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The Last Typewriter Men

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Words and Photography by Shirin Bhandari

For the third time in a month the letter “F” fell off my keyboard, “D” was in close suite. I tried to patch it up but the industrial glue burned into the plastic key making it worthless. I was left with a white rubber stub. The surly technician inside a nearby shopping mall raised his eyebrows with the botched up work. “You’re better off upgrading to a new laptop instead of replacing the entire panel!” he said.

Our gadgets constantly change and fall apart, we lose memory and speed- it becomes obsolete over such a short period of time.

Is there something so wrong with becoming attached to an old (5 years) piece of equipment? I fear change.

“You’ll never have that problem with a typewriter – picture an Underwood; some are over a 100 years old. For a writer, which computer can last that long?” my father would say. Good point. He is a textile engineer and I’ve been surrounded by mechanical machinery, nuts and bolts all my life. It could become a decent back-up for work. The closest I’ve come to a typewriter since the 1990’s is the pathetic typing sound application installed on my computer.

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V. Avena & Sons–probably the last typewriter store in Manila

“There’s a quaint store along España across the roundabout probably the last typewriter store in Manila.”

I took heed to the advice and set out early on the hopes of finding the place and dodging the metro’s epic traffic jams. España is a road constructed in 1913. Named after Spain- they colonized the Philippines for over 300 years. With the current 8 lanes – it has become a thoroughly used route in Metro Manila.

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Rows and rows of typewriters were on display.

The heat was unforgiving despite arriving a little after 9 in the morning. The bustling road was filled with colourful and noisy jeepneys. A tall and sturdy elderly gentleman opened the clear glass door. He had locked it from the inside -a smart thing to do in such a large city. “May I help you?” he said in a soft voice. Rows and rows of typewriters from various decades were on display. “I’d like to purchase one,” as I pointed to a shelf across the room. He led me to a large desk. A brass ornament lay on the table, etched into the dark metal read the name of Mr. Ramon Avena. He sat down in a swivel chair next to a flat screen TV playing the latest NBA playoffs.

Behind him a man worked patiently on a Deco period Underwood along a well ventilated terrace. Mr. Avena let me walk around the store. His family owns the low-rise building and lets out the remaining rooms to tenants. His parents established a sporting goods store in the mid 1930’s on the other side of town now known as Recto, before shifting to typewriters in 1939. They moved to España in the 1960’s. Ramon learned the trade as a child. His father, Mr. Vicente Avena, was an accomplished sportsman and played center- representing the Philippine basketball team in the 1920’s Far Eastern Olympics.

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Mr. Avena’s father was a remarkable basketball player in the 1920’s

On the floor leading to the terrace lay a grave yard of typewriters. Each with a paper note of the date and owner neatly placed on the top carriage. There is a long line of repairs and restorations for people willing to wait. A medium-sized notebook showed Mr. Avena’s handwritten list of clients, including a few famous personalities. The business has survived the Japanese occupation and a World War. Every typewriter brought to the store has a personal history, a story-some hold onto it as a memento of a loved one who has passed.

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Long line of typewriters waiting to be maintained and repaired.

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Names of clients are personally handwritten into a medium sized notebook.

The smell of paint thinner and oil filled the air. The recycled parts of cannibalized typewriters from every brand conceivable were placed in well-organized glass bottles. Wide metal filing cabinets carried an abundance of steel, rollers, spools and keys. “I have kept everything.” Mr. Avena exclaimed as he pulled out the drawer with small wooden compartments that held each letter of the alphabet.

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Spare parts are collected into clear glass bottles.

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Each part is kept in well-organized compartments.

The onset of the 20th century brought businesses and writers to the typewriter. You put more thought before typing as you would now-with fewer distractions. Ideas are printed and translated into ink.

We may be in the computer age but V. Avena & Sons was never drawn to upgrade. “I need technicians I can trust.” His faithful assistant, Nemecio Matalang, has been with him since 1972. From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except for Sundays, V. Avena & Sons has remained open for the past 70 years. A lot has changed since then- where the Government, Universities, offices and factories would constantly call for their services. At present about two typewriters are repaired a day and if luck would have it- one sold a week.

Ironically despite the store name, Ramon who is now in his 80’s is the only son among 4 siblings. Sadly no member of the family has any interest to continue the trade. “It is what it is, I kept my promise the day my father died-I will continue like he did until my time comes. Life is about holding on to your word and having integrity.”

Nemecio Matalang, Mr. Avena’s faithful assistant, has been with him since 1972 . “I need technicians I can trust,” says Mr. Ravena.

Nemecio Matalang, Mr. Avena’s faithful assistant, has been with him since 1972 . “I need technicians I can trust,” says Mr. Avena.

The second floor of the store is his private sanctuary. His withered hands gestured to random clippings and photographs against the wall. Another office held basketball memorabilia of his late father. It smelled like an old woolen sweater with moth balls-but somewhat comforting. As if time has stood still.

Mr. Ramon Avena

Mr. Ramon Avena

“I have no regrets, this is where I started and all of this will end with me.
The typewriter is my life.”

Long before we had email inboxes there were high piles of paper stacked with impulsively written letters made on heavy metal contraptions.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

Mr. Avena took out two typewriters for me to try, both in mint condition, restored meticulously. A short blank piece of paper was in the roll with a line of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” It is an English phrase that contains all the letters of the alphabet. Instinctively I copied it over and over again to get the feel of the keys. You see each word hit the paper. The clickety clacking sounds are mesmerizing–as one would be entranced with watching a record spin.

The QWERTY keyboard layout was developed to help keys from jamming. It became so successful with the 1878 Remington that it has remained in use with standard electronic keyboards to this day.

About 1-2 typewriters are repaired each day.

About 1-2 typewriters are repaired each day.

Three hours later I was still in the store. Where did the time go? Close to lunch break a group of men arrived in a tricycle (Philippine auto rickshaw) from the local barangay (town hall). They lugged in a large electronic typewriter used to fill government forms. “I’ll see what we can do,” Mr. Avena said as he handed them a receipt.

Regardless, I settled with an antique Remington Monarch. I didn’t have enough money and gave a partial deposit. Mr. Avena was kind enough to oblige.

It was also a valid excuse to come back and spend time to listen to his ramblings.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“You know some people have everything. But are they happy? Do they have what money can’t buy? You made a good choice.” Mr. Avena smiled as he walked with me towards the door.

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V. Avena and Sons
2282 España Street, Sampaloc, Manila

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