49er In Focus: Now may still be the time for one Long Beach typewriter repairman
A nearly extinct craft still finding niche success.
June 4, 2015
When people bring Gary typewriters typing so faintly the ink on the page is barely visible, he wonders why they waited so long to bring them in. Then he remembers that most changes in life happen little by little—unnoticeable in the day-to-day, until someone else points them out.
Garrick “Gary” Shofner remembers when business boomed; back before the personal computer was king. Customers would be lined up to the corner waiting for him to open up each morning—even on Saturdays. All kinds of people were coming through his door: congressmen, a former captain of the Queen Mary, even Clint Eastwood once bought a used machine from him.
He was making so much money he didn’t know what to do with it, a thousand dollars a day, every day. He decided to hang up a big neon sign outside his North Long Beach shop—Gary’s Typewriter Repair.
Boy, those were the good ol’ days.
Today, from the street, 833 East South St. looks abandoned.
The old neon sign sits discarded on the roof.
The storefront window is veiled by an uninviting, camel-colored scrim pulled together in such a way as to suggest the end of a play. On the window pane itself, Gary’s Typewriter Repair Service is scrawled in white acrylic paint that better resembles old white-out—chipped and faded from three decades under the sun.
Beneath that, traces of graffiti someone’s haphazardly tried to remove threaten to overtake the business lettering. Like a museum exhibit, frozen in time, the placard resting at the bottom right corner of the window has read “we’re open” since 1978, back when Gary first set up shop here.
Even if he wanted to turn it around, he couldn’t get to it, he says. Customers joke about passing by at 2 a.m. and seeing the open sign still up.
Despite its blighted appearance, Gary can still be found inside this obscure hole-in-the-wall, like a modern-day blacksmith, hunched over a hundred-year-old cast-iron machine. That’s if he’s not out on a service call.
He admits he’s not going to be a millionaire anytime soon, but being a 21st century typewriter repairman isn’t a complete oxymoron. He’s kept busy by law firms and doctor’s offices that still use electric typewriters for transcriptions. Most of all, the rise of interest in these proto-word-processors as collectors’ items has helped keep him afloat.
When asked about his theory on the typewriter’s appeal today, he said, “If you’re a writer it comes from here,” gesturing toward his head, “to your fingers and right to the paper there. You can sit down, not have to worry about beepers and buzzers, and then you can let your true thoughts come out.”
Gary is a true throwback. He wears a beard with patches of white and retro-looking glasses. He could pass for a black Walter White. His hands are thick as broken-in leather, and he speaks with an expressive voice that tends to run away from him sometimes.
He says he’s always been fascinated by the inner-workings of machines. “As a kid I liked to tinker ‘round with stuff. Of course none of my parents liked that because I used to take stuff apart and see how it worked. I’d say, what makes this clock work and so I’d take it apart.”
As a young man he received a grant to take a 3 year intensive course in typewriter repair at a trade school, which was later supplemented by some training at IBM.
His first job as a travelling typewriter repairman with the now defunct Crocker National Bank took him all across California. After bouncing around a few other companies, he decided to go into business for himself.
When Gary opened up his shop in 1978, rent was $35 a month. “Can you believe that? Now it’s 20 times more.”
The inside is about as big as an oversized walk-in closet. It’s dingy and smells distinctly of typewriter oil and machine grease. Every surface is coated with a thin layer of grime and nostalgia.
Behind the curtains that obscure the storefront window, metal shelves hold gutted typewriters of every sort. The shelves are so full with machines, they seem to be disgorging their contents onto the floor, parts of which are piled half-way to the roof with these metallic dinosaurs. It’s a typewriter junkyard.
“I have to keep everything because the minute I throw something away, somebody’ll walk in here and say, ‘This little part broke off,’ and I’ll say, ‘Darn, that’s the machine I threw out.’”
Nothing’s changed since the 1980s, he says. He points toward the foot of a metal mountain near the front of the store. “See that computer right there. Remember that DOS computer right there. That’s been sitting there since 19—whenever that computer came out.”
Behind the front counter is a small workbench. On it sits an 1837 Royal typewriter that he’s been hard at work restoring, along with an assortment of lubricants and small metal parts. “Sometimes I gotta make parts, weld things. I used to be able to go to downtown [Los Angeles] and pick up parts. Not anymore.”
He lifts up an IBM Selectric that’s laying on the front counter and begins inspecting the underbelly. The intricacies of the mechanisms look like a steampunk’s wildest dream. He points at different parts that don’t appear to be interconnected in any conceivable way but says each one depends on the other. One small imperfection and “you’ll be typing a ‘U’ when you press the ‘R’ key.”
He admits that when he gets a machine that’s particularly difficult, it consumes him. Lying in bed at night, and even in his dreams, he’ll mentally manipulate parts around in order to come up with a fix. “I love it. I still love it even after all these years.”