Connecting communities with typewriter ribbons

Published 5:42 pm Wednesday, March 20, 2024

By Lanell Downs Smith

William Lee has been selling, repairing and restoring typewriters since 1973. He has traveled from his shop in Montgomery into Butler, Crenshaw, Lowndes, Dallas and Marengo counties and all over Alabama, connecting the dots between small-town communities where some people still prefer typing words onto paper with a solid typewriter to following the rest of the world into the land of computer technology.

Recently, while ambling through a local thrift store, I stumbled upon what I instantly recognized as a typewriter case. After thoroughly examining the machine, once a hallmark of my trade, I shelled out $15 and walked away with a vintage Smith Corona Starmist Blue Galaxie Deluxe typewriter.

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At home, I already displayed my mother’s trusty Royal typewriter, a bastion of reliability I had seen her use many times. Both machines were thick with dust and gummed with oil, so searched for a typewriter repairman, not truly hoping to find someone still in the business.

I found Lee, a Lowndesboro native who operates American Typewriter on Decatur Street in Montgomery. He has witnessed the heyday of office machinery come and go, shifting from a time when he and his traveled across the state to service office machines — typewriters, calculators, typewriters — at Selma University in Dallas County, at the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, at schools throughout the Butler County school system and at a variety of small Marengo County businesses.

The trade had shifted, he told me, in the last ten years sd users transitioned to using computers and printers they replace instead of repair. Traffic had slowed, he explained, and no longer supported his keeping a second. With everyone pushing the internet, not as many people needed a steady, reliable typewriter or the services of someone who could repair them.

But oddly enough, Lee keeps a steady flow of business. He still sells new computers, but not as many as before. And some, reluctant to give up their old stand-by machines, ship them to him for repair from as far away as Mississippi and other parts of the country.

Lee has no need to travel for repairs now. Folks like me provide him enough work to keep his shop open. At 72-years-old, he has no immediate plans to retire but said he will close the shop when he is no longer needed.

After that, he said he will stay home, farm cattle and cut hay. He has enjoyed his life’s work and is content with the thought of more time to enjoy his family.

After repairs were completed, I drove home with my typewriters and could not help reflecting on the change, the end of an era. Lee once traveled the area, keeping office equipment, and the businesses relying on them, operating smoothly. 

Five decades down the road, young entrepreneurs have never seen a typewriter, much less relied upon them.

The cost of repairing the Smith Corona was, in my opinion, a sound investment. My granddaughter Caroline had her first typing lesson on Sunday afternoon. One day, she will own mother’s Royal and will be familiar with the feel of the keys under her fingers. She will understand the weight required to lift the arm into place and to deftly crank out a letter without benefit of a “delete” key.

Perhaps she will also teach her grandchildren the art of writing on a typewriter. One can only hope so.