Interview with Matt McCormack, 10/10/2010
For years, I had a hankering to interview Matt McCormack of Portland’s premier typewriter repair shop: Ace Typewriter. Matt doesn’t mince words and isn’t much for long monologues. A typical conversation with Matt revolves around your busted typewriter. He clips open the lid and with a little shrug says, “Oh yeah. I can fix this.” In our interview, we get behind the scenes at one of Portland’s rarest occupations. — JM
Claire (CF) and Julie (JM) interviewed Matt (MM) March 8, 2010 in his shop located at7433 N. Lombard, Portland, Oregon. If you want to speak with Matt directly, check out the company website for contact information: www.acetypewriter.com
CF: [in Monty Python voice] What’s your favorite color?
MM: Purple. Note the tee shirt. [He’s wearing a purple shirt]
CF: And the Remington in the window?
JM: Is this a family business?
MM: Since 1960.
JM: Why did the business begin?
MM: Well, my father worked for Underwood in 1948 and was kind of familiar with typewriters. When he got out of the Service … [points to a picture of his father in a group] that’s him in ’48; they drank a lot more back then.
JM: Yeah, everybody did.
CF: So have you lived in Portland your whole life?
MM: My whole life, yeah. Made it to Montana once. That’s about as far as I’ve gone.
CF: Did you have an interest in typewriters from the cradle?
MM: No it’s by default more or less. All my brothers had the good sense to get out while they could.
JM: Were you trained for something else or?
MM: My college career was a Motorcycle repair class at community college.
CF: Is there a big difference between a typewriter and a motorcycle?
MM: Well, yeah.
CF: Well, I mean like what? Gears, obviously.
MM: Gears, internal combustion engine. They’re a lot more fun.
JM: Do you still work on motorcycles?
MM: No. Haven’t even ridden one in about fifteen years.
CL: What was the first motorcycle?
MM: Always my brothers’ hand-me-downs.
JM: You have a lot of siblings?
MM: We were a family of 12 originally. Down to 8 now. Two of my sisters still live with Pops. That’s weird. I warned you, there’s nothing fascinating.
JM: But it is!
CL: It’s not fascinating to you but …
MM: I think I’m the most boring person you could interview.
CL: You’re not the most boring. We drove past that guy on the way here.
JM: There were four of them together, they all looked the same.
CL: You know how those men wear purses?
MM: Oh yes. They were all just in here selling cologne.
CL: That’s what it is! They all had matching purses!
MM: One had a tweed hat.
JM: They were all kicking on each other as they were going. It was weird. They went into The Perch.
CL: We thought they were a gang of homosexuals on their way to a throw down.
JM: Like West Side Story.
MM: That’ll go over real well in The Perch.
CL: So, do you use a typewriter to write or do you prefer to write with a pen.
MM: I rarely write. Not in years.
JM: Do you read a lot?
MM: Oh yeah. Not as much as I used to.
JM: Do you have a favorite?
MM: No author in particular. Mostly historical … I just got membership in the Chippewa tribe so if I get a little money that’ll be nice. I might get my knee fixed.
JM: Is your knee a genetic failing or did you have an accident?
MM: It was a car wreck years ago. Didn’t think much of it at the time but over the years it’s swelled up.
JM: Is the car [a slick, powder blue Pontiac parked outside every day] yours?
MM: Yeah. Again by default. I’m too cheap to buy anything modern.
[Phone Rings. Matt tells the caller he has parts for a Portable Noiseless]
JM: What’s the oldest machine you’ve worked on?
MM: There’s one up there [he points to the top shelf of a rack of typers next to the register] from about 1880 but it doesn’t work so I can’t take credit for it. The second one in.
CL: Wow, look at that. It’s like an organ.
MM: Now this one’s 1892 [referring to a small, shiny typer in a display case] and it works but, this little Blickensderfer.
JM: Does it type well?
MM: It does. It has a little ink roller that has to be inked every time you type on it but otherwise … his great-great-great grandson came in and tried to buy it from me so apparently there is some value to it.
