One of my favorite conversation pieces is a 1923 Underwood Standard ‘No. 5’ typewriter that I bought at a flea market over 35 years ago.
I keep it on an end table as a tribute to the age of keystrokes and ink ribbons in newspaper journalism that ended several years before I entered the business. When I started in the 1980s, journalists wrote stories with video display terminals that turned into desktop computers. Typewriters were relegated to writing memos before being kicked out of the newsroom altogether when e-mail arrived.
“When most people think of ‘old typewriter,’ they imagine something a lot like the Underwood No. 5,” says Richard Polt in the book “The Typewriter Revolution.”
“No 5 was the quintessential Underwood. Millions of these machines were used by secretaries, journalists, government officials and writers throughout the first half of the 20th century.
That’s why I bought my Underwood for $50. It looked amazing, and it was the real thing.
But the other day I pulled out a piece of paper and was disappointed to see that the car and keys had been seized. Apparently the machines need to be lubricated regularly.
I remembered a place called Sigma Typewriters on Upper James Street that repaired and sold refurbished typewriters. I wondered if it was still open.
In the early 2000s, store owner Nick Kadak was something of a media star with stories about him riding a wave of typewriter nostalgia. It has been featured on CBC national television and CHCH News. The Toronto Star did a big run. This newspaper also published a few articles about him.
Each story was about the return of typewriters, like an anti-computing pushback. Typewriters to computers were considered vinyl to CDs. There was something warm and authentic about the old technology.
And here’s this soft-spoken senior in Hamilton who found himself with a shop full of typewriters that had suddenly become cool again.
I was curious how the business was doing more recently and if it made sense to have my typewriter repaired. However, I couldn’t imagine using it one day. I love nostalgia. But a computer is so much more efficient.
I drove to the store one afternoon to find the door was locked. A woman from the nearby business came to say that Nick had been found on the ground one day in August and that an ambulance had taken him to hospital.
From there, he ended up in a long-term care facility. He was doing reasonably well, but it didn’t look like he would be returning to work anytime soon.
A few days later, I dialed the store number which turned out to be his cell phone. He responded from his room at the Queen’s Gardens long-term care residence on Queen Street North. We talked for almost an hour.
Nick is 85 now. He told me he wanted to go back to work, but his doctors don’t think he’s ready. His shop remains closed, with all his typewriters, typewriter parts and tools still inside, while his landlord, Gaspare Bonomo, forgives his rent until things stabilize.
“At this point, there is nothing I can do. I’m sitting here. My landlord is going to check the mail and make sure everything is okay,” he says. People who want to pick up typewriters left for repair can call the store number and make an appointment with Bonomo at the store.
After Nick was picked up by the ambulance, he was bedridden for several weeks in hospital. Now, in the long-term care facility, he walks around and spends most of his time watching television.
“I had COVID in the hospital. They said I had it at home, but I don’t think so. He says he is fully recovered.
I asked him about the typewriter trend, and he said, the truth is, “There’s not a lot of business in this business.
But he enjoyed working in his workshop, trying to breathe new life into old machines. Friends were passing. There were typewriter collectors who were regular customers.
One of his joys was going to flea markets to pick up old machines that he could either repair or cannibalize for spare parts.
He started working for commercial machinery companies over 60 years ago, before setting up his own shop in Dundas in the late 1970s. From there he moved to a location near McMaster University before to end up in Upper James where he has been for over 15 years.
“My best clients are young children. I had one who was six years old. He came with his grandfather. He saw this movie, “Harry Potter”. I’ve never seen this movie, but apparently there was a typewriter in it,” he says.
I asked if there was anyone else in Hamilton who repaired typewriters. He said there was one. His name is Velimir “Vel” Balta. They have been friends for decades and worked together in a commercial machinery business in the 1970s before starting their own business.
They both grew up in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, although they didn’t know each other before moving to Hamilton. And they had very different business journeys.
Vel says, “Nick stuck with typewriters. I diversified. I could see the changes. I moved on to check writers, all things mechanical. Shredders, laminators, dictation machines and photocopiers. His company, BBM Business Systems on King Street East, has been in business since 1980. It has six employees.
Vel, 75, semi-retired, works a few days a week on typewriters while the rest of the business is run by other employees. His wife Milena manages the daily operations.
He doesn’t know any other professional typewriter service person in town. In the 1970s, he says there were about 20.
And while there has been some nostalgic interest in recent years, he says, it’s a minor issue at most.
“There’s a bit of a demand for them because people just like having them in the house. Some order a typewriter because they have arthritis in their fingers and the typewriter is good exercise,” he said.
In other cases, people hire them for weddings for guests to type their greetings to the bride and groom. In the United States, typewriters are much more popular than here, he says.
I guess I would be among those who like to have one in the house. I showed Vel my Underwood to see what he thought. He says he definitely needs lubrication and cleaning.
And it looks like it might have been abandoned at some point. The carriage sits on its side impeding its movement. It would have to be disassembled to see the severity of the damage.
Hmmm. Well, maybe my Underwood #5 is more suited to writing than writing.