Sue Justus sits down at the typewriter and places her fingers on the keys. After feeling out the machine and typing for a few minutes, she raises her arms to the sky in celebration.
“My brain still remembers how to do this!” she says. “I was nervous when I sat down.”
Justus, an activities employee at Alderman Oaks Retirement Residence, joined dozens of people for Friday’s typewriter social at Alderman Oaks. She hadn't used a typewriter since high school, and these days, she loves using her iPad. But she used Friday’s social to write an anniversary letter to her husband of 49 years. And once she got going, her nerves about using a typewriter for the first time in about 50 years disappeared.
As technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, Friday’s typewriter social allowed people to take a step back. John McCarthy, the executive director of Historic Spanish Point (and frequent Sarasota Magazine contributor), organized the event after he discovered his neighbors, Dennis and Jennifer Brock, own more than 300 typewriters.
Dennis started collecting typewriters two years ago. He spent his entire life working with microscopes, and has an infatuation with well-made American products. Our current tech era frustrates him because he believes companies build products knowing they'll break quickly.
“Nobody 100 years ago would have ever done that,” Dennis says. “That would have been considered unseemly. You don’t do that. You don’t plan something to break.”
Dennis dropped out of high school at 16 after being expelled for running away with a girl. The school labeled him “reckless, ruthless and incorrigible.” He found an ad in the newspaper to work on microscopes and got the job because, he says, he “lied better than the rest.” After repairing expensive microscopes for decades, he decided to make his own child-friendly microscope—the MagiScope. In 1987 he founded Brock Optical and prides himself on making an easy-to-use microscope that won’t break.
It makes sense that old American typewriters naturally appeal to Dennis. He and Jennifer believe that a typewriter is ideal for writing like poetry or song lyrics—situations where you don’t want the distractions of the Internet or social media.
Typewriters have played an important role in the lives of many residents at Alderman Oaks. Jerry and Jan Jurgensmier, 83-year-old Alderman Oaks residents, met as students at Fond du Lac High School in Wisconsin. Jan taught at Pine View School and switched from her typewriter to computers when they came out. But Jerry, who worked at the post office for 30 years, still writes everything on a typewriter. He learned to type in high school, and the skill has paid off.
“It saved me a lot of problems when I was in the Air Force because I got good jobs and good assignments,” Jerry says. “When I got shipped down to the Bahamas, the first thing they wanted to know was who could type and who played softball. I raised my hand for both.”
Jerry doesn’t avoid all new technology. At Friday’s social, he wrote a letter to his kids, took a picture of the letter with his iPhone and sent the picture to his kids. He likes doing it this way because he can use a typewriter but avoid the hassle of sending mail.
The nostalgic appeal of typewriters at a retirement residence is obvious, but these machines are gaining popularity with younger generations as well. Lady Gaga and Harry Styles write their song lyrics on typewriters, and Tom Hanks uses one to write thank-you letters. A young physical therapist at Alderman Oaks stopped by the social to write a letter to his girlfriend. One young woman visiting the home pulled up text from a picture on her phone and typed it out.
“We're animals that have tools we don’t know what the hell to do with,” Dennis says. “[The residents] were being shoved into the computer age. They don’t want it. They want the merry-go-round to stop. This is the way of stopping that merry-go-round. This is a way of turning off and tuning in.”
Dennis also thinks typewriters could benefit Alzheimer’s patients. They often struggle to write by hand, and they could accidentally lose their work with the wrong stroke of a button on a computer. He also wants to see if typewriters might help people with autism.
At the social, Dennis spent most of the afternoon playing his guitar to typing retirees, occasionally stopping to help someone operate a typewriter. All but one of the typewriters at the social belonged to the Brocks. Bob Combs brought the lone exception, a Blickensderfer 5, first introduced in 1893. Combs has owned his since 1968, when his dad died, but the machine has spent the past 30 years in his daughter’s attic.
What people wrote varied. Jennifer suggested people think about a poem, quote or memory to put in writing. Two favorite typewriters were the Smith Corona, which Dennis says is so indestructible you could drag it from a jeep, and the Remington Letter-Riter. The heaviness of the keys, the clacking sound of the type bars striking paper and the leathery smell gave the writing process an official feel.
Technology will continue to develop, and people will continue to buy new computers. But many popular current trends are steeped in the past. As more and more people ride fixed-gear bikes, make craft cocktails and wear Chuck Taylors, typewriters also have a place in our vintage-happy world.
“One hundred years from now, this [typewriter] will still be working,” Dennis says. “That’s what people are craving: integrity. They need something solid. They need something real.”