CL: Which one of these is your favorite?
MM: The purple Remington.
JM: Is that because of the color?
MM: Pretty much. You just don’t see a 1930 machine in purple, so.
CL: None of these have flames painted on them.
MM: No. I’ve been asked to do that.
JM: Do you do it?
MM: No. Jacob at Blue Moon has been after me for years to paint one.
CL: Why not?
MM: It’s too much work, the pin striping. And I just, takes me a couple hours per machine, getting out the spray gun would be … there goes all my free time.
JM: And the health considerations.
MM: Nah. I’ve had my hands in lacquer thinner since I was eight years old.
JM: Is that how the machines get cleaned?
MM: It used to be. Fire inspector fell on us about ten, fifteen years ago. We had to change our ways.
JM: Is that because it’s super-flammable?
MM: Oh yeah. And super dangerous.
JM: What do you use now, or is that a trade secret?
MM: Kind of [laughs]. Mainly paint thinner these days which is much less toxic, caustic.
JM: Does it take longer to break down the oils?
JM: So you have to actually soak for an amount of time?
MM: Lacquer was instant.
JM: That’s routine, right? You soak the machines regardless?
MM: Not necessarily. Like, something like this [indicating Claire’s machine he repaired this week] is in such good shape it doesn’t need it.
CL: I take it you’re not a smoker?
MM: [taps his shirt pocket, a hard pack is there]
CL: Whoa, you live dangerously.
MM: Didn’t expect to live this long.
CL: [laughs] This cigarette tastes like lacquer! [laughs all around]
JM: Do you get saturated with grease by the end of the day?
MM: Oh yeah.
JM: So it’s like being an auto mechanic.
MM: It is.
JM: You have this big stockpile of ribbons and supplies. These are all harvested over years of being in business?
MM: I go get supplies. Mainly the ribbons, we get. This is the most common ribbon I sell [he rotates the display so we see the lineup of boxes], the rest are in case someone needs an oddball. It’s all modern here.
JM: Are there ribbons made now you repurpose to fit old machines?
MM: Definitely, yeah.
JM: Is that a lot of what happens?
MM: Like those over there, or that one you brought in, the Smith Premiere, yeah, something like that is impossible to find so you re-ink it.
JM: So what happens with re-inking?
MM: It’s just a mess. There’s nothing … nothing specialized in that.
JM: Do you strip it from the cartridge?
MM: Yeah, I’ve got about a four inch board and a lot of felt.
CL: Are most of your clients older folks or younger folks?
MM: Time there was that would be the case, but now most everyone is under thirty years old.
CL/JM: Really? Wow.
JM: Do you have a theory about that?
MM: Well, you see a lot of tee shirts now with Hemingway and, uh, “the only psychiatrist I will submit to is my Smith Corona 3” [laughs]
JM: What’s the clientele like?
MM: It varies. Let me say there are a lot of people out there who consider themselves writers who, say, wouldn’t be out there twenty years ago. Have you noticed that?
CL: Anybody who can hold a pair of scissors thinks they can cut hair.
CL: Same deal.
JM: Aw, that feels good for you to say. [laughs] How has Lombard changed?
MM: It’s night and day compared to how it was thirty years ago.
JM: Is it more ‘hopping’?
MM: Safer. There were fights outside any given time of the day. It’s calmed down quite a bit.
JM: For the better?
MM: I suppose. I miss most of it anyway.
JM: So you’re nostalgic?
MM: Well … I hear Pop’s stories and yeah….
JM: How have people changed?
MM: People are the same. Less alcohol, or they hide it. It’s become trendy to hide it.
JM: It’s become necessary, I think.
[A customer comes in. A mid-20s aged woman with a typewriter for rebuilding. Matt says it will take a few weeks. The typewriter belongs to a friend of hers.]
[after the customer leaves]
CL: Are we allowed to see?
JM: Is there confidentiality?
MM: No, not at all. [He clips open the lid and turns the typer, a Royal, towards CL/JM]
JM: What year is this?
MM: It has plastic keys so … um … ’47.
JM: How do you know an age?
