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New Generation Revives Old Typewriters, Helps Keep Mesa Repair Shop Open

(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
An Underwood Standard from the 1920s is one of many different typewriters in Mesa Typewriter Exchange.

Usually if you want to compose a message, you use a computer, a smartphone, even a tablet. But a new generation is finding that an older technology is just their type.

The sound might ring a bell. But when was the last time you used a typewriter… If ever?

“These machines up here are from the early 1900s. This Blickensderfer is 1902. From the '50s, this is like a little Royal Quiet Deluxe,” said Bill Wahl, pointing out typewriters in his shop. Wahl has owned Mesa Typewriter Exchange for about 40 years.

The tiny repair shop is filled with typewriters from Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency to Barack Obama’s second term. Surprised he’s still in business? So is he.

“Every year there was less and less work to be done,” Wahl said. “And so I thought, this is going to play out at some point in time, and I would’ve never guessed that I would still be here.”

But Wahl said in the past decade, business leveled out. Typewriters were making a return. He gives partial credit to the generations at the very end of the alphabet - Y and Z.

“My customer base went from just being older people, or businesses that were still using it. Now I was starting to include younger people that were discovering the typewriter and using it for different reasons,” Wahl said.

People who had never even touched a typewriter before were coming into Wahl’s shop.

It takes some practice, but Wahl said he’s seen kids as young as eight hammer away at the keys. This major expansion of his customer base has changed Wahl’s outlook on the business. It’s more of a hobby now, one he’s eager to teach to newbies.

“It’s not that they’re keeping me going because of their eight-dollar ribbon that they’re  putting on their typewriter,” Wahl said. “But, just more for their youthful spirit they bring to this business, and that makes it a fun business now. I have a blast.”

The click and clack of typewriters is also familiar in a high school English classroom across town.

Ryan Adney turned his love for typewriters into classroom curriculum. His English students at Alhambra High can opt to type their journal entries on machines donated to his classroom.

“I think it created a more … a careful attention, a more sustained attention to their own writing process,” Adney said. “What were the words they were putting down? What were the letters they were putting down? And how were those correct or incorrect?”

After five years, Adney has received hundreds of typewriters, so this school year he’s gifting some to students. Alhambra senior Sahvannah Marion learned how to use her baby blue, portable machine. Adney gave her tips.

“Oh, one last thing. When it says ‘backspace,’ it only takes you back one space, it doesn’t fix anything,” Adney explained.

It’s definitely different from a computer, but for Marion, the typewriter keeps her focused on the task at hand and away from distractions like the Internet.

“So I feel like writing and everything as far as a typewriter, kind of brings you back and, like, takes you into your own little world, and you’re lost for a little while, and you don’t think about everything else like that,” she said.

Marion practices by typing something she knows well - a song called “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, released in 2005. Her ‘60s-era typewriter makes the lyrics appear on the page, letter by letter. It’s a convergence of two eras in American culture. And it’s what might keep the typewriter around a little longer.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.