Hanging on to the past

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2011 - 10:22 AM

These Twin Cities shopkeepers are sticking with what they know: technologies and products from decades ago -- watches, film processing and typewriters.

They cater to collectors, nostalgics and Luddites. They are the tradespeople who didn't go back to school when our blinking, vibrating, wired world threatened to make their livelihoods obsolete. Instead, they dug in and hung on.

Throughout the Twin Cities, in out-of-the-way shops and tiny storefronts, a handful of passionate, persistent business owners still buy, sell and repair yesteryear's analog technologies.

We take a look at three old-fashioned shopkeepers who supply the tech-skeptic counterculture with its typewriters, wristwatches and black-and-white film.

OUT OF TIME

Marshall Ferster doesn't have a website. He doesn't even know how to use e-mail.

He works out of his tiny American Vintage shop on the second floor of an office building in Uptown Minneapolis, alongside law offices and acupuncture studios. It's the same place where he's been selling wristwatches, pocket watches and fountain pens for more than 20 years.

Back in the 1970s, Ferster was a visual artist with a background in upscale men's retail. He was between jobs ("I was dead-flat broke, period," he said) when he decided to try his luck in flea markets. "It was just serendipity that retro wristwatches were hitting the market," he said.

Forty years later, retro watches are hot once again. But Ferster isn't going out of his way to lure a new generation of customers. He's happy to serve the same, small-but-committed clientele he's had for decades.

Though he's happy to repair watches of any vintage, he deals mostly in wind-ups. "I don't buy and sell modern watches," he said. "That's for someone else -- and the Internet."

He admits that the name of his shop is a misnomer. "Even though I call it American Vintage, I obviously have Swiss watches," he said. His clear preference is American-made varieties from the 1920s through the '50s. "I've always thought very highly of Hamilton watches," said Ferster. "They exuded quality. And they were equally revered by -- let's put it this way -- every class of American society."

American Vintage, 1406 W. Lake St., Suite 206, Mpls., 612-825-8458.

THE RIGHT TYPE

Every now and again, Mark Soderbeck finds an abandoned typewriter outside the door of his spare Richfield storefront.

"I hate to see these things thrown away," he said. So he fixes the salvageable ones and sends the others to the typewriter junkyard: a set of metal utility shelves at the back of his shop, where he uses them for the parts he can no longer find.

As a rare typewriter salesman and repairman, Soderbeck deals in old-fashioned models with brand names like Underwood, Webster and Bennett. While he stocks bulky beige IBMs from the 1970s, he's partial to models like the powder blue Royal from the '60s. And he clearly favors manuals.

Some of the typewriters he refurbishes sell for as little as $75. Others, collector's items, can fetch as much as $20,000. He's currently working on a Oliver typewriter from the early 20th century, with typebars that resemble flying buttresses.

Soderbeck once juggled a busy schedule of office calls and middle-of-the-night repairs. Now he caters to a smaller, less demanding clientele of writers, collectors and the occasional septuagenarian who has refused to trade her IBM Selectric for an iPad.

On quiet days, he may have two or three customers, on busier days a couple dozen. The one consistency is the temperament of his clients. "In the past 20 years, people aren't as rude as they used to be," he said. "I don't know if it's because typewriters are no longer a necessity."

A natural tinkerer, Soderbeck said he's kept his business going for 35 years for one simple reason: "I guess I like repairing these things," he said.

But he does have one regret. "I only wish I knew how to type."

Vale Typewriter, 6319 Penn Av. S., Richfield, 612-869-3664.

PERSISTENT PROCESSOR

Back in the late '70s and '80s, Gary Rasmusson was a busy man. "I remember, as a kid, he was gone a lot," said his daughter, Kim Rasmusson.

A professional developer of film for television and video, Gary juggled projects for local movie theaters and professional sports teams and took the occasional emergency call from a bank that had been robbed and needed surveillance video developed right away. He started his own business, Film & Video Services, in the late '80s.

Kim grew up in the processing lab, working part-time for her dad while she went to Robbinsdale High School. She was a stay-at-home mom when her harried father called in 1989 with a favor: Could she help around the office, maybe two days a week?

"And it's been like that ever since," said Kim, who manages the business full-time since her dad retired.

The pace of Kim's workday is very different from her dad's. With the advent of digital technology, there's no longer demand for last-minute processing jobs. Kim's remaining clients are filmmakers, artists and the occasional teenager who just uncovered his grandparents' awesome Super 8 camera. She spends much of her time transferring old home movies to DVDs.

"It's definitely gotten slower," she said.

Film & Video Services is one of the last businesses in the country selling and processing black-and-white film for 16mm, 8mm and Super 8mm motion-picture cameras. "I know we're the only ones in the state," said Kim. "A processor in Boston just went under. There might be three left in the country."

While she sees a slight bump in sales with every processor that folds, she has no plans to follow their lead. "Because I enjoy what I do," she explains. Then she adds, "It's all I know."

Film & Video Services, 2620 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-789-8622.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

 

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  • Marshall Ferster sells and repairs watches at American Vintage.

  • Kim Rasmusson works with a projector at Film & Video Services.

  • Mark Soderbeck repairs typewriters at Vale Typewriter in Richfield.

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