My Local Typewriter Shop

Two friends forwarded this link to me. This is the shop I go to. Glad to see that the typewriter revolution and Vale Typewriter are getting some free publicity in the St.Paul Pioneer Press. For the full article w/videos, click here.

Richfield typewriter shop keeps relics clicking (w/ video)

By Nick Woltman
nwoltman@pioneerpress.com
Posted:   04/13/2013 02:09:59 PM CDT
Updated:   04/15/2013 08:39:36 AM CDT

There aren’t many places in the Twin Cities where you can still hear the click-clack of a typewriter. There are even fewer places you can take one to be repaired if it stops click-clacking.

And that’s fine with Mark Soderbeck, owner of Vale Typewriter in Richfield. The shop is one of only four typewriter repair shops still operating in the metro, he says, down from more than 20 during the 1980s.

“There’s nobody left. Just a few of us,” he said. “The smaller guys seemed to survive, but the bigger guys are gone.”

After watching his revenue plummet with the dawn of the PC age, he’s beginning to see it take a turn for the better — largely because many of his competitors have been forced out of business.

Soderbeck bought Vale Typewriter in 1978, when he was 21 years old, after working two years for its previous owner. He had the business and the building paid off in 12 years.During its heyday, between 1985 and 1990, the shop was ringing up almost $1 million annually in typewriter sales and repairs. Soderbeck was working an average of 80 hours a week to clear a backlog of repair orders that sometimes reached into the hundreds.

“They were a hot commodity,” Soderbeck said of typewriters. “We were making tons of dough.”

But it didn’t last. As personal computers became more affordable — and ubiquitous — they cut into typewriter sales.

“I knew what was coming,” Soderbeck said. “I watched the price of computers, and it kept dropping and dropping and dropping.”So did his revenue. By 2000, it was down to about $100,000 a year. He laid off his only employee about 1995. If it weren’t for the money he’d squirreled away during the late ’80s and the fact that he was free of debt, he speculates his business would have folded.

Things had started to stabilize by 2008, when the recession wiped out most of what remained of his competition, leading to the first bump in revenue he had seen in two decades, albeit slight.

His customers are now

 

Worn-down letters on a typewriter seems a mark of diligent use over the years at Mark Soderbeck’s Vale Typewriter in Richfield. (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

largely collectors and hobbyists. Char Rusnak of Lakeville has about a dozen typewriters. And although she uses a computer all day, working with medical records for Fairview Health Services, she’s still partial to typewriters.”I think it’s the sounds — that click of the metal hitting the paper and the little ding,” she said. “And the smells. Computers come with no smell.”

Rusnak has been a loyal Vale customer since Soderbeck restored her Hermes Hebrew language typewriter about a year ago (the backward movement was a challenge to fix).

The frenzy of Soderbeck’s 80-hour weeks has been replaced with a steady stream of restoration and repair orders supplemented by an occasional sale.

He even has time to operate a small farm about

 

Mark Soderbeck, surrounded by typewriters at his Vale Typewriter in Richfield, only one of, maybe, four in the metro area, and photographed on Thursday afternoon, April 11, 2013. (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

an hour north of the Twin Cities. But, at 57, he doesn’t mind the change of pace.”I did that enough years, killing myself working all the time,” he said. “You need to have a life, too.”

Even so, Soderbeck still holds a bit of a grudge against the machines that nearly put him out of business, but it’s not something he dwells on.

“Sure, I could wish that computers had never taken over,” Soderbeck said. “But what good is wishful thinking? It’s a fact. They’re never going to go away.”

But you won’t find one in his shop. Soderbeck says the closest he likes to get to a computer is an electronic fish finder.

Although he’s finding out that computers are not all bad — many of his younger customers tell him they found his store on the Internet.

The irony isn’t lost on him, but he has no plans to give up on typewriters. They’re all he has known for nearly 40 years. Just about the only thing he can’t do with a typewriter is type — he never learned how.

“I’m a repair guy,” he said. “Airplane mechanics … probably couldn’t fly a 747.”

 

In His Own Words: Mark Soderbeck

On his choice of careers: ”Everybody’s got to do something. I fix stuff.”

On pressure from the computer industry: ”Other guys in my field, they’re gone. When it hit, it hit big time.”

On recognizing that computers were poised to overtake typewriters:“Believing in your product is one thing, but you’ve got to be realistic. You have to believe in what you’re selling — that’s a great philosophy. But philosophy doesn’t pay the bills.”

On managing decline: ”A little planning goes a long way. The years that it was good, I made sure everything was taken care of. Everything was paid off.”

On customer service: ”I wish there were businesses that would treat me like I treat my customers. A lot of them want you in and out as fast as you can be, because they want to make more money. I’ll sit there and talk to (my customers) for an hour. That s why they come back.”

On the upside of dealing in an obsolete technology: ”Our overhead is really low because there are no new items to stock. Back when we were doing all these new electronic typewriters, we had to have a whole lot of inventory on hand.”

Nick Woltman can be reached at 651-228-5189. Follow him on Twitter at @nickwoltman.

 

 

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