MM: They made this model from about 1939 to ’47. They started putting plastic keys [instead of glass] on after the war [WWII]. It’s all just a guess on my part.
JM: In order to know for certain you’d have to find the serial number and go online?
MM: I’ve never done that. I don’t prefer to look up a number. I understand there’s a site called what-year-is-my-typewriter but I’ve never been on for that. I’ve never been that curious.
CL: So you’re going to rebuild that [the typewriter on the counter]?
JM: Does it really need ‘rebuilding’?
MM: Yeah. It doesn’t move.
JM: [indicating q-tip stuck in the key strike-zone] does the Q-Tip have anything to do with that?
CL: Or is that a sacrifice to the typewriter gods. “Fix my carriage return!”
CL: Do you get a lot of used Royals?
MM: Oh yeah. There were a lot of them made.
CL: Is this one of the models you see frequently?
MM: Yeah. I don’t know if you can see it up there [points to several clippings hanging on the frame of the entry way] Robert Redford’s Sundance Catalog, he gets $700 for one of them.
JM: Is there a most popular machine?
MM: That one in particular because apparently online somewhere it says that’s what Hemingway used.
JM: So people have it in their minds so they pick them up at swap meets or whatever?
MM: Exactly. Of course they made the Quiet Deluxe for fifty years so …. Did you happen to see the History Detectives episode [TV show: http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/video/5_pyle_full.html] they claim they had Ernie Pyle’s Corona 3. After that came out everyone wanted a Corona 3.
JM: Do you try to anticipate that and provide people with machines?
MM: Most of my business is repair. I don’t have time to keep the shelves stocked.
CL: Is there any famous person’s machine you’d like to repair? “These are the hands that repaired….”
MM: I guess my big claim to fame is working for a bunch of The Oregonian columnists but they come and go so ….
JM: Are there silly trends in the typewriter world?
MM: Did you hear about Cormac McCarthy?
CL: I saw that on your website!
MM: Did you?
CL: I read the link, yeah. The typewriter sold for several thousand. [$254,500, actually.]
MM: For three weeks I was getting calls for that particular typewriter [Olivetti manual typewriter]. The week before that I was selling them for $49.
JM: What’d you end up pricing them for?
MM: Well, I sold them all before I read the article.
CL: What the market will bear.
MM: Yeah. That’s right. I should keep up on trends.
CL: I liked the article, in that he said he never would have it serviced or maintenance, that ‘I would just clean it out with a shop vac.’ So, what you’re saying about the lacquer, well, that’s pretty fancy!
MM: Real pleasurable typewriter, it must have been at the end.
JM: So you have some machines, electric, that plug in. Are those similar to work on?
MM: Uh, not really. This electric [points to a large, navy blue electric machine parked on an office chair] it’s just unbelievably complicated. Over the years, well, I have nightmares about them.
JM: HA! Please don’t bring one in!
JM: Some have memory cards. Are they like computers?
MM: They used to. Those were mid-70s IBMs. I just hated working on those things. There was no way you could work on them even when they were current. So I’m glad to see them gone.
JM: There’s no way you’ll work on computers.
MM: No way. No. I have to borrow a computer when I have to use one anyways.
JM: How do you feel about the people who are repurposing typewriters into other machines? [see “steampunk”]
MM: I won’t deal with them. I get calls from all over the country looking for typewriters keys, glass, for jewelry.
CL: Does it make you upset?
MM: Meh… well, I’ve taken apart a lot of keyboards but they were all junk machines. My friend was telling me about this one typewriter that was on ebay. It was called a “white typewriter”, no one bid on it. He just caught [the listing] at the end. He called the woman and asked her if she still had it for sale. She said, no, she just cut it up for jewelry. He said, you realize you just cut up a ten thousand dollar machine? It was a one-off.
CL: Unbelievable. Do you feel there’s something kinda sentimental about a typewriter?
MM: I suppose. I suppose. More the beauty of them, in certain ways. I suppose that sounds kind of silly.
CL: Doesn’t sound silly.
