Manual Labor | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Manual Labor 

A rare holdout against "enemy number one"--the computer.

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By Tori Marlan

Take apart a typewriter and you'll be amazed at what you find, says Steve Kazmier, who owns Independence Business Machines, a small shop near the intersection of Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park. In more than 40 years of repairing the machines, he's fished out tubes of lipstick, bracelets, coins, paper clips, pencils, and scissors. But mostly what he discovers is accumulated crud. "You can plant a potato in them, that's how dirty they get," he says.

The clumps of dirt on the wall near his air compressor and the grime under his fingernails testify to the filthy condition of his customers' typewriters. If people sprang for annual cleanings and tune-ups--if they lavished the same kind of care on their typewriters as they do on, say, their cars--he'd have more business, and he wouldn't necessarily see machines like the late-1950s electric Smith-Corona sitting on his workbench. Its type bar rest is broken, its belts kinked, its key slugs misaligned. It's a mess. Kazmier expects that it will take a couple hours to repair, earning him $65--not a bad hourly rate, except when you consider that on his best days, which are rare, only three machines come in.

Time usually passes slowly at the shop. Kazmier watches a succession of talk shows, sells a few spools or cartridges of ribbon, and rebuilds and repairs typewriters that he finds at thrift stores and garage sales. When someone buys one, he says, "It always makes my day." Sometimes curious pedestrians wander in, lured by the anachronistic window display--an ever-changing variety of shapes and sizes and colors of sturdy old machines. One passerby recently felt compelled to poke her head in and ask why anyone would want to use a typewriter. "Might as well stick a knife in me," Kazmier later said. "It hurt my feelings."

Kazmier's friend Jim stops by every now and then to "shoot the bull," but Jim, who's 73, hasn't been well lately. The only regular visitors these days are a pair of pigeons Kazmier calls Pete and Repeat. He talks to them and feeds them sunflower seeds and popcorn, but he'd like them a whole lot more if they didn't get feathers on his carpet and leave droppings on the area above the front door, which he's now shielded with cardboard. His landlord recently asked him to be more vigilant about cleaning up after the birds.

Pete and Repeat drop in the morning Kazmier's working on the battered Smith-Corona. He tends to the birds, dismantles and chemically cleans the machine, then locks up the shop to make a rare service call. But the customer isn't around. "Can you believe that?" he says. "And she has the guts to call me and ask me to come back."

That afternoon he's sitting at his workbench, hunched over the skeleton of the Smith-Corona with a magnetized screwdriver in hand, when a young couple with briefcases and folders jangle through the front door, passing shelves of repaired machines--mostly electrics and manuals--that were made before they were born.

Kazmier emerges from the back of the shop in a blue lab coat splattered with grease and plants himself behind the counter near the TV, which is tuned to a talk show where a psychic is delivering a message from beyond the grave to a tearful guest. Kazmier has small gray eyes and wears his hair, on its way from taupe to silver, brushed away from his round face. He was born in Poland but spent his early years in Nazi labor camps in Germany. His family moved to Chicago after the war, when he was 12. At 60 he still speaks with a thick Polish accent.

Kazmier says hello to the couple.

"We're here to see the owner," the woman says.

Having pegged them as computer users, Kazmier tells them the owner's not around.

Typewriter users, he will tell you, usually have silver or white hair. Sometimes they wear hearing aids, and they often need his help lifting their machines to and from their cars. They agree with Kazmier that "computers can't do everything" and will gladly point out the shortcomings of PCs--even if they've never used one--saying they're useless for such tasks as making out recipe cards and personal checks and envelopes. And the younger typewriter users usually don't dress in business attire; they're either police officers who keep the machines in their squad cars for incident reports or writers drunk on the romantic notion that typewriters, especially manual ones, elicit more natural expression than computers.

His assessment of the couple soon proves correct. They aren't customers. They don't want to talk typewriters. They want to talk phone service--in violation of the No Soliciting policy posted on the front door. "We don't want to change anything," Kazmier tells them, speaking with ownerlike authority. "This is a typewriter place. We're probably going to close because there's no more typewriters. No more typewriters."

Ever since the mid-80s, when computers began eclipsing typewriters in American homes and offices, they've been what Kazmier calls his "enemy number one," the scourge that threatens his way of life, making guys like him a "vanishing breed."

Although his business isn't what it once was--he says he makes half what he used to and works twice as long--he's not in the dire straits he'd like the phone service reps to believe. He's pretty certain he'll be able to hold out another five years, until he hits retirement age, though he knows he won't be able to sell his business. Who would buy it? "All the guys that's in it, they gonna retire," he says. In another ten years, he predicts, "There won't be any typewriter shops."

When Kazmier first started out, as a teenager in 1956, a typewriter sat on just about every secretary's desk. Large companies had their own service departments, and small repair shops were as ubiquitous as coffee shops today. Back then, typewriters were made with belts and pulleys and gears--moving parts that required intensive labor to repair and maintain. Each manufacturer built machines differently and schooled repairmen on its products.

Kazmier first learned how to take apart typewriters at the International Typewriter Exchange; he learned how to do basic repairs in the service department at Western Electric. In 1958 he joined the army. He'd tried before to serve the country. As an eager 16-year-old, he made it all the way through air force basic training before a background check revealed that he'd lied about his age--something he still does, only now he knocks years off rather than adding them on.

