. I’m not a poet. I’m not a novelist. I’m a repair guy. I repair them so you can do your novel. If I take one home, it’s going to be because it’s beautiful, it’s going to be because it’s something I did, something I’m proud of, and it’s going to work.”

Finished, he reassembled the Remington, replaced the back and cover, then brought it to the front and rang me up. The machine looked a good four decades cleaner. I fed in a sheet of paper, and typed. Crisp black letters on an open page.

California Typewriter, located at 2362 San Pablo Avenue, is open Wednesday through Friday, noon to 5 PM, Saturday noon to 3.

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Comments

Fine story about the shop, but this is false: “These days a typewriter is just a decorative toy and using one an affectation … there are really only two kinds of people left who still use them. The first, retirees in rebellion against the digital age … The second, nostalgia lovers.” In fact, many kids and young people love typewriters and are using them in new, creative ways, contributing to a future that isn’t 100% dominated by the digital world and its surveillance, dependence, and distractions. More in my book (http://typewriterrevolution.com).

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