At 92, area’s last typewriter repairman loves his Selectrics
In his crammed Bremerton typewriter repair shop, at age 92, Bob Montgomery continues his love for the machines that started at age 7 or 8.
Seattle Times staff reporter
‘Where is the typewriter? The NSA Film’
The NSA is speaking.
The house is surrounded.
Surveillance is complete.
Hands up! Now!
Yes, we see everything.
Where. Is. Your. Typewriter.
What is the meaning of this, you haven't got one?
Even the Russian secret service has them.
Triumph-Adler. Twen 180
It can't be bugged.
This nauseates us.
For the last time.
Where is your typewriter?
So then, let's just leave.
And now forget us.
We were never here.
Beware of going to triumph-adler.de (or: Go to triumph-adler.de at your own risk)
The means of production are safe.
Leave everything to us.
And give our regards to Mr. Friedrich.
He forgot his cell phone at our place.
Was there anything important on it?
The area’s last typewriter repairman is 92 and he’ll tell you all kinds of stories.
Bob Montgomery has the time for stories because he’s not that busy these days. Time passes slowly in his fifth-floor space at a downtown Bremerton office building.
He was always a skinny guy. At his age, he looks more frail than he is.
But his mind is sharp, remembering details about machines manufactured a century ago. His eyesight is good, and he uses magnifying glasses to work with tweezers on delicate parts.
Walk into his shop, and you’re transported to a different world.
Outside, people are tethered to their smartphones, busy, busy, busy tweeting 140 characters of random thoughts.
Here, at the Bremerton Office Machine Company, the machines from a different era sit on shelves, relegated to collectors and those who never quite adjusted to staring at a screen.
What matters here are not quad-core processors, but things like a little round metal escapement wheel, its teeth used to move type one space forward.
Oh, if somehow Montgomery could cash in on the renewed interest in typewriters. They’ve been making headlines around the world.
In 2013, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that country’s Federal Protective Service, worried about computer hackers, was planning to buy German-made Triumph-Adler Twen 180 electric typewriters. The Russians weren’t going so retro as to get totally mechanical ones.
Then, in July of this year, German media reported that a defense manufacturer in that country had switched to electric typewriters.
Also, the head of a German parliamentary inquiry into spying by the U.S. said his committee was considering using typewriters.
To capitalize, the manufacturer of the Triumph-Adler released a video touting the machine as “Bug proof. NSA proof.”
Actually, typewriters are not completely bug proof.
In a document worthy of spy novelist John le Carré, you can read an NSA paper called “The Gunman Project.”
It tells that in the early 1980s, the U.S. discovered how the Soviets bugged the American embassy in Moscow, including its Selectrics.
The implants were found when the machines were X-rayed.
Each character being typed had a unique movement, and the bugs could detect that and transmit the information.
Of course, bugging a typewriter requires a person sneaking in and physically tampering with it; a hacker half a world away is no good.
But, anyway, that’s a pretty narrow market, that of Russian and German security services.
A lifetime with typewriters
Montgomery was 7 or 8 when he began going to his dad’s shop in downtown Seattle, changing ribbons, learning to repair the machines.
That’s 85-some years of typewriters.
To be accurate, he’s not the last, last typewriter repairman.
But in the Puget Sound area, he’s the last one who could be found whose full-time business is repairing typewriters.
In Bellevue, you can find Dave Armstrong, who also repairs typewriters but says it’s only 10 percent of his business, Computer & Printer Repair.
“A lot of people see something on Craigslist and get some romantic notion to write the great American novel on this thing,” says Armstrong. “An awful lot of the machines are just not worth repairing.”
Every weekday, sometimes also on weekends, Montgomery takes the bus from the retirement community in which he lives to his shop.
His rates are $48 an hour, and a punch time clock ticks away on the wall.
Thousands and thousands of little typewriter parts are stored in drawers and plastic boxes. Montgomery is the only one who knows which specific model a little gizmo is for.
Some weeks he’s busy with people who bring in their antique-shop find, and those who still love their IBM Selectrics; 13 million were made from 1961 to 1986.
Greg Meinhold, of Everett, is one such Selectric customer. He’s a broker who sells hotels.
It turns out that some people he deals with “don’t do email stuff.” They want it typed old-style.
Sometimes a line has to be added to a one-of-a-kind deed. Forget about using a computer. That deed has to be manually scrolled into a typewriter.
“He has so much knowledge, I end up talking to him for an hour,” says Meinhold.
Then there is the sheer physicality involved, especially with Selectrics.
Shipping weight for them is listed at up to 38 pounds. You try lifting a Selectric if you ever get to age 92.
Sometimes, when he gets tired, Montgomery takes a nap on a couch in the office. “Then I’m good again for another two or three hours,” he says.
Repairing through WWII
Montgomery remembers repairing typewriters during World War II in Bushy Park in London, right where Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was stationed as the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force. A few times, Montgomery saw Ike going to and fro.
Wars generate not just casualties, but plenty of paperwork.
Montgomery had been drafted and trained as an infantryman.
Then his records showed he could repair typewriters.
“I think every latrine orderly had a typewriter,” he remembers.
When Montgomery returned from the war, he went back to the family business, which eventually moved to Bremerton.
Besides the machines, Montgomery’s other big love has been the Bremerton Community Theatre. He has acted in or been part of the production of more than 145 shows, as recently as two months ago.
“It looks like the end of an era. We’re trying to figure out what he needs to retire,” says company president Paul Holiday.
Montgomery tries to explain his 85 years of love for the typewriters.
He says, “It’s the only machine I know of that you can put a piece of paper in it, start typing, and you see something appear on that paper.”
In the background, the punch time clock keeps marking the minutes.
For a while, at least.