A Resonant, Rhythmic, Writing Revival

About a decade ago, John Quaintance, an Emmy-winning TV news reporter and syndicated radio host, returned to the romance of manual typing with the purchase of a 1952 Royal Quiet Deluxe–a move that put him at the forefront of a growing trend among professional writers. “When you push that key on a manual typewriter, man, that’s it!” he said. “I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it. Probably just curiosity and wanting to part with money, I guess.”

Brandi Kowalski of Brady & Kowalski Writing Machines, says that twenty to thirty percent of their business comes from professional writers like Quaintance, many of whom have eschewed the personal computer in an attempt to create a more organic connection to the printed word. She and her business partner, Donna Brady, have become mainstays at the Brooklyn Flea since the two thirtysomethings started selling typewriters in summer of 2010.

The business got its start because Kowalski experienced a surprising drive to collect and use vintage typewriters. “In the beginning, I just bought every one I saw,” she said. “I saw one at a garage sale and I started typing away on it and I just loved the way it sounded. They’re resonating and rhythmic. And it’s very calming.”

Though the growing typewriter renaissance has reached well beyond the professional ranks–Brady says tween girls make up a large portion of their customer base–working writers seem to show a special affinity for the timeless functionality of the machines. “We’re used to composing by throwing out a bunch of thoughts and editing it after the fact,” Brady said. “Our parents did not write that way. It really changes how we communicate.”

Quaintance has fond memories of ripping and reading his broadcast copy straight from workhorse electric typewriters in the newsrooms of the 70s and 80s. “We’d rush back to the TV station and have 30 minutes to get a piece not only written, but produced and edited,” he explained. “It was sit down at the IBM Selectric and type away, and your first script was your final script.”

While Quaintance notes that he still prefers a PC for the more deliberative process of long-form print journalism, nearly all his radio scripts–scores each month–are typed manually on one of the dozen vintage typewriters he currently owns. “For me, the easier route creatively, as odd as it may seem, is sitting at the keyboard of a typewriter. When you push that key, you are committed,” Quaintance said.

Brandi Kowalski and Donna Brady at the Flea.

He’s not the only one with strong feelings about the seductive physicality of composition by typewriter. “I feel this sort of forward surge of activity,” said Jason Baker, a Brooklyn-based writer and book editor. “There’s something compelling about it. It’s like you’re being towed by horses or something.” As a published poet, Baker considers machinery to be a major motif in his work, so much so that he recently composed a typewriter-themed sonnet. “I will draft and re-draft and re-draft on a typewriter,” he explained. “It’s great because it’s only good for one thing. It’s a writing machine. If I want to be distracted, I have to go find it elsewhere.”

Though Baker recently pared his typewriter collection from fourteen to three–“at first they were like fetish objects,” he said–he now considers the remaining machines to be an essential part of his writing process. “It’s a very active means of creating language. You have to strike the keys with some measure of force. It’s like driving a car with a manual transmission.”

For some working writers, Kowalski says, the growing appeal comes from the timeless reliability of the machines. “If something is from 1924, and it hasn’t broken yet, why the heck is it gonna start now?” she asked. “Unless you drop ‘em, it’s really hard to break one of these things.” For others, explains Donna Brady, it’s the thrill of creating on a machine identified with a particular famous author. “A typewriter we sold this morning was the same model that Cormac McCarthy uses,” she said. “That one usually goes pretty quick. Jack Kerouac loved the Hermes Rocket. That’s another popular one.”

As for their favorites? “I just put ‘em out there and people fall in love with them for all different reasons,” Kowalksi said. “So I’m kinda unbiased.”

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