The blind respect for authority instilled in him by the military didn't survive long after he reentered civilian life. He returned to his job at Western Electric, eloped with a "southern peach" who worked in the office, and, as a married man about to start a family, asked for a raise. When the company denied his request, he quit and found work at a small repair shop, which he eventually left for the same reason. He and his wife then moved to her hometown, a rural community in Georgia, where he felt like a fish out of water. "There wasn't one typewriter shop," he says.

Frustrated, he returned to Chicago alone after about four months. For a while he sent money back to Georgia to support his wife and new twin sons, he says, but the marriage couldn't endure the distance.

In 1963 Kazmier went to work for Benbow Office Machines. He felt underappreciated there too, believing that the company was squandering his years of repair experience on cleanings and inspections--tasks he thought should be reserved for the younger boys just learning the trade. One day he refused to go out on a maintenance call and was fired for insubordination--the best thing that ever happened to him, he says now. He then came to the sensible conclusion that if he could make money for others he could make it for himself.

He began by working out of his home. At first he knocked on doors asking for business, and after ten years he was responding to an average of ten service calls a day. He needed to work only about five hours a day and spent his afternoons gardening, hunting, and fishing. He remarried--this time the marriage lasted 23 years--and raised a family. At his peak, in the early 80s, he says he brought in about $98,000 a year. "It was a good life. I thought it would never end."

Then circuit boards replaced moving parts. Electronic typewriters dazzled consumers with such fancy features as spell check. Small repairs became easy--a matter of changing parts. And the success of the electronic typewriter paved the path for a more devastating interloper, the PC.

In 1985, Kazmier says, he began noticing the impact. When typewriter shops closed, new ones didn't open. He says he didn't benefit from the declining competition because younger generations were no longer a reliable customer base. "A lot of people lost their jobs," he says. "I had to go in for a different type of exposure, so people could see what I was doing." In 1991 he bought Independence Business Machines for $17,500 from a retiring repairman he knew from his days at the International Typewriter Exchange.

Although typewriters are his specialty--"all makes and models"--he also services electronic calculators, adding machines, fax machines, and printers. Sometimes he gets in over his head trying to fix something more complicated than a sensor on a fax machine, and when that happens he'll pass it along to an acquaintance and act as a go-between.

He could use his downtime to hound delinquent customers, including U.S. representative Rod Blagojevich, who owes him $75 for fixing a VX 106 Sharp fax machine almost two years ago. After his invoice with a "friendly reminder" stamp on it was ignored, Kazmier resigned himself to the loss, even though the congressman's office is just up the street. "Let it be a donation," he says. "It's not him, it's his people." He waves his hand. "He doesn't represent me anyway." Kazmier lives in an unincorporated part of Du Page County.

After the phone-service reps leave the shop, Kazmier rolls his eyes and says, "I hate when they come in." He then returns to his work area, where dismantled IBMs, Underwoods, Olympias, and Remingtons, stripped for their parts, are strewn about the floor, tipped on their sides and backs and fronts like corpses on a battlefield. Kazmier still can get new parts for some IBMs if he orders in bulk from a supply company in Texas. Occasionally he needs a part he doesn't have and can no longer get, and the owner, like the elderly woman who recently dropped off a 1920s Woodstock, is out of luck.

Kazmier removes a thin metal bar from under the type basket of the Smith-Corona. A crack on one side prevents the key slugs from rising when the shift bar is depressed. He finds an intact replacement from a machine on the floor and screws it into place. "I've been doing this for so long I can do it blindfolded," he says, and then reaches for a pair of reading glasses without a hint of irony.

The glasses, along with about 20 similar pairs, were a gift from his friend Ken Jones, who gets them for free. A former repairman, Jones got out of the typewriter business and went into construction in '91, when he could no longer ignore that the end was coming. Recently Kazmier had the rare fortune of selling two machines on the same day, and he closed the shop for the afternoon and went fishing with Jones in Wisconsin. It was like old times. The following day business was slow again, and the men sat around the empty shop drinking Miller Genuine Draft and talking about the good old days, when Jones's second wife called them the "10 to 2 boys" because business was so good they could afford to work short hours.

When Kazmier's satisfied that he's fixed the Smith-Corona's major problems, he gives it a preventive once-over. "See how bad the roller looks?" he says, pointing out a slight sheen that the untrained eye would overlook. Before he lets a machine out of the shop, he says, "I try to make sure everything is working 100 percent." He removes the platen, cleans it, and then cuts the shine with an emery cloth, explaining that now it will grip paper better.

Kazmier then slides a piece of paper into the machine and uses two fingers to punch out the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" in both uppercase and lowercase letters. He's been typing the same sentence for over 40 years, but he can't do it without looking down at his hands--and he doesn't know any repairman who can. "Touch-typing would be nice," he says, "but I have no use for it." Noticing that the bottoms of the upper- and lowercase letters are uneven and that the descenders are too light on the lowercase P and Q, he makes the necessary adjustments, tightening screws and pinching key slugs with a small set of pliers.

He then replaces the scratched and weathered shell and stares at the old machine. "It may not look good," he says, "but it's going to work perfect. The guy is going to be very happy."

The Smith-Corona bears stickers from two erstwhile repair shops, Belmont Typewriter Service and All Types Office Equipment. Kazmier perfunctorily peels off the All Types sticker and replaces it with one of his own, a gold rectangle with red and blue stripes and black lettering that says Independence Business Machines. Should something go wrong in the future, the owner will have Kazmier's phone number right in front of him. Kazmier looks at the Belmont Typewriter sticker for a moment. The shop closed about 30 years ago, he says, before things got really bad. He leaves the sticker where it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Kazmier and typewriter photos by Lloyd DeGrane.

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