Kevin Riordan: In this case, there's no going back

030711_rick_dutczak_400
Rick Dutczak tends to an ailing IBM Selectric typewriter at Karl Business Machines, the shop he owns in Hamilton Township, Mercer County. (Kevin Riordan / Staff)

A would-be novelist yearned for an electric typewriter like the one Angela Lansbury used in Murder, She Wrote.

A 90-year-old Lambertville lady needed a ribbon for her beloved manual - and someone to change it, too.

And a Hollywood set decorator sought an office full of sleek late '60s IBM Selectric 1 machines for a Manhattan movie shoot.

"We had 'em," says Rick Dutczak (pronounced dew-chack), the 51-year-old proprietor of Karl Business Machines in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.

"They were in the basement," says Roberta Winder, his second-in-command. "Under 30 years of dust."

Alas, there are no boxy, battleship-gray Royals like the one I banged out stories on at my first newspaper job, back when newsrooms reverberated with the energetic, kinetic clatter of typewriters.

But the mechanical and electronic devices at Karl are a visual reminder of what office work used to look like.

Clunky calculators, chunky cash registers, and all manner of manual, electric, and electronic typewriters are displayed at the store, a landmark since the late 1970s on a busy strip in the township's Mercerville section.

The oldest machines are arrayed, like fine objects, in a glass display case. Among them are a century-old Oliver and a pristine Royal from the '40s that Dutczak promises to let me try out.

Elsewhere, sleek IBM Selectrics in a rainbow of hues take up one wall in the basement; machines that write, print, and count are shoulder-to-shoulder on shelves on both floors.

Some will be disassembled for parts. Because - as was common before throwaway appliances and help desks in Mumbai - the people at Karl actually know how to fix stuff.

"We get creative," says Dutczak, who mostly handles electric and electronic typewriters. Winder, meanwhile, has a knack for fax machines ("from thermal to laser") and printers, from the antiquated dot-matrix to current devices.

And "Uncle" Joe Benczik, a retiree from New Brunswick who's been with the store since the beginning, takes care of the oldest, oddest mechanical repairs. He can even custom-fabricate a part that nobody else makes anymore.

"Some things you just can't get," says Dutczak.

Including talent: Thirty years ago, Karl employed six mechanics. "Today, if you need to find an adding-machine mechanic, you better bring a shovel," Dutczak says. "Because they're all in the cemetery."

When he started working for his father in the 1970s, the QWERTY keyboard that typewriters made iconic had not yet migrated onto our phones and into every part of our lives.

The shop was full of utilitarian Smith-Coronas and Remingtons; law students would regularly rent portables for $35 a month. Local horse-race promoters provided manuals for the traveling press corps, and office managers dropped off machines for cleanings.

But when Dutczak bought the business from his father in 1987, the office-machine evolution was fast becoming a revolution.

"Computers took charge and took over," says Winder, a Newtown resident who admits to still occasionally using her 1980s electronic typewriter.

"Sometimes I find it can be easier and faster, for a one-time envelope, to go to my IBM," she says. "Even some big offices still like to have a typewriter as a backup."

Both she and Dutczak have flat-screen monitors on their desks and cell phones in their pockets; they aren't working in a historical diorama, after all. But they are a bit like curators, as becomes clear when Dutczak carefully removes that gleaming little black Royal from behind glass.

As lovely as a mechanical object could be, it's barely been used. Ever.

Dutczak threads a fresh sheet of paper into the roller, and I regard the array of keys, which for some reason make me think of teeth.

Is that a smile I see?

I array my fingers in standard typing-class position (which I haven't used since, well, typing class) and strike.

The little round keys are surprisingly . . . heavy. After decades of using key "boards," my fingertips must be out of shape.

When I make the inevitable typo and reach, out of habit, for the "delete" key, I'm struck by the fact that the past is a great place to visit.

But I wouldn't want to work there.

 


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.