Typewriters: Implements of inspiration

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2008 - 1:14 AM

The romance of the typewriter lives on in a quiet shop in Richfield. Step inside Vale Typewriter, and step back into a different time.

Every inch of the black Remington Portable Model 5 looks like it came from another century, which it did. It's a Depression remnant, a little worn, a bit dusty. The top of its carrying case was so moldy it had to be tossed.

It's also beautiful. Elegant, even. An arc of spidery typebars stands exposed and ready across the machine's open top. Agatha Christie was a fan of the Model 5. You can imagine her fingers tapping the round black keys, the typebars popping up to crisply smack that first sheet of paper: "In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ..."

But it's 2008, not 1939. "I could have sold that over and over again," Mark Soderbeck says with an affectionate glance at the Model 5. Instead, he's going to fix it up and give it to his daughter, a soon-to-be teacher, so she has a cool antique to show her future elementary students.

Soderbeck runs Vale Typewriter in Richfield, where the air smells faintly of oil and the brown linoleum floor looks like it dates from the 1950s.

Clandestine computer chips have crept in the door inside electronic typewriters, but the only windows in this shop look out on the tiny parking lot at 6319 Penn Av. S. If there are any mice here, they're washing their whiskers and hiding behind the metal carcass of an ancient Royal stashed on the floor.

Soderbeck, 52, began repairing and selling typewriters here in 1976 and bought the business in 1978. The shop's founder, Ray Vale, lived in the little house next door and used to come over and visit. He and Soderbeck would have a couple of beers and talk while the younger man repaired typewriters at the battered workbench in the back of the shop.

Back then, Soderbeck worked 80-hour weeks trying to reduce the backlog of 100 typewriters sitting in the shop that needed repair. "I didn't see my kids for 10 years," he joked.

That's not a problem now. Soderbeck's shop occupies half the space it used to. Once he repaired fax machines, printers and copiers, but that business is fading, a casualty of do-it-all computers and manufacturers that build machines that are easier to throw away than repair. When Soderbeck started, there were 27 typewriter repair stores in the Twin Cities. Now there are four.

But for a man who says he is presiding over a dying business, Soderbeck is pretty cheerful. He delights in talking with the mostly elderly customers who visit to buy typewriter ribbons. And he's fond of typewriters. He has some rare models at home including an odd, tall Oliver from the early 1900s, a 1901 Bennett that has its type on a cylinder, and a couple of indestructible Woodstocks. He can identify brands at a glance. That typewriter on Andy Rooney's "60 Minutes" desk is a 1920s Underwood.

The shop's back room is crammed with tall shelves that hold "junker" typewriters that span the 20th century, from a black 1920s Underwood -- the name and the filigree on the sides were done in gold leaf -- to bulky IBM Selectrics. Soderbeck cannibalizes them for parts. Draw cords that move platens -- the black rubber cylinder behind the paper -- hang from pegs above the workbench. A few years ago, Soderbeck gave green keys from a Royal to an artist who used them in a collage. He regrets that now. But the half-gutted body of the donor Royal remains.

Rust is death to old typewriters, Soderbeck said. He can tell when one has been dropped. But Vale once told him that salesmen used to market the tough old Woodstocks by letting them tumble down a flight of stairs before showing that they still worked.

Collectors sometimes bring in machines he's never seen before, "but when you take them apart, they're basically the same," Soderbeck said. Under a chemical hood, he cleans typewriter shells with biodegradable degreaser, protecting fancy details like the Underwood's filigree with a heavy layer of grease. After everything is put back together and perfectly dry, he treats typewriters with a preservative and oils and greases them.

The shop's spare front sales room features reconditioned electric typewriters for $150 to $175. They are still popular with businesses for filling out forms and envelopes. There are also electronic typewriters with computer memory. But it's the old manuals that draw customers' attention.

One woman came in with two little kids and bought two old typewriters "because she thought they had never seen a manual typewriter," Soderbeck said. A sleek little reconditioned Royal portable from the 1950s, complete with brown plastic carrying case for $125, sat in the shop for just a day before a collector saw it and told Soderbeck he would be back for it. He's still holding it, even though a woman came in a few days ago and wanted it for her daughter.

Lately, people in their teens and 20s have been snapping up reconditioned manual typewriters, most priced from $125 to $175. Many are college students who are rejecting the computers they've known all their lives for an old technology that's more tactile and real.

"They're all writers," Soderbeck said. "They tell me they like the feel of the keys. They don't like the mushy feel of laptops."

So he keeps hauling old typewriters to the workbench, oiling this, greasing that, coaxing new life out of parts that sometimes were old when he was born. Monday through Thursday, when the shop is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., he drives almost 160 miles roundtrip from his farm in Pine City. It's a shocking commute in a time of sky-high gas prices, but Soderbeck says he'll keep doing it because he enjoys the people.

By the way, he'll tell you, if you ever come across a manual typewriter made by Adler or Olympia, hang onto it.

"They don't wear out," Soderbeck said. "Those are fine, fine machines."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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