Typist sells tradition

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Manson Whitlock won’t buy green bananas, he jokes.

“I’ll be dead before they turn yellow!”

Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop is at 272 York St. After 77 years in business, Whitlock continues to reconcile tradition with technology, catering to a new clientele of Yale and New Haven button pushers.
Christopher Ripley
Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop is at 272 York St. After 77 years in business, Whitlock continues to reconcile tradition with technology, catering to a new clientele of Yale and New Haven button pushers.

Not too far from the Koffee Too? café, Whitlock sits in a small, wan room surrounded by partially dismantled typewriters, books, papers and boxes filled with parts. In the 77th year of owning his typewriter repair shop located on 282 York St., Whitlock pores over his table, his fingers fiddling with a blue 1927 Royal typewriter.

“In my lifetime, I’ve worked on every kind of typewriter that was ever made, I’m sure,” Whitlock said.

A quiet man, dressed in a suit and wearing large, circular thick-rimmed glasses, Whitlock moves around with a patience marked by intense habit. Despite the proliferation of typewriters, the shop takes on the appearance of a home cluttered by hobbies and memories, with framed newspaper articles and black-and-white photographs of Whitlock’s old family businesses adorning spaces in between worn typewriters, power cords and plastic supply boxes.

For over 70 years, Whitlock’s homey shop has served Yale’s preeminent writers and students. Adam Frost ’87 worked with Whitlock between his high school and college years and recalls busy summers with famous faculty and students dropping off typewriters to be picked up in the fall.

“William Manchester wrote all his books on typewriters and would not let anyone else touch his typewriter,” Frost said. “When Manson moved his shop, Manchester wrote a note comparing him to Leonardo [da Vinci].”

Manchester, a military historian, taught at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Although he technically retired in 1990, Whitlock relocated the store to the building’s upper floor instead of closing it down entirely. He’s conflicted, at best, about the shop’s future — ready to leave one moment, reminiscing about helping customers the next. Though he said the decline of the typewriter industry was unfortunate for his business, he keeps the shop more for the personal experience of fixing the machines.

“I don’t begin to make enough to make rent; it just gives me something to do,” Whitlock said. “My wife died about 10 years ago and I died about that time too, so it just gives me something to keep my hands busy.”

Yale music professor Thomas Murray, the 1927 Royal’s owner, collects typewriters and last visited Whitlock seven years ago for a repair.

“[Typewriters are] wonderfully durable, and I just love taking these up to him and chatting with him,” Murray said. “He’s a great treasure in New Haven.”

Murray said his friend Kendall Crilly ’86 MUS ’92, a music librarian at Yale, characterized Whitlock best when, after meeting the craftsman, he remarked, “They ought to put that shop and Mr. Whitlock in the Smithsonian.”

Changing times

A dark wooden bust of Mark Twain greets customers as they walk into the repair shop, its delicate features and tufts of hair standing out from the symmetrical devices and round alphabetical buttons surrounding it. The gift, received by Whitlock from the Smith Corona typewriter company, depicts the first author to compose a book by typewriter.

“You know him? No, you know of him, you didn’t know him,” Whitlock said. “Nor did I, but I could have…” His voice trailed off.

Comments like this may betray Whitlock’s age — he has seen drastic changes in society and technology in the years he has managed the shop. The use of typewriters declined with the advent of computers; Whitlock said he approves of computers for the sake of other people but after a brief moment cautioned against technology dependence.

“Calculators and computers and so forth take away the necessity for anyone having a brain anymore,” he said. “Nowadays to find out the answer you push a button … it’s going to take away the incentive to learn and learn the reasoning behind learning.”

And then he looked up.

“I probably sound crazy to you,” he said.

During a time when typewriters were on the rise, Whitlock said, he had six assistants, including Anthony Williams ’79, the former mayor of Washington D.C. Today, he works alone in his office, although visitors like Frost come in from time to time.

Frost, who majored in computer science at Yale, now repairs computers instead of typewriters and instructs individual offices on computer troubleshooting. He said much of his success comes from applying the valuable work ethic he acquired while watching Whitlock manage his business. He recalled a story about Whitlock’s childhood during an era in which Whitlock’s father owned the Yale Co-op bookstore in New Haven.

“One thing that he said that really stuck in my mind was that his parents were the richest parents in New Haven and he actually went to school in a limo,” Frost said. “He said that it was actually very difficult for him and that the best thing that’s happened to his family was the Great Depression.”

In the aftermath of the economic downturn of the 1930s, many New Haven residents felt compelled to learn trades to find work in the recovering economy, a trend Whitlock approved of as a craftsman, he said.

Preserving the past

Throughout his time working with Whitlock, Frost said, he never saw the craftsman discard a typewriter or give up on its repair, contrasting greatly with Frost’s profession — which he describes as a “throwaway” business mired with unreliable technology.

When he deals with clients today, Frost said, he tries to preserve computers as much as possible and to do his job carefully, regardless of the money he’s receiving.

“I really find myself under [Whitlock’s] influence, wanting to be doing something that would be helpful for people [in a way that is] very complete and tangible and where the work is grounded,” Frost said.

In his shop, Whitlock’s ability to rescue seemingly irrecoverable typewriters likely stemmed not only from his repair skills, but also from his habit of keeping almost everything, including machines from his father’s bookstore, which he “cannibalizes” for parts.

“If you saw my basement at home you’d know that I never throw anything away,” Whitlock said. “As a matter of fact, when I gave up the downstairs shop, I took home about 400 machines which are still in my basement at home. I can’t even walk around my basement.”

Unlike Whitlock, who said interest in typewriters has waned in recent years, Frost feels certain remnants of the technological past persist into the modern day. Disdaining computers for their vulnerability to viruses and crashes, Frost uses an AlphaSmart laptop — a simple, reliable word processor that can transfer saved keystrokes to computers, Frost said.

“I understand how William Manchester felt — I just feel like it’s so great having a tool you can completely rely on and knowing it will do what you want it to do,” Frost said.”

During his holiday vacations, Murray said, he packs his typewriter in his car along with paper, stamps and envelopes — which he prefers to remaining hunched over his e-mail for hours on end. As for Whitlock, offices, computers and e-mail are worlds away as he sits at his desk in the pale sunlight, tinkering with a typewriter until he leaves at noon for his home.

“I’ll have my 90th birthday next month, and I think it’s almost time to start slowing down a little bit.”

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