JM: At one point we were talking about buying online, at auctions. You were saying you would buy with the purpose of putting something on the shelf. Is that ….
MM: I’ve done that quite a bit lately.
JM: Just to keep the shelves full?
MM: Yeah. I used to hit estate sales every weekend but the jewelry makers would beat me to them. Everyone I went to.
JM: It’s amazing to think a typewriter would sell for so cheap that it would be worth that for jewelry.
MM: Some of these keyboards sell on ebay for three hundred dollars. That’s three times the price I’d get for the machine.
CL: I’ve seen one kind like mine priced at five hundred, plus shipping. It’s ridiculous. It has become quite trendy to have a typewriter you don’t use.
MM: It has!
MM: Over the years most of what we’ve sold has ended up in closets. Might as well sell exercise equipment.
JM: That’s interesting. I wonder if there will be … was there a point where there was a wave where all the typewriters were being purged from closets?
JM: There were too many typewriters.
MM: Twenty years ago that was our main business [points at the electric machine] – these old IBM typewriters. Then all of a sudden I had a basement of these old manuals I couldn’t give away. Now there’s a market for them. It’s kind of limited but … eh.
JM: You think in twenty years (or so) when all these ‘hipsters’ are dumping their stuff that you’ll end up with it again?
MM: Are you familiar with Blue Moon up the street? He’s buying a cargo trailer. He wants me to buy all the typewriters I can and put them in the cargo trailer to hold on to for ten years.
JM: It’s a good idea. There’s a finite supply, right?
MM: There sure is.
CL: Typewriter museum. Hey, where is this coral from? [There is a cabbage sized hunk of white coral on a shelf by the register]
MM: When I was a little kid, these Pilipino sailors would come in and Pop would work on their typewriters. They would bring us gifts and they would bring in coral all the time.
JM: Typewriters for sailors?
MM: Years ago. Back when this, St. John’s, was a shipping community. All the sailors would come in.
CL: Is a sailor’s typewriter different from, say, a young lady’s? [laughs] A little dirtier, maybe?
MM: They were usually European typewriters.
CL: Do you see a lot of those with the different alphabets?
MM: Not lately, no. I get calls from all over the country for the Dvorak. You ever typed on that?
CL: No. I have a German one at home. East German.
MM: I tried typing on the Adler there on the end [points to the front window display]. Country kept ending up with C-O-U-N-T-R-Z.
JM: If sailors had typewriters and pretty much everybody had typewriters, do you think the age of the typewriter is over?
MM: Well, it’s all old equipment.
JM: No one is going to make typewriters new?
MM: They are making them in China. There’s no engineering left in the world, or mechanical ability as far as manufacturing goes. It’s changed.
Guy came in, wanted an Underwood electric typewriter, then he set up a website for me. So that’s how that came about.
CL: It’s a nice website.
MM: He did a good job. He’s still doing it.
CL: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had?
CL: With a typewriter!
JM: Outside of being interviewed. [laughs]
CL: Yeah. Outside of us. [laughs]
MM: Well, that’s going to take a while.
CL: You can get back to us. We’ve got time.
MM: Pass. [laughs]
CL: What’s the dog’s name? [indicates cute, wiggly sweetie shadowing Matt]
MM: Frankie Lee.
JM: Do you always have a shop dog?
MM: There’s a picture of ol’ Keb up there [points to the door frame]. He was up here for 15 years, never missed a day of work. I wasn’t planning on getting another one but she was a rescue dog, about twenty five pounds, I couldn’t pass her up. I still need a goat. [joking]
CL: Yeah, you can have up to three without a permit.
JM: What are some of the machines here? [grabs at a vinyl cased machine on a table by the door]
MM: Those are all Blue Moon’s. He’s flooding me with repairs. [Opens a case]
CL: These look like they are marketed towards secretaries or women.
JM: Women on the go. Yours is that powder blue, yeah. Totally for women.
MM: I have the same typewriter as yours (CL) in the back in pink.
