In an era where we glorify speed and nearly everyone carries a computer in their pocket, it’s a surprise to find New York City’s Paul Schweitzer filling up a “doctor’s bag” with tools of his trade — typewriter ribbons, needle-nose pliers — to make emergency calls to repair sticky typewriter keys and shredded ribbons.
Vintage typewriters are making a comeback, thanks to young people who appreciate the machines in the same way they fell in love with vinyl records and turntables. Celebrities — including actor and typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks — writers, collectors and anyone who wants to own a reminder of simpler times have been the key to Schweitzer's success at Gramercy Typewriter Co., a shop started by his father, Abraham Schweitzer, in 1932.
In the early 2000s, Schweitzer said he sold about 10 manual typewriters a month. In recent years that number skyrocketed to about 60 a month, with millennials steadily buying the machines and bringing them in for service.
“In the last five or six years, I’ve seen a huge rush on manual portable machines,” Schweitzer, 79, said about his business, located across Fifth Avenue from the iconic Flatiron Building.
During the holiday season in December, he said, 110 typewriters were sold — at a cost between $195 and $595 each — as gifts for children and young adults. He expects to see similar sales this year.
"People love them,” he said. “They take us back to a slower-paced, quieter time."
While Manhattan was once home to hundreds of typewriter stores, there are now only a handful, Schweitzer said. There are only about 250 repair shops coast to coast, he added. Now that he’s approaching age 80, he said, he almost feels an obligation to continue the work for as long as he can — just as his father did after starting the family business during the Great Depression.
“There's a big demand right now for what we do,” said Schweitzer, who wears a tidy black apron over his shirt and tie so that he'll always be ready for emergency office calls.
"Just the other day, a man came in with his 12-year-old son,” he said. “The kid wanted a typewriter. Not a computer. A typewriter. He wanted to type notes to his friends.”
People are astonished, Schweitzer said, to learn that he lugs a physician's bag on office calls to businesses throughout Manhattan, where manual typewriters are still tucked away in corners here and there.
"The days are gone when an insurance company might need to have 200 typewriters cleaned,” he said, “but they might have 15 or 20. It's rewarding to me to help keep these machines running."
Schweitzer finds beauty in a smooth-functioning Smith-Corona or IBM Selectric, and he has plenty of company. One of his most loyal customers is actor Tom Hanks, who has a large collection of typewriters — not to simply decorate an office, but to use for typing letters, movie memos, reminders and more.
“Paul sells tools, not toys,” Hanks wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “His typewriters work, and are meant to be used, to be pounded on, to be written with.”
Hanks said he likes the permanence and tactile nature of the typewriter.
"Typewriters are like pianos — translation objects that artists use to create dreamscapes and shoppers use to make grocery lists,” Hanks added. “The difference is that whatever you type will physically exist for centuries."
When Hanks is in New York, Schweitzer added, “he'll pop in to talk shop and relax for a while and maybe try out a new typewriter. This really is his idea of a candy store."
Hanks, who recently starred as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the movie “The Post,” took home a desktop Royal with an oversize tab key from “The Post” set.
Schweitzer sold about 25 vintage typewriters — manual and electric — to the film's director, Steven Spielberg, who later presented them to his cast and crew as “thank you” gifts.
"He matched the typewriters to the people on the set and rolled a personal 'thank you' note into each one for a one-of-a-kind gift,” said Jay Schweitzer, Paul Schweitzer’s son and business partner. “We helped him to figure out the best mix of machines to give away."
Matching a typewriter with a person is one of Paul Schweitzer’s best-honed skills.
Just ask customer Michael Leslie. During a visit two months ago to Schweitzer's shop, Leslie spotted a sleek, lean model with a sand-colored finish, an elegant carriage and a zippy return.
"Wow — what's this?” the New York City apartment designer asked Schweitzer. “I've never seen one quite like it."
The typewriter was a Swedish Facit model from the early 1960s, extremely rare. Schweitzer didn't tell Leslie until later that he'd been saving the typewriter just for him, knowing that it would be the perfect match.
“He wanted me to find it for myself,” Leslie, 62, said. “It was a knockout — love at first sight. Paul knew exactly what I needed.”
Paul Schweitzer brought his son into the business when Jay was 7, and they would spend summers together in the shop.
“My dad said, ‘You’re not going to sit around and watch TV all day, you’re coming with me,’ ” recalled Jay Schweitzer, 50, who now shows up to work in a suit and tie like his father.
Now, every day, father and son patiently look under the hoods of old Underwoods, Royals, Olivettis and Smith-Coronas, brought in by customers who complain about stuck keys, slow returns and shredded ribbons.
The Schweitzers have an abundance of parts for repairs, said Paul Schweitzer, since he bought the inventories of nearly every typewriter shop in Manhattan when the owners grew tired of competing in a high-tech world and went out of business one by one.
But not Schweitzer. He bet on the lasting allure of the typewriter.
“I had a hunch,” he said.