STORY AND PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH
The unique aromatic experience inside Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines (a combination of inks, oils and cleaning fluids) makes the store feel like a portal into its era of inception: the Click-Clack-Ding-ing 1950s.
This smell is quite familiar to owner John Sansone, who makes every typewriter repair himself with his perpetually ink-stained fingers. Once a family business, the shop has been Sansone’s solo endeavor since 2008.
Sansone’s father bought the pre-existing business in the mid-1960s. He always had a number of part-time mechanics passing through to tinker on the machines in addition to Sansone and his three sisters, who all worked at the shop at some point in their lives.
With lessons from the specialized repairmen and the occasional class at typewriter manufacturers like Smith Corona, Sansone succeeded in becoming a one-man arsenal of expertise formidable enough to carry the family business.
Around the same time, the resurgence of a charming, distraction-free mode of writing began to shift Sansone’s business back to its founding focus: typewriters, which have since remained the shop’s primary source of revenue.
In the late 2000s, old typewriter repairs started coming in again — not from original typewriter owners, but rather a new generation of typewriter enthusiasts inspired by the tool’s dueling utility and novelty.
“They like the history of it and all the great books that have [been written with it],” Sansone explained. “It’s kind of romantic and you can touch it and feel it.”
These young typers occasionally come into the shop to exchange typewriter knowledge. Sansone has been in the repair business so long that at times, he said the joy they derive from what was considered mundane for most of Sansone’s life even surprises him.
“They like the noise of the typewriter,” Sansone said. “They like the real bell sound … They don’t see anything mechanical anymore, so just to see a spring and a lever go up is a real thrill to them. — And have a real bell sound. You know, everyone wants the bell.”
Before the young typers came around, business had plateaued and Sansone was focusing mostly on printer repairs. The propagation of affordable, advanced computers sowed doubts in many onlookers about the longevity of typewriters. Sansone said many people still have misperceptions about the typewriting community.
The shop is really just as it appears, Sansone said. He spends his days simply, answering calls and repairing machines. And once in a while, someone will purchase a typewriter.
“People think I’ve got something going on in the back or it’s a meth lab back there or something,” he joked.
The display of the shop gives window shoppers a peep into the retail typewriter collection Sansone curates and maintains. These are only the “good, usable machines;” Sansone said he doesn’t carry anything rare because of the risky investment.
Most of the shop’s retail typewriters come from local estate sales, the best of which come from elderly residents of Los Altos Hills clearing out their dusty hunks of metal before moving out.
“[Some will have a] 1930 Royal that has been sitting in the closet for 50 years and they just don’t know what to do with it,” Sansone said.
The repair side of Sansone’s business takes up more time than the collection. In his earlier days of repair projects, nothing was unfixable to Sansone — he would spend hours puzzling until he unraveled the issue. But recently, he has needed to start turning away some repairs of older typewriters.
“60 year old typewriters have different problems than when they were 20,” Sansone said.
Sansone’s true passion in his business is building relationships with customers over time. He has a great appreciation for the long-time customers that have turned into old friends. These are the customers who have been with the business for decades and who, too, are familiar with its trademark anachronistic scent.
Because of the significant obstacles that come with owning and operating a typewriter business, Sansone said he is proud to have kept his family’s business alive with the help of his old faithful clientele as well as the unexpected magnitude of young typewriter enthusiasts.
“Somebody comes in with their typewriter and they think they’re the last one on Earth that has a typewriter,” Sansone laughed. “You’re not alone in this world.”