CL: In PINK! [laughs] Yeah, that one in the satchel. That’s interesting. What are these big things? [two bulbus glass and metal things on the top shelf]
MM: There was an old machinist across the street years ago. He had Alzheimer’s and started giving things away. They’re old oilers from the turn of the last century. I have to come up with a story about how they are from a typewriter.
JM: What’s the story with this humungous Burroughs? [indicating a hubba-hubba stacked typer]
MM: That was only made in one year, 1932. It’s an electric return, electric tabulation.
CL: Why’d they only make it the one year?
MM: Have you looked at it?
CL: [imitates Ride of the Valkyries/Apocalypse Now]
JM: Do figuring machines, adding machines, do those ever come in?
MM: Oh yeah. I’ve got one in the back from North Carolina right now. The guy calls me about once a week. I keep telling him I can’t figure it out.
JM: You can’t figure a figuring machine? That’s pretty good.
MM: It was all frozen and he tried to make it work so he broke it. All of these [he indicates the wall of adding machines] have been on display for twenty years and none of them have sold.
JM: They’re cool lookin’.
MM: Yeah. They’re just cool enough looking for me to not move them.
JM: People don’t purchase them?
MM: No one knows how to do it anymore. You can go to a ten key and do it.
JM: Do you get people shipping stuff for you to repair?
MM: Yeah. I tell them I don’t like it but they do it.
JM: Is that because …
MM: It’s this damnable website.
JM: But how many people repair typewriters anymore?
MM: A lot of people claim they can, but I’ve seen a lot of bad work done. Does that sound arrogant?
JM: There used to be some (repair shops) in Washington. Are those gone now?
MM: Yes. I get people from Seattle driving down three or four times a week wondering what happened to all the typewriter shops.
JM: So it’s good you have a website.
MM: I suppose.
JM: Or be like the watchmaker who vanishes all of a sudden.
MM: Are there any watchmakers left?
JM: What’s the farthest away someone has shipped to have repair?
MM: Any east coast town.
JM: It’s not international at this point?
MM: No. I had people calling me from Quebec. I told them I didn’t want to deal with shipping and customs. Still need the work, though. I need money. I just don’t have the time.
CL: Will your rates go up?
MM: I suppose I need to raise my rates.
CL: Haven’t changed much.
MM: No. Pop was probably charging more thirty years ago. Got to be what the market will bear for a while.
JM: If you have this new thirty and younger client base, it might be good to ring them in.
MM: It’s amazing how little money some of these hipsters have.
JM: Well … some are faking.
CL: They’re picking some of this stuff up for fifteen dollars at an estate sale, too. … I’m glad I got in under the wire.
JM: I saw you were interviewed before. Have you been interviewed many times?
MM: I suppose. I can think of three articles I was interviewed for that never made it to print. Like I say, I’m just not fascinating.
CL: Says you.
JM: So… what does the actual job entail?
JM: We saw someone come in. You quickly assess, give them a time frame, then what?
MM: Mostly the time frame. If they ask for an estimate, I give them an estimate. I usually bid high because something like that I never know what could be involved in repair. Could be an hour, could be four hours, or seven. I don’t actually charge an hourly rate but … Like Jim Rockford said, “I like to sum up the clientele.”
JM: So you’ve got this machine, then what? You have ten or twenty machines you put it behind in a queue?
MM: No. Actually, I just work on whatever I feel like.
JM: The time frame, you’ve given yourself more than enough time to complete the job.
MM: Yeah. I’ll have that [the machine dropped off today] done in a week.
JM: Are there tools that, like, the best tool?
MM: Pop opened this shop up. He was at an auction and found a box of typewriter tools.
JM: Are those the same tools you are using?
MM: The exact same.
JM: Have you had to sharpen or file, repair them?
MM: Yeah. Most of the tools I use I either repair or make. You can’t go to the tool supply company and buy typewriter tools anymore. It’s not that complicated work.
JM: How do you make a replacement tool?
MM: I have punches and grinders.
CL: You weld your own?
JM: You’re metalsmithing?
CL: In addition to being a mechanic, fixing typewriters, and …
MM: It’s just like driving a fifty year old car.
