Sunday, July 15, 2007

Inside Ace Typewriter

Tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 10, “The History Detectives” will present an episode that takes them to Ace Typewriter on Portland’s N. Lombard Street.
Floating around in my computer, I have eight chapters of a book about my passion for old typewriters. Today, I dug out my chapter about Ace and its owners, Matt and Dennis McCormack. I’ve shortened it to share with you here.

[The photo on the right was taken at “Typewriter Day” 2005, which I organized at the Hillsdale Branch Library. These old machines do turn heads…and work out fingers.]

The small storefront next to a tire dealership gave every appearance of being open, but the door was locked. A dozen old typewriters filled the display window. Each had its own story, as I was to learn.

I could see a light in the back of the otherwise darkened shop, and I thought I detected movement. I knocked, waited, knocked again and finally the stooped figure of Dennis McCormack came to the door. His son, Matt, who now runs the place, would be back in a few minutes, Dennis said as he invited me to wait inside.

Dennis, who is in his 80s, has serious sight problems and less serious hearing ones. As I waited, he told me how he had started Ace Typewriter in 1961 and how his long affair with the typewriter began. After graduating from the University of Portland, Dennis served in the Navy in the South Pacific in World War II. On ship, he was recruited away from a gunners’ crew when a first mate learned he could type. After that he was responsible for typing the ship’s daily log.

After the war, he worked for a while at the service desk at United Airlines before he launched Ace Typewriter with the help of an acquaintance who ran a typewriter shop on Market Street in San Francisco.

Dennis sold typewriters to students at his old alma mater, the University of Portland, which is a mile or so from his shop. For two decades, he had the repair contract for the university’s legions of typewriters.

He had a good run at the shop, before typewriters were phased out and replaced by computers.
As Dennis ended his story, Matt returned. and Dennis retreated to his office space behind a low partition. There he reads through a large mounted magnifying glass. He has pinned postcards of the Virgin Mary, assorted saints and faraway places on the wall behind his desk.

Matt, who wears one a trademark Ben Hogan golf cap from the Thirties, readily answered questions about the typewriters parked on ceiling-high shelves. One wall is incongruously reserved for vintage RC Allen calculators.

Serene, seemingly dispassionate, Matt is matter -of-fact about the typewriters, pointing out their flaws as well as their strengths. He can address the qualities of a particular machine or make sweeping assessments about whole models and brands. He will let you know whether a model is common or rare. An Oliver #9, for instance, is common. Look for #3s, he advises. He has one and it, like several others on display, isn’t for sale but part of his 130-machine collection.

When I told him about my new typewriter adventures buying on-line, he revealed just a glimmer of distain. He allowed he had never so much as put as a finger on a computer keyboard. Matt and Dennis make no compromise with the present. They are loyal to the typewriter era, which ended three decades ago.

As I stood there with them and their machines—Remingtons, Royals, Olivettis, Underwoods, a few of which were more than a century old—I felt I was part of an episode from the Twilight Zone.

Two typewriters got my attention that first day at Ace typewriter. One was a workhorse standard Olympia. A brute of a machine, it had all the rock-solid qualities of the Olympia portables and then some. A lever advanced a sheet of paper not merely three or four lines, but half the depth of the sheet. All it took was a pull on a massive T-shaped handle on the carriage. On e-Bay the cost of shipping this behemoth would have easily been $50.

As it happened that is exactly the amount I paid Matt for it.

The other was an Olivetti Studio 44, a large portable, which would fill in a gap in my small Olivetti collection. Yes, the new collection already had gaps in need of filling.

In the coming weeks, I would spend nearly as much at Ace on repairs as on typewriters.
As I came to know Matt and Dennis, I learned about their clientele. They were collectors mostly, but also people who just couldn’t part with typewriters from their youths. Or they wanted to honor those who had handed down machines to them.

I referred many of them to Ace in the course of my typewriter wanderings.

On each visit, Matt taught me more. I really wanted to watch him at work, taking a case off a machine to get at the bone and muscle beneath the skin. But that would have been asking too much. Still, he taught me why carriages go off their tracks, sliding wildly out of control. The problem is a chipped gear tooth. I learned that a cleaning means submersing the typewriter in a cleaning solvent. Trying this at home means turning the bathtub into a typewriter-dunking vat.

I took to sharing my latest purchases with Matt, whether they needed repair or not.
On-line, I bought a 1912 Corona #3 folding portable, paying three times what I was accustomed to—$175 including shipping. It came housed in a tan leather carrying case with purple felt lining and a built-in drawer for paper.

Many machines I have bought on-line have fallen far short of my expectations or, worse, the sellers’ descriptions. Keys stick or simply don’t work. Carriages run amok. Back spaces don’t. All are candidates for Matt’s repair shop.

But the old Corona soared above my imaginings. [Note: The folding Corona is also the model featured on “The History Detectives” episode] I lauded it to Matt when I saw him to drop off another typewriter in need of repair. He insisted on seeing my purchase. But on my next visit a week later, I forgot to put the Corona in my car, perhaps subconsciously fearing Matt would find some hidden flaw.

“Where’s the Number 3?” he inquired in anticipation. I admitted I had forgotten it. As I left, his last words were: “When you come back, don’t forget the Corona.”

So I was duty-bound. A week later, I delivered the leather case and its precious contents to the shop’s counter for inspection.

Matt tested the levers and keys, peered into the workings, poked at the platen and ran his fingers over the leather case and inspected the lock mechanism.
Then he delivered his verdict.

“It’s museum quality; it really is. You just don’t see ’em as good as this…. Whatever you do, don’t sell it.”

Then he paid the Corona the ultimate compliment. He turned to the office space where Dennis was hunched over some typewriter minutia, inspecting it with his magnifying glass.
“Dad, come here. You have to see this!”

By dumb luck I had come up a winner.

It wouldn’t be the last time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This truly is a classic shop. Though now Matt actually buys typewriters off ebay. he has brought many classics back to life for me including an Aluminum American Standard, several Corona Folders, a Fox Folder (a Corona rip-off chased from the market by legal action) and our 10 y/o daughter's treasured all pink 1950's Royal. We in Portland are extremely lucky to have this shop (and Blue Moon Camera and machine) as a part of our community. Hopefully Matt reads this..about 3 years ago you helped me fix up some typewriters for Willowbrook Art Camp in Tualatin. The Willowbrook newsletter is now TYPED (it was done on a Mac) ... thanks Mark

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know if this shop ships?

4:20 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

You'll have to call Matt at 503 286-2521 to see whether he will ship.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright thanks

6:24 PM  
Blogger Michael A. Posey said...

I was just there last week, he doesn't ship. Not even ribbons. But you probably know this by now...

1:24 AM  
Blogger Strikethru said...

Finally had the opportunity to visit the shop last Friday. Wow! Loved it.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Roberta X said...

So you're the one who ended up with that Corona 3! Lovely machine, I'm glad it went to someone who appreciates it.

Ace Typewriter sounds like Heaven.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just bought my favorite typewriter on Monday. a Smith Corona that types LARGER than life letters. This is one of my favorite places to go. Great service, wonderful feel to everything about it. Matt is a joy.

9:16 AM  

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