Director Doug Nichol centers the film on an African-American owned shop in Berkeley called California Typewriter. Owner Herbert L. Permillion III, who worked for IBM for 20 years, opened the store in 1981 and has kept it running, with the help of his two daughters and repairman Ken Alexander, through the rise of home computers, smart phones, and tablets. After all, if turntables and vinyl can make a comeback, why not typewriters?
Several typewriter enthusiasts are also interviewed, though (maddeningly) none of them are identified in any way until the end credits. You'll likely recognize Tom Hanks, a collector with about 250 typewriters, who espouses the virtue of a typewritten "Thank You" note versus an email, something he'll routinely delete as quickly as the "seven seconds" it took to write and send. "Take 70 seconds to type me out something on a piece of paper and send it to me, well, I'll keep that forever," he says.
John Mayer, who never had to make the transition from typewriter to computer as he's not even 40, makes salient points about the built-in obsolescence of computers, and how all the material housed on all of our old hard drives is basically sitting in glorified garbage cans. Unless you printed that stuff out, it's as good as gone forever. So he bought probably one of the last new electric typewriters, and has taken to writing song lyrics with it, noting that there's nothing impeding his creative process — no spellcheck or blinking icon of distraction.
Writers Sam Shepard and David McCullough, neither of whom ever made the transition to tech, also talk about the typewriter's contribution to the writing process, with McCullough noting that without the visual proof of revisions, corrections, and changes, we're losing a valuable look into the thought processes of our creative thinkers and politicians. Shepard notes the tactile satisfaction of feeding paper into the typewriter and hearing and feeling those words slap onto the page.
We also meet a collector from Toronto who travels to San Francisco in hopes of purchasing one of the first typewriters made, based on original inventor Christopher Latham Sholes's design, and Oakland sculptor Jeremy Mayer, who uses typewriter parts — and ONLY typewriter parts — to craft figurative sculptures that include animal and human forms. To some, his work may seem blasphemous, but it's nice to see the symbiotic relationship he has with the California Typewriter shop. They give him the typewriters that are beyond redemption, and Mayer often ends up having a rare part the shop might need for a repair.
It's the scenes in that shop that are the film's most enjoyable. I wanted more of them. A tighter film could have been made with fewer segments on the enthusiasts and users (the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and Poetry Store poet Silvi Alcivar also make appearances) and more scenes showing the genuine love Permillion and Alexander have for their shop and their typewriters. It's infectious, and even a little thrilling watching their ingenious solutions to repairing items that have no replacement parts because, well, there are no replacement parts to be found.
When I was a kid, I had an old Smith Corona typewriter that weighed about 20 pounds, had an old ribbon that had been reused so many times it no longer typed in black but in muted grey, and whose keys had a tendency to stick together in certain combinations. But I loved typing on that thing. Sometimes I would type my own stuff, and sometimes I would just copy passages out of books, just because I liked typing; it made me feel smart.
Eventually I got an electric typewriter (a Panasonic) and I clung to that way into college. My friends had moved on to word processors and laptops (that also seemed to weigh about 20 pounds) by then, but I was convinced I wouldn't be able to write anything if the process didn't involve a first draft that was pen on paper, and a final draft that was typewritten. I'm not certain, but I think it was seeing how easy it was to edit something — removing and rearranging paragraphs and thoughts on the page — that eventually pushed me over to the dark side, and eventually I became convinced I couldn't write anything unless it was via computer.
But whenever I see a typewriter out in the wild — at a friend's, or a flea market — I can't resist going over and typing "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy hound dog" on it. I just love to hear the clack of the keys, and feel the reverberation of those letters hitting that paper. California Typewriter understands that love.
California Typewriter is currently playing at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.California Typewriter