Backstage: The oldest typewriter repairman in New Haven

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Above Blue State Two, in a modest, one-room workshop, shelves full of old-fashioned machines stretch to the ceiling. A somber bust of Mark Twain presides over the narrow space. Twain was the first author ever to submit a type-written manuscript for publication, earning a special place in Mr. Manson H. Whitlock’s heart, and his shop. In February, Mr. Whitlock will turn 94, making him the oldest and most established typewriter repairman in New Haven — a hero to those who rue the day laptops replaced Remingtons.

“You can say I’m entering my 95th year if you want to make me sound older,” Mr. Whitlock graciously tells me. In that time, he has repaired hundreds of thousands of typewriters, befriended authors and artists, and ascended to a local kind of stardom. In a crisp manila envelope, Mr. Whitlock keeps features and profiles from The New York Times, the New Haven Register and the News, among other publications. Several framed clips grace the walls, alongside a finger-painting of a typewriter done by his grandson (one of three, with four additional great-grandchildren). As he has for decades, Mr. Whitlock wears a dapper grey tweed suit and dark-rimmed bifocals as he speaks, while tinkering with an Underwood No. 5.

Q: How’s business?

A: What business?

There is a pause. Is this interview going to be more difficult than originally expected?

Q: The business of fixing typewriters.

A: Ah, that. It’s actually getting better all of a sudden. I think that youngsters like you have decided that typewriters are cool.

Q: That’s true. Some of us, anyway. When did you start picking up on that?

A: It’s been the last few years. I guess they’re listed on computers. I don’t know what you call it when they’re listed on computers, and I haven’t seen it. But they buy them that way and then come in and have them repaired here.

Q: I think we romanticize them. There’s something about the materiality of typewriters that’s appealing — physically typing the words and seeing them appear.

A: It’s not being done by a machine.

Q: Exactly. Why do you prefer typewriters to computers?

A: Because I don’t even know what a computer is. I’ve heard about them a lot, but I don’t own one, and I don’t want one to own me. Typewriters you can own. I think a computer owns you.

Q: Do you feel that way about technology in general?

A: You can see mechanical things, but it’s so hard to see electricity. And computers are taking away the incentive to learn and the purpose of learning anything. Everything is on a computer. You don’t even need to have a brain anymore. You can just push a button.

Q: Do you sell typewriters in addition to repairing them?

A: Sometimes. A woman brought in a Royal Portable typewriter for me to repair the other day with the bill still in it. She’d bought it on a computer and paid over $400. I sold the exact same thing for $25 to a youngster who came in here recently.

Q: Have you always been in the typewriter repair business?

A: I started working for my dad in 1930 at York End and Broadway. We had a store that was similar to what is now the Yale Bookstore, and it had every department under the sun, including a restaurant. I started out selling stationery and fountain pens.

Q: And when did you switch to typewriters?

A: I always liked mechanical things, so by osmosis I gravitated to the typewriter department in the store. Before typewriters, I used to take clocks apart to see what made them tick. I had five brothers, and I was the only one who was interested in mechanical things. One of my brothers, who ran the bookstore, is 97 now.

Q: How do you feel the neighborhood has changed since you started working here?

A: It used to be real nice. You knew every policeman on the beat, and if you forgot to lock the door at night, he would say, “I’ll just hang around until you can get here and lock it up.” It used to be when you were walking down the street and someone said “hello,” he was being friendly. Today he’s just answering a phone.

Q: Do you own a cell phone?

A: No. Nor do I have a computer. These are my computers.

Mr. Whitlock gestures to his typewriters and clicks some keys.

Q: Have the businesses in the neighborhood changed very much?

A: There used to be agricultural businesses on Broadway that sold all kinds of farm machinery. And the First National Bank is where the Bank of America is now.

Q: Are there any stores or shops you used to patronize that no longer exist? Where do you like to go to lunch?

A: I always used to eat at Cavanaugh’s over on Chapel Street. And I liked the Old Heidelberg on Chapel Street, where there’s now a Thai restaurant. [Ed. note: Thai Taste.] One of the waitresses there from many, many years ago is now the owner of Sullivan’s. Do you know Sullivan’s?

Q: Sure.

A: Do you know Charlene?

Q: I don’t. [Ed. note: Charlene is the best.]

A: Well, now I only work in the mornings. I go home at noon and make myself a sandwich.

Q: Do you drive yourself?

A: Yes. I drive a Subaru Forester. I used to collect and restore antique automobiles. Today I wouldn’t know what’s under the hood of a car. A Model T I could take apart and put together in my sleep.

Q: Is there any car that you think compares with the Model T?

A: Nothing has ever improved on the Model T.

Q: Have you lived in Bethany, Conn., your entire life?

A: Someone asked me that the other day. And I answered, “Not yet.” I spent five years helping to win World War II. I succeeded, too. Single-handedly.

Q: Thank you for that.

A: Oh, that’s alright.

Q: What did you do in the army?

A: I taught anti-aircraft.

There is a pause. Mr. Whitlock takes charge of the interview.

A: I’m interested in the shirt you’re wearing. I have one exactly like it at home that came from L.L. Bean. Is that an L.L. Bean shirt?

Q: Yes. It was my grandfather’s shirt.

A: I think I was wearing that exact same shirt last night.

scene attempts to regain control of the interview.

Q: What do you think of how kids dress today?

A: They don’t dress today. They used to. Every student wore a suit and a necktie. [Ed. note: Whitlock should write for Gawker.]

Q: But how would you describe how we dress today?

A: You don’t want to hear.

Q: What did you think about Yale’s decision to go co-ed?

A: It was a slow process. I think it was a very good idea to have the gals come to Yale. The campus is much prettier now.

Q: Over the years have you gotten to know any writers or professors at the school particularly well?

A: Anyone who went to Yale will have been to Whitlock’s. Eric Segal wrote “Love Story” on a little Royal portable he bought from me. And one of my good personal friends was William Manchester. He wrote all kinds of historical work about the wars and was a personal friend of Winston Churchill. He used to bring his typewriters to me specially.

Q: So your customers come from all over Connecticut?

A: Yes. All parts of the country. One day someone came in and said he just came back from Tokyo, Japan, and he saw on someone’s desk a typewriter with one of my stickers on it.

Q: How does it feel to be something of a celebrity in New Haven?

A: There have been so many stories, it’s getting to be so that I don’t mind it so much.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever close up shop completely?

A: You can always do it one more day. And as long as I can do it one more day, I will. It keeps me off the streets.

Comments

  • DonnaMerritt

    What a sweet interview—and some words of wisdom in there, too!

  • AnnNyberg

    What a great interview. As a newsie I have a soft spot for typewriters, as I started my career on one.

  • BoolaHoop

    This is nice, Cora. Perhaps someday you will succeed Ann Nyberg…!

  • theantiyale

    Thanks for the memories. I just posted this article on my facebook page for my Cousin Robert, who used to work for the Whitlock family 40 years ago.
    PK

  • theantiyale

    PS I LOVED your narrating your impressions as you observed yourself during your role as interviewer. Isn’t that called meta-cognition? Thinking about yourself as you think? Nice touch.

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