03 Oct President Jonathan Cartu Writes – Meet the Alabama man who makes old typewriters new again
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The hypnotic rhythm of an old manual typewriter going clack-clack-clack-clack-ping! clack-clack-clack-clack-ping! is like a long-ago song that Montgomery’s William Lee never tires of hearing.
“Manual typewriters have a different sound than most other typewriters,” he says. “Most of them have a distinctive sound.”
Lee has such a good ear for that sound, he says with a hint of hyperbole, that he can sometimes tell, say, a Royal typewriter from an Underwood, just by listening to the patter of the letters striking the paper as they tap-dance across the page.
After selling and repairing typewriters for nearly 50 years, it is a sound that the soft-spoken Lee probably hears in his sleep.
“I’ve been doing this since 1973,” he says. “I was in Birmingham doing construction work, and I realized that’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my days.
“So, I came back home and started technical school, and I’ve been going at it ever since.”
As the longtime proprietor of American Typewriter Co., on South Decatur Street in Montgomery, Lee is, in his own words, one of the last of “a dying profession” – a typewriter repairman in an age of computer geeks.
“I guess when I leave,” he says, “probably nobody else will come in.”
The fourth of 11 children, Lee grew up in neighboring Lowndes County, and he started tinkering with mechanical and electrical gadgets and appliances as a little boy.
“I’ve always had an inquisitive mind of taking things apart and putting them back together, even when I was young,” he says. “Anything that wouldn’t work, there was always a ‘Why?’ So, I would tear into it, figure out what’s going wrong, and fix it.”
After that brief construction job in Birmingham — “I was there a minute,” he says — Lee came back home to study office machine repair at John T. Patterson Technical School in Montgomery before he went to work with Royal Office Equipment Co.
A few years later, he and his younger brother Alonza Lee went into the office-equipment repair business together, running Lee & Lee Typewriter Service in Macon County.
Subsequently, Lee opened his American Typewriter Co. on Highland Avenue in Montgomery around 1982, and he moved his shop to its current location on South Decatur Street about four years later.
“I bought this building in ’86,” he says. “Ever since, I’ve been right here. I don’t know what happened to the years. They just went by so fast.”
(Lee’s younger brother, who now works out of Birmingham as a long-haul truck driver, also operated an American Typewriter Co. in Birmingham for several years.)
When Lee started his business, he serviced typewriters for Alabama State University, Tuskegee University, Huntingdon College and Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, he says.
“We kept ’em going,” Lee says. “And we sold them new and used typewriters.”
These days, Lee’s clients are a lot fewer and many are much farther between.
“I had one come from Illinois this past week and another coming from Mississippi,” he says. “I get customers from Birmingham. I get customers from Florida, Georgia, all around.”
Many of those customers, he says, are nostalgic baby boomers who came of age before laptops and iPads and who have rediscovered their love of typewriters after finding an old Smith-Corona or IBM Selectric they had stashed in the basement. Or they just want to buy one for old-times’ sake.
“There are a lot of people who are still looking for the old typewriters,” Lee says. “I get more requests for the older manual typewriters than I do the electronic typewriters.”
Tom Hanks, the Oscar-winning actor who has a collection of more than 100 typewriters, helped inspire that revival in typewriters with his 2017 book “Uncommon Type,” a collection of short stories in which a typewriter plays a part in each story.
“There is a percussive quality to writing sometimes, you know,” Hanks told journalist Lee Cowan on “CBS Sunday Morning” when his book came out. “If the drums are the backbone of any rock ‘n’ roll band, the sound of a typewriter is the sound of productivity.”
William Lee’s customers, though, aren’t all just sentimental collectors looking to rekindle old memories.
“There are some businesses that still have a typewriter sitting next to their computer,” he says. “It’s not the mainline machine, but there is still a need for it in some businesses.”
In addition to repairing and selling manual and electric typewriters, Lee also services fax machines, printers, copiers and cash registers, he says.
Lee, who also raises cattle on his land in Lowndesboro, says he continues to work on typewriters because he loves doing it, not because he needs to.
“It’s more or less a dying profession, but I just like doing it and I haven’t been in any hurry to close it down,” he says. “I don’t mean to be bragging, but I don’t really have to work now.”
Distributed by The Associated Press.