NEW YORK – Paul Schweitzer does not own a smartphone or a computer. Instead, he surrounds himself with typewriters. Hundreds of typewriters.
Well into his sixth decade selling and repairing the antiquated machines, the 79-year-old inherited the business from his father. He now works alongside his son and has no intention of retiring.
“I’m still enjoying it,” he says. “I’m still doing everything now I did for 58 years. Maybe a bit slower, but still doing it.”
Gramercy Typewriters was established in 1932 when a young Abraham Schweitzer (Paul’s father) decided to promote himself from typewriter cleaner to business owner. He opened a small shop by Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, before later settling in the Flatiron District.
Paul remembers spending his childhood years with his dad in the basement of their Brooklyn home – “We’re all original Brooklyn New Yorkers,” he says, with the accent to prove it – manufacturing and packaging typewriter ribbons. “I always thought in the back of my mind that eventually that’s what I would do,” he says.
In October 1959, after three years serving in the U.S. Navy, Paul Schweitzer joined the family business and never left, working six days a week ever since.
With his classic white mustache and black apron worn over a button-down white shirt and blue tie, you could imagine Christopher Plummer playing him in the Hollywood version of his life (we’ll get to Schweitzer’s actual Hollywood connections later).
He still works meticulously on machines in the workshop at the back of the store, greets customers and goes out on daily calls to clients. “That’s why I’m in a suit and tie every day,” he explains. “I’m out in law firms, accounting firms and other businesses, and I have to look like a professional person.
“We still have typewriters out there – not that many, but the IBM Selectrics are still being used and we still service those,” he adds, referring to the game-changing electric typewriter first introduced in 1961.
‘I’m not swiping nothing’
A true analog man in a digital world, Schweitzer keeps all his records on paper, files customer names and contact details on alphabetized cards, and even prints out his weekly income on an old calculating machine.
When asked if he uses a computer, his response is swift. “It’s not necessary,” he says, adding that smartphones are also out. “I’m not swiping nothing,” he says, explaining that he didn’t need it in the 1950s and doesn’t need it now.
Back then, there was a typewriter on every office desk in New York and there were typewriter service companies all over the city. “Just here on 23rd Street, between Fifth and Seventh Avenue, there were four typewriter stores,” Schweitzer recalls.
The good reputation and reasonable rates of the father-and-son business helped them survive the closure of all the stores around them as the years passed. Abraham Schweitzer retired at 58, when he “couldn’t stand it anymore,” and the son continued the business. But then along came the ’90s.
“A lot of our customers were starting to get a computer” and sales were down, Schweitzer recounts. But alongside the computers came laser printers. As the requests to fix them increased, Schweitzer realized that he’d better learn how to repair them. “That kept us going really strong for the next 20 years,” he says.
Yet something has changed over the past decade. In the same way millennials have embraced vinyl records, young professionals, students and writers have also triggered an unexpected boom in portable manual typewriters.
“They have their computers, but for some reason they’re finding it very interesting and want to type their work on a typewriter,” Schweitzer says, clearly amused by the trend.
In the back workshop is Craig Nelson, 22 and fresh out of college. He decided to spend his summer interning at the typewriter store before heading off to a career on Wall Street.
Nelson used to repair typewriters at home and was always intrigued by the trade, so he reached out to Gramercy Typewriters – dashing out a cover letter from his classic Royal Model O typewriter.
“I’m really into journaling, but it would take too long with handwriting and I didn’t want something digital, so this is a good middle ground,” he says, explaining the appeal. However, he admits none of his friends share his passion.
John, a client, walks into the store holding a Hermes machine that hasn’t been used in over 30 years. “I want to give it to my daughter: She’s going to be 10 in September and she’s a real typewriter fan,” he says.
How does someone born in 2008, long after the last typewriter was manufactured, develop an interest in typing machines? “I’ve always been a typewriter guy and then she got into it,” explains John, 41.
“I write differently – better – when I’m on the typewriter. Stuff comes out better on a typewriter, it just kind of flows,” he continues. It may help that there are no Facebook notifications or new YouTube videos to serve as distractions.
“It’s definitely nice to take a break from the internet,” Nelson acknowledges. “It is kind of a piece of art if you look at it, but it’s also so functional.”
‘Every day we sell typewriters’
Like his father before him, Justin “Jay” Schweitzer grew up surrounded by typewriters – but at first wasn’t always so keen to help out at the store. “I wanted to stay home and play, of course. But little by little, you’re observing and learning, and as I got older I started to realize these machines are really interesting,” he says.
Jay has now been working alongside his father for the past 20 years, his Long Island two-car garage packed with so many typewriters “you can’t walk in the door.”
Ultimately, he says, it simply made sense to work there. “Not only do I like it and I’m interested in it, but I have all of [my father’s] experience here to show me and teach me.”
Bring in an old typewriter and it will be overhauled, washed in chemicals, cleaned, oiled, installed with new rubber rolls and its broken parts replaced. Both men assert that demand for typewriters continues to rise.
Jay is the numbers man in the business (“He’s got his iPad thing,” his father says) and points out the dramatic increase in sales over the past two decades. From an average sale of one machine a week in the early 2000s, the business has now grown to 15 to 20 typewriter sales every week.
“Every day we sell typewriters,” Paul says. “You could be selling 50 machines a month,” Jay adds, “and as the holidays approach that number doubles.”
Then there’s the service and repair business, which includes some 20 to 30 machines waiting to be fixed at any given time, according to the Schweitzers.
Unlike in the past, competition is limited these days, with just a handful of professionals servicing and selling manual portables and electrics across the entire United States.
“Because we’re doing it for so many years, we have a reputation from all over the country,” Paul says, highlighting a recent purchase request from someone in North Carolina.
That reputation has also brought in some renowned individuals, thanks particularly to Hollywood star and typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks (the actor can be seen eulogizing the machines in the 2016 documentary “California Typewriter”).
“He’s been able to throw a lot of business our way,” Schweitzer says. In fact, all of the typewriters seen and used on Hanks’ recent film “The Post” – set at the Washington Post in the early ’70s – are from Schweitzer’s store. All 25 machines were later purchased by the movie’s director, Steven Spielberg, as gifts for the cast and crew.
Like all good things, though, there is most likely an end in sight. Paul Schweitzer’s two grandsons are in college and have shown little interest in running the typewriter business.
“Will it continue? Probably not,” says Schweitzer, speaking not sorrowfully but with a fond reflection of how the business has ebbed and flowed over its near-century run. “That could be some years down the road. In the meantime, Gramercy Typewriters from 1932 is still going strong,” he says proudly.
As I turn to leave Schweitzer has one final request: That I send him the article once it’s published – only in print form, of course.