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Practical Typewriter Collecting

Good evening, ladies and gents. Today’s sermon is for those who are newly inducted into the exciting world of collecting and admiring the writing machines of the past century. A bold journey awaits you, hidden on dusty shelves in thrift and antique stores, baking in the hot sun on rickety card tables at garage sales, and displayed to the world to anyone who cares to type a keyword into an internet search engine. This journey will take you places you’ve never gone before, and will introduce you to some mighty fine (if slightly daffy) people from all over the globe. It is a journey that will enrich your life, and if done wisely, may not drain your pocketbook. Before you take your first steps, however, you should be aware of some guidelines:

This is rule #1 for a reason. The world is full of shiny, pretty machines for which you *will* develop an unreasoning, insatiable lust. It’s therefore important to determine your budget before you begin the hunt, elsewise you’ll end up spending way more than you can really afford on some machines. Doing that will certainly severely curtail your enjoyment of the machine and the hunt. Keep it fun, and set a budget.

Personally, I started with a budget dictated by what thrift stores were charging for good-condition typewriters a decade ago, since at that time, thrift stores were my only source for machines. I ended up eventually with 5 typewriters that each cost me less than a sawbuck apiece. Last year I caught the collecting bug again and ventured out onto Craigslist and Ebay (see Ebay rule below), and established a per-machine budget of “No more than a dinner for two at Outback”, or no more than $50 each. Lately, my budget has dropped back down to the $10 or less mark, and that has done quite a lot to enhance my enjoyment of the hobby and the thrill of the hunt.

I’m pretty good with tools. I can fix things that are broken on any given Volkswagen or Dodge made before 1970, and I’ve had a rich history of tinkering with old electronics and such. I can figure out and effect repair of fairly simple mechanical devices, even if I have no particular training or knowledge of the subject device. It’s a “This lever connects to this deelyboop and engages that ratchet” sort of intuitive tracery, and such expertise is usually enough for effecting repairs on a mechanism as simple and well-designed as a typewriter. Usually, that is. Typewriters have a *lot* of parts, and that can be daunting to even the most careful of gearheads. A machine like the Hermes 2000 can even intimidate me.

Thus, before you begin, think a bit about what problems you are ready to take on with the machines you hunt down and capture. Don’t pay top dollar for a machine in less than perfect shape unless you think you can fix it. Conversely, you may find it fun and educational to spend $5 on a busted machine just so you can take it apart and at least *try* to get it working, and learn quite a bit about what makes a typewriter ticky-tack. It’s up to you to avoid obtaining a shelf full of nonfunctional writing iron, so do your deciding now.

This is sometimes the hardest bit of planning to do before setting out on the hunt. Common sense applies. If you live in a one-room apartment, do not start hankerin’ for a brace of Royal KMM’s or Olympia SG-1’s. Keep your interest limited to small portables and keep the number below what you can fit into the back of a closet. However, if you have a display/storage outlet like an empty spare bedroom or a workplace willing to host a display case of your machines to beautify the office, then you have a lot more leeway in what you can bring into your corral. The SIGNIFICANT OTHER clause applies here – if there is someone else living in the space you intend to fill with typewriters, you *must* take their input into your decisions, or you risk the discussion about¬† “either these stupid machines go, or I do!” and you’ll eventually really regret losing that Significant Other.

You might think that typewriter collecting won’t take much time out of your busy day. Think again. When the fever is high, you will be spending significant amounts of time cruising secondhand shops and yard sales, tinkering with your machines, writing (to justify having the machines in the first place) and reading the ever-growing Typospheric blogs. It takes time, so budget your time wisely. Spend some of it with people (like that long-suffering Significant Other) instead of machines.

By “Hell”, I mean fountain pens and moleskin notebooks. It’s a slippery path. Be careful.

Breaking any of these rules is a sure sign. Seek professional help if you have more typewriters than you have fingers.

Yes, the selection is immensely varied and the machine you absolutely *must* have is right there, with a top bid of $9. Do not fall into the trap. It’s the shipping charges that kill you, and worse, a good 50% of the typewriters you buy will arrive broken – either undisclosed defects or by damage in transit. Ebay sellers are notoriously bad at packing typewriters for safe shipping, and will often ignore your specific instructions about proper packing of a machine. This way lies madness unless your “per machine” budget is upwards of a couple hundred bucks and you have a good typewriter repairman nearby. Even then, it’s madness. Save yourself a lot of aggravation and just don’t do it.

Thrift Stores (average per-machine price: around $10)
Antique Shops (average $20-$300 per machine, depending on the sanity level of the proprietor)
Yard Sales (average $5-$50)
Freecycle (free!)
Craigslist (average $20-$100)
Ebay (I told you not to do that)
ShopGoodwill (ehh, I’ve never done it. Probably you should expect it to be like Ebay)
Other Collectors (probably they’ll be happy to swap you something you want for something they want)
Etsy (average $200 and up, but sellers are usually good about packing/shipping)
The Online Typewriter Guys [Blue Moon, MrTypewriter,etc.] (average $200 and up, but these machines are professionally restored and well-packed for shipping. You’ll get a machine you’ll be very happy with)
Your Local Typewriter Shop [yes they still exist] (average $150 and up, they’ll be professionally restored and you won’t have to ship anything, plus stop in for great typewriter related stories and advice!)

Updated: March 15, 2011 — 2:49 pm

6 Comments

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  1. Excellent posting, both for enjoyment in reading and practical advice!

  2. addendum to shopgoodwill: Filter for your own area where you can pick it up yourself – no shipping charges or damage fears, plus you support your local Goodwill and get a machine you should have found on the shelf anyway.

  3. Great advice Ted. From a UK perspective, ebay is one of my few sources of typewriters. It is, after all, a garage sale on the web. There are often good people on the other end of the sale and their creativity in safe packaging can be a joy to behold. Also, being a small island, the machine may be close enough to collect in person. As well as assuring safe transit, this affords the added frisson of physically meeting the owner at their house – cash in hand. And if they are more than an hour’s drive away, you might know someone local enough to provide safe haven to newly acquired machine – just until you are in the neighbourhood. My price limit 5 years ago was ¬£40 all-in. Unless it was particularly early or desirable, the final price had little bearing on the condition or ‘value’ of the machine. My drug of choice was pre-WW2 portables, mostly because that was the era of my first two typewriters. Apart from a freebie Antares Parva (thrown in with another machine on collection) and a 1958 Imperial GC5 (which I got because its shape reminded me of a streamlined Remington). Finally, how about raising the sanity threshold a little higher? Say, fingers plus toes? Or maybe (here’s a good one) a maximum collection not exceeding ones age in years. Few of us will grow more toes, but we’ll all, hopefully, live another year and can look forward to a larger collection…

  4. Since the number of my collection long ago exceeded the number of my fingers, and in typewriter years I’m dead, perhaps I ought to set my threshold to no more than the number of horsepower in my car.

    Ah, who am I kidding? One can never have too many typewriters!

  5. You, sir, are an addict! Children – observe the addict far gone into his obsession: the ink-stained fingers that no soap can make clean, the nervous twitch of the eyelid, the shaking in his hands. His abode littered with the parts and bits of machinery in stacks so high that the inhabitant must tunnel through it like an ocelot. At night he rests his head in the bosom of a Blickensderfer on his bed made from broken typewriter cases and snatches what sleep he can between dreams of sniping Ebay auctions. This could be you, and it could happen in the blink of an eye!

  6. Great post! No worries here about the “significant other clause,” especially since most of our machines are portables! They can always fit nicely in a closet, or stacked against a wall if need be. :D

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