Small Business

The Last Typewriter Repairman?


Gramercy Typewriter has survived by diversifying into laser printer repairs, but its reputation for customer service has been its saving grace

Every business day, as he has done for the past 49 years, Paul Schweitzer, 69, travels the streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan making "house" calls, carrying his black leather tool bag by his side. Schweitzer, who insists on wearing a suit and tie while on his rounds, is one of the last of his kind: the typewriter repairman.

In 1932, Schweitzer's father opened Gramercy Typewriter in Manhattan, selling and repairing typewriters. "At one time, there were millions of typewriters in the city," says Schweitzer, who began working for the family business in 1959 and took it over when his father retired in 1975. "You would go in an office and there were a hundred desks and each one had a typewriter," he says.

Over the years, Gramercy earned a reputation for quick repairs and excellent customer service. The elder Schweitzer gave out wooden rulers that bore the company's name and logo as advertising. The shop's client base spanned from the tip of Wall Street up to the top of Harlem.

Surviving the IBM Selectric

The Schweitzers were quick to adapt to changes. The first big one came in 1961, when IBM (IBM) introduced the Selectric typewriter. The Selectric used a typeball that could be changed to display different fonts. The ball replaced the traditional pivoting type bars and the need for a moving carriage with a paper roller. Gramercy, like every other repair shop, had to learn how to fix and overhaul the new machines. Aside from new iterations of the Selectric, for the next 30 years, the typewriter business remained relatively steady.

Then came the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s. Gradually, businesses began replacing their typewriters with desktop computers. By the early 1990s, the shift practically had made the typewriter obsolete. A number of Gramercy's competitors went out of business. "When I started, the Yellow Pages had six pages of typewriter repairmen, today there is maybe half a page," says Schweitzer. "If an office had 200 typewriters, now they had 40," he says. Although the number of machines continued to dwindle, "They still needed repairs." Gramercy gained business as other repairmen shuttered their shops.

While Schweitzer carried on, he noticed that most of the offices that he serviced were purchasing Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) laser printers along with their computers. Recognizing that those printers would break down and need repairs, Schweitzer took Hewlett-Packard-sponsored training courses to learn how to fix the machines and added that to the firm's service menu. Before long, he included fax machine repairs as well. As Schweitzer made his rounds, he informed customers that he was also available to repair these office staples. Schweitzer, who to this day has never owned a computer or used e-mail, says diversifying has allowed his company to retain a good number of its clients, with about 75% of the business now involving printer repairs.

New Interest in Typewriters

Despite these dramatic shifts, Schweitzer insists there is a surge of interest among young people who have found their parents and grandparents' old typewriters in basements and attics and have taken to the machines. At the same time, he says a market has developed around buying and selling typewriters online. Schweitzer also says that many of the offices he services still use the old machines for certain kinds of documents and customers still stop in his shop throughout the week. On a recent afternoon, an older gentlemen trudged up to the fourth floor of Gramercy to explain that his IBM Selectric was broken and inquired whether it could be fixed. Another recent customer was an artist who created an entire art exhibition using a manual Royal typewriter from the 1930s and in doing so ended up busting the star key.

These days Schweitzer spends most of his mornings doing house calls. By noon he returns to his shop and eats lunch, and if there are no more office stops to make, he dons a blue apron and works on typewriters in the back-room workshop, then knocks off around 4:30. There, the walls are lined with old IBM Selectrics and boxes stacked with parts and ribbons. Scattered about are a handful of old Underwood, Corona, and Royal manual typewriters from the 1920s and '30s. The work he does on typewriters now consists mostly of chemical washings and replacing parts like keys, feet, and ribbons from hard-to-find manufacturers.

Schweitzer says he continues to run his business because he enjoys it. He says walking up and down subway stairs carrying his 30-plus-pound tool bag has kept him fit throughout the years. Not ready to retire, Schweitzer still takes enormous pride in being able to bring old machines back to life. Recently, he overhauled a broken 1920s-era Underwood that a customer wanted restored to working order as a birthday present for her husband.

"Hanging In There"

Although he hopes to pass the business on to his son, Justin, Schweitzer has been around long enough to know another shift or two is ahead. "I'm thinking, what is the next thing after printers?" he says. "Maybe they will be voice-activated? Or maybe people will get so disgusted with the breakdowns and failures they'll go back to IBM typewriters. I'm waiting to see what happens next. We're hanging in there."

For a look at a handful of other business holdouts from around the country, flip through this slide show.

Perman is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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