Salinas’ Jerry Wallace taps out a fascinating—although endangered—existence as a typewriter repairman.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
O nce a high-speed business tool, the typewriter has become a decorative bookend, a quaint relic. Some crafty folks see the machines as nothing more than art project fodder, shopping for cheap typewriters just to dismantle them and make the keys into jewelry.
That riles Jerry Wallace, the last repairman in the region. “I don’t want to deal with those kinds of people,” he says.
Wallace sizes up prospective customers. With serious typists he’s chatty, and can easily transform a quick drop-off into an hour-long conversation that ranges from the functionality of paper-release levers to the durability of plastic casing on draw band pulleys.
Wallace has worked out of his garage in Salinas, which doubles as a storage space for his 9-year-old son’s basketballs and skateboards, since he “retired” in 2005. It was only four months after he shuttered Wallace Office Machines Co. that he started helping out competitors. But as other shops closed down—the last hold-out was Bruno’s Business Machines in Pacific Grove—Wallace says old customers would find him seemingly everywhere. People in need of new ribbons would approach him in the aisles of Star Market, for instance.
“They’d stare me down,” he says.
For all his talk of being forced back into the trade, Wallace’s extensive knowledge of typewriter parts and trivia betrays a real fascination: Underwood, the world’s largest typewriter manufacturer, introduced red ink in 1910, he reports, a contrast to the electric IBMs from the ’70s he’s most accustomed to.
Today, if he’s feeling “gung-ho,” Wallace can fix three or four machines by noon, then take off and spend the afternoon fishing, qualifying him as retired, he says.
He still maintains a secret warehouse in Salinas where he stores parts and hundreds of old typewriters. The location remains undisclosed to even his close friends; he worries that the inflated value of typewriters as antiques would make it a prime robbery target.
He can still order a few essential parts, but the industry depends mostly on a patchwork of old-timers who call each other to request springs and wheels they don’t know the names of; Wallace says even New York shops will call him looking for parts. And he’s developed tricks, like cutting spacebars from wood, or replacing catgut bands on Oliver typewriters with fishing line.
Despite an aversion to computers, Wallace was finally forced into buying one when even his typewriter parts catalogs went digital.
“This is a dying trade,” he says. “I am really the last Mohican.”
Now 69, Wallace says it’s not uncommon for long-time customers—who generally need their machines spruced up every five years or so—to worry about what they’ll do after he dies. Law firms and doctor’s offices, as well as the medical library at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, keep a few typewriters on hand to fill out forms.
“I can’t live without Jerry,” says Patricia Cox, 80, of Salinas. Though it’s been about 50 years since she’s written professionally—“for that horror magazine, Cosmopolitan,” she says—Cox keeps at least three working typewriters on hand to continue writing as a hobby.
“I grew up typing, and loving it,” she says. “I don’t want to learn computers.”
Wallace himself inherited the trade from his father, who opened a store in Salinas in 1948. Wallace bought it in 1979 after spending some time in the ’60s working as a carpenter and later joining the Army. Ever since, he’s fiddled with typewriters and copiers, sometimes dismantling entire working machines to figure out how they work.
“I knew right away he was a genius, because I tried other people and they wrecked them,” says Cox, who’s been a customer for about 15 years.
Wallace frequents garage sales and junk shops; he gets deals at Last Chance Mercantile, where he’s a regular. His rummaging usually proves fruitful because he knows enough to identify how rare and valuable a particular typewriter is. He mainly collects junkers for parts, adding to the stacks in his mystery warehouse—not that he doesn’t adore his rare mid-century portable Oliver, or even older ones; the first practical typewriter was patented in 1868, the same year Thomas Edison applied for his first patent and Ulysses S. Grant was elected president.
But for all his admiration of the machines, Wallace doesn’t use typewriters much. He’s not a writer, he explains, and just fills out the occasional form. His final reason for his near-abstinence is simple, if surprising.
“I’ve never been a good speller,” he says.
Wallace Office Machines in Salinas is open by appointment at 422-3707.