CL: You’ve got to know all the skills.
JM: I suppose the work desk … is it a desk or a bench?
MM: You can see it. Come on.
Matt leads us behind the counter. We meet “Pop”, Matt’s father, the founder of the business. He has rosy cheeks and wears a plaid jacket. We shamble down a narrow aisle – one side is a shelf of assorted typewriters stacked to the ceiling, the other side is hip-height with parts, cases. Along the floor, as we approach the rear, is a neat row of closed and opened cases, the machines up for repair; little white invoice slips tucked around their rolls. At the back is a chair surrounded by tools splayed on a wonky looking desk.
Everything has a sort of grime layer. It reminds me of a print shop or a mechanics garage. The nature of the work necessitates this grey film on nearly every surface. It’s not disturbing. It doesn’t really seem dirty. More disheveled, in use, busy. Drawers and shelves are everywhere. To the left there is a corner to take that loops us back toward the front but it’s a dead end; a passage only made when Matt’s looking to prize parts off old machines.
I see a Corona on a stair leading to the back door (which leads to a yard where the dog plays). A little overwhelmed by this working area, I ask about the Corona.
JM: What’s that flower print?
MM: That’s her bed [the dog].
JM: The dog bed? No, I mean the Corona.
MM: Oh this? That’s just mottled. They would mix ether with the paint and it would mottle.
CL: Is that the lacquer smell? What is that? [Inhaling with rapture] It’s wonderful.
MM: It’s a little bit of everything.
JM: Reminds me of a print shop smell. These are all the parts? How are these organized?
MM: They’re not. I know where everything is.
CL: Rollers… What is this?
MM: It’s the ribbon drive to an Underwood No. 5.
JM: And you just remember that? Or you know it when you look at it?
MM: I know it when I need the part.
JM: Screws, nuts, “portable parts”….
MM: Joe’s portable parts. My brother died thirty years ago so we haven’t changed a thing.
CL: What’s this [large metal disk which looks like it’s made for shaping tacos]?
MM: It makes things like this. [He pulls a sheet out of a folder. The sheet has letters cut out of it.] Use it for making stencils for marking things about my garage or whatever.
JM: Has that been here forever or is that something you found along the way?
MM: I traded an industrial sewing machine for that a few years ago.
JM: Do you ever use the first aid kit?
MM: It’s mostly for the fire inspector.
JM: What does a fire inspector look for in a typewriter repair shop?
MM: Just about everything you see.
Matt lifts a roller (a Platen) from a canister of water in a sink, rotates it so he can submerge the opposite end in the canister.
JM: What’s that? Is that hot water?
MM: Boiling water. Used to be boiling water. It’s so I can slide the rubber off and put it on another machine. Kind of primitive.
JM: Does the water make it so the key marks on the rubber go away?
MM: No. That’s why I would replace it.
JM: So it loosens the rubber so you can skin it.
MM: They glue them, so thus the water.
JM: You have an air compressor?
MM: Oh yeah. That’s my main tool.
JM: A lot of the job is blowing junk out?
MM: Otherwise when I dunk the machine it clogs the sink.
JM: Lots of drill bits….
MM: Yeah. Nothing out of the ordinary.
CL: For you! So you were here a lot as a kid?
MM: Oh yeah.
CL: Is there a place out back where you live?
MM: No. We have a house (down the road).
JM: Tray full of springs?
MM: Whole chest of drawers (full of springs). [He points upward and we see a slender tower of drawers.]
JM: Slide tension, compressing? What makes a spring behave differently from another spring?
MM: I’ll show you. Spring like this pulls it together. Compressing spring pushes apart. I’m not sure that’s the technical term.
CL: Thank you for showing us back here. We’re very curious.
JM: [As we leave I spy the backside of a typewriter with a very clear brand name] What’s a Torpedo?
MM: Probably early thirties. A German machine with the Z in the wrong place.
JM: This is a pre-war machine?
MM: It has the SS on the machine. Some people would pay $5000 for it. Those Neo-Nazis pay good. [laughs]