W.P.M.'s Pamela Rogow launched a 'typewriter takeout' rent-to-buy program during the pandemic

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Typewriters have surged in popularity during the pandemic, in Philly and nationwide. Local shop owners say prices are high as they’ve seen, while faux typewriter keyboards are the hot new toy to cop online.

“It’s a huge cultural happening, and it’s still there,” typewriter collector and seller Martin Howard told Billy Penn. “You’re wondering, when’s it going to die down? It will never go away.”

It’s not just antique collectibles that are popular. An online search finds modern typewriters sold out at big box stores like Target and Walmart, and going for hundreds of dollars at marketplaces like Etsy.

On TikTok, a generation that might’ve grown up without ever having typed on actual iterations is recreating the pastime with new typewriter-style keyboards that hook up to laptops. Videos featuring the rhythmic clickity-clack of the keys regularly garner more than 50 million views.

Pam Rogow of Mt. Airy’s W.P.M. Typewriter Shop said she’s seeing “more of everybody” buying the old-timey devices these days.

She’s noticed a bump in Black families and young men seeking out the last-century machines, and her customer base has grown beyond the Philadelphia region, with about a third of sales coming from out-of-state places like D.C. and New York.

Prices are up, too. Rogow gets her machines via donation and treasure hunt, she said, and has noticed a jump in cost over the last year.

Collector Howard agreed, estimating that typewriters that would’ve been $10 to $20 a decade ago can go for between $300 and $575 today. “The pricing is… at the highest I’ve seen for a fine-working, portable typewriter.”

This wasn’t necessarily expected. When the shutdown hit last spring, Rogow thought it would spell the end of her new venture selling and repairing typewriters out of her home. “When the pandemic first happened,” Rogow said, “I thought, ‘Oh well, that was an interesting experiment.’”

Instead, W.P.M. Typewriter doubled its sales and saw a spike in demand for repair service. And the upward trajectory shows no signs of slowing, she said. Even winter weather hasn’t been much of a hindrance: a Delaware man came by to pick up a typewriter gift for his wife while it was snowing.

W.P.M.’s whimsical outdoor typing garden remained open last fall, by appointment only. Rogow has a background in museum design and arranges the machines on the terrace herself. She’s planning to reopen the garden on April 1.

The storefront at W.P.M. (Words Per Minute) Typewriter shop in Mt. Airy Credit: Courtesy Pamela Rogow

‘Quarantine has been a good thing for typewriters’

Ryan Anderson took up a repair apprenticeship at Philly Typewriter in South Philly the same week Mayor Jim Kenney announced the city’s first coronavirus lockdown. A designer, carpenter and artist, Anderson said he’s long been drawn to their tangibility.

Philly Typewriter opened its doors on Passyunk Avenue in 2018 during the early months of the retro trend. The shop got a shout out from typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks soon thereafter.

Business has been good, and the shop moved to a bigger location in the midst of the pandemic. “I think,” said Anderson, “the quarantine has been a good thing for typewriters.”

Collector Howard, who is based in Toronto, was featured in the 2016 documentary “California Typewriter,” which included clips of celebrities like Hanks and John Mayer sharing their love for the machines.

But it wasn’t until the 2020 holiday season that his stock of 20th century typewriters sold out — for the first time ever.

“People were buying two at a time,” said Howard, whose collection of 19th century typewriters has been featured in several museum exhibitions. “Parents buying them for young children, parents buying them for children who were 20 years old, going off to college. Lovers buying them for lovers… There was perhaps 50% more [sales].”

Superstar Madonna chronicled her “quarantine diaries” written on a typewriter in Instagram videos. Lana Del Rey posted pics of cradled her machine like a baby before boarding a private jet. She’s using it to write a poetry book, she has said.

But why, when you have a laptop right there?

Percussive keys are one reason, said Rogow, of W.P.M. In the age of ASMR, where people listen to videos of tapping, scratching and whispering for comfort, typewriter sounds fit right in.

It’s not just the sound, she said. It’s also the feel: the process of adding the paper, the weight of the keys, watching the mechanisms work to print letters on a page. And typewriters offer a nostalgic way to move slower, which fits with the way COVID slowed down much of how the world works.

There’s also the obvious backlash to forced screen time for many during the pandemic, where everything’s virtual, virtual, virtual. Another draw is that typewriters are off the grid, offering a most private form of communication, Rogow added. Unless you post a photo, there’s little chance something you’ve written will be leaked onto the interwebs.

“It was the yearning for those under 30 who are weaned on computers and the digital world,” said Howard, “to step out from in front of the screen, into the bright, beautiful world around them.”

A typewriter collector for more than three decades, Howard believes the current popularity is more than a passing fad: “It’s hard to smell the roses when you’re touching or looking at a computer screen.”

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...