'California Typewriter': An Ode to Analog

6 min
Dave Nichol's film "California Typewriter" is a celebration of typewriters and the people who love them. (Still from 'California Typewriter,' Courtesy Doug Nichol)

"California Typewriter" is a new documentary film by Doug Nichol. It’s an ode to analog, a visual poem dedicated to the typewriter. It’s named for a Berkeley repair shop struggling to stay afloat in the digital age.

Filmmaker Doug Nichol told Sasha Khokha, host of The California Report Magazine, about a few of the typewriter-obsessed people who appear in the film:

Ken Alexander, typewriter repair technician at California Typewriter in Berkeley

California Typewriter repair expert Ken Alexander, wheeling typewriters to a Berkeley car wash to hose them down before repairing them. (Still from California Typewriter, courtesy Doug Nichol)

“I feel something for these machines. I’ll look at 'em and my mind just goes, ‘Where has this machine been at?’ If they could talk, they could tell some stories. You never know where these typewriters come from. One could have come from some famous person’s library across the world, and it made it to this shop in Berkeley.” - Ken Alexander

Doug Nichol: Ken Alexander loves repairing typewriters. But Ken’s job is really the first casualty of the digital revolution. We didn’t need typewriters anymore once computers came around. So you didn’t need a typewriter repairman. But he’s been working for the last 30 years trying to keep it going for the few people who love typewriters. At the shop, most of the new customers are all kids. They’re bringing in their parents, telling them they want a typewriter. They’ve grown up touching glass, touching iPhones and iPads, and I think they find it interesting to see how you push a letter and it forms a letter on the page.

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Silvi Alcivar, poet

Silvi Alcivar is a San Francisco-based "poet on demand," who hand-types original poems for customers at her mobile store. (Still from California Typewriter, courtesy Doug Nichol)

"If you were to ask me to speak a poem, I couldn't do it. If you were to put me in front of a typewriter, it happens. My typewriter is the truest love of my life. There's something about it that's built well, and if you care for it, it's just going to keep working. I do worry that someday there might not be somebody who knows how to fix it.

"I often think about what I do as counseling. People come to me with some big stuff. I write a lot of poems about death. I wrote a poem for a man who had lost his wife three months ago, and they had been married for 43 years. When he made his request, he could barely talk. Somebody's desire for words sometimes is a desire for something more." - Silvi Alcivar, poet

Tom Hanks, actor

Tom Hanks has a collection of more than 250 typewriters. (Still from California Typewriter, courtesy Doug Nichol)

“There is a wonderful way to spend time typing. You get to think about it. You get to romantically sit back and ponder what your next words are going to be. And that is a pleasant, tactile action. It actually turns writing or composing into a very specific, physical process that has a soundtrack to it.” - Tom Hanks

Nichol: When we filmed Tom Hanks, he had 270 typewriters. He loves the sound of typewriters, the difference between a Smith-Corona and Olympia. Every one of them have their own sound. They’re like snowflakes in a way. Every one of them is unique, from their sound to the letters that they make. Every font is slightly different. They’re totally original.

Jeremy Mayer, West Oakland artist

Oakland sculptor Jeremy Mayer makes new, futuristic creations out of old typewriters. (Still from California Typewriter, Courtesy Doug Nichol)

“This is how I choose to appreciate the typewriter. By dissecting it and bringing out the little bits and pieces that are us in them. Some of my favorite things to do are the human figures, because I find every curve on the human body in here in one of these typewriters.” - Jeremy Mayer

Nichol: Jeremy Mayer was one of the first people I met at California Typewriter. He loves the typewriters, but he loves what’s in them. He sees the typewriter as a kind of erector set, where he can take them all apart, the pieces, and put them back together. One of his sculptures is in Mark Zuckerberg’s office, and his work has taken off. The tech folks understand the role the typewriter played. They appreciate that tactile quality that’s disappearing as we touch glass and are removed from more tangible things.

David McCullough, historian and writer

Historian and author David McCullough has written every one of his books on the same typewriter, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning books "Truman" and "John Adams." (Still from California Typewriter, Courtesy Doug Nichol )

“People tell me I could do much better, I could go faster and have less to contend with if I were to use a computer. But I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I prefer to go slower. To me, it’s understandable. I press the key and another key comes up and prints a letter on a piece of paper, and you can pull it out and it’s a piece of paper on which you have printed something. You have made that. It’s tangible. It’s real.” - David McCullough

Nichol: David McCullough has written every one of his books on that same typewriter. He believes it’s a tool. When you write on a typewriter you have to think about what you’re going to write before you commit it to paper.

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