California Typewriter

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Paper, definitely. Artists can be very particular about the paper they use. Also, ribbons.

I’m on the phone with Carmen, employee and daughter of current California Typewriter owner, Herb Permillion III, who doles out gift advice. Her voice is a soft lull, the kind better found in audiobooks than in standard phone calls with store reps. In California Typewriter’s own words she has “worked there since the beginning,” and it’s evident in how at ease she offers tidbits that come along with being in the industry for years.

What’s a gift for someone who already has a typewriter? I think of my boyfriend and his refurbished Remington Portable, a typewriter he found in the literal junkyard at Urban Ore and fixed with a gratuitous amount of oil and effort. A ribbon would suffice. Fun fact: Apparently not much variation exists between ribbons. Eureka! For such a scrub like me it’s practically a revolutionary find. Another fun fact: The oldest typewriter they have on hand dates back to pre-1900’s. I think of the record-breaking oldest person alive (Yisrael Kristal, 113) and come up short. The typewriter has outlived us all. The family-owned business means a lot to Carmen and before our conversation ends she’s sure I jot down names, especially the last name of the man who started it all.  It’s Permillion. And yes, for Herb it’s H as in Harry.

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Right off of 580 and situated on San Pablo Ave. between a prolific cannabis dispensary and an auto repair shop, is California Typewriter. Drive by too fast and you might miss the small green shop marked by a placard and a front window display of their namesake.  Walking in they carry numerous typewriters of different eras, some retro and inspiring ideas of waist-pinched secretaries and groovy moves on a dance floor. Others, veritable behemoths likely found in a museum’s ancient artifact section.  Potential customers are free to test them out. On one sheet I spot “figuring out a br  east”. On another, “hhhhh” and “I AM ALIVE”. Trolling buyers aside, it’s easy to see that creative types frequent the shop, a footprint of the resurged interest in reverting back to older technology. Are you a millennial disillusioned with the latest product Apple, Samsung, and et al. unendingly churn out? There’s something out there for you and it just might be this.

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At Carmen’s advice I check out California Typewriter showing at Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s a documentary featuring interviews of the shop owner and workers, artists, collectors, celebrities, shared history in the wake of aggressive new age technology. Advance tickets were sold out so I wait in their rush line alongside numerous others. The atmosphere’s tense, people let in on an available spot-to-spot basis. With people constantly shifting from foot to foot, staff announcing cut offs at every interval it’s like waiting for passing judgement from an omniscient force. While in line I spot Jeremy Mayer, an artist interviewed in the movie who crafts organic structures from typewriters rendered unusable from disuse. Creepy, but cool. In person he exudes a presence, glasses glinting chrome like the inner workings of the machines he dismantles for a living.

The movie itself is engaging, a commentary on the end of an era and the buckling financial pressures that come with it. For some, typewriters are a soul-gripping hobby while for others it’s a way to solve the problem of physical tangibility, of being present in the journey of a work. Tom Hank describes the failure of intergenerational exchange thusly: You can give your kid a Rolex. But a typewriter? Afterward, Ken Alexander (long-time employee at California Typewriter featured in the movie) fields questions about his favorite typewriter (ones at the store, obviously) and his experience working there. He’s jovial, jokingly advertising and providing directions to the shop. Even under the threat of belonging to a bygone era he represents the hope that California Typewriter might just stick around long enough to last.

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