The man behind the keys | Kitsap Week

Robert Montgomery repairs a nearly 100-year-old Underwood No. 5.

Stepping off of the elevator to the fifth floor at 245 4th St. in Bremerton is like stepping into another time, when the musical click-clack of typewriters echoed down office hallways. The aesthetic tile floor and wood moldings here aren’t often part of modern construction. One might even expect to see the silhouette of Sam Spade behind one of the frosted glass doors.

It is here where Robert Montgomery goes to work each day, at the age of 93, to fix typewriters.

“A lot of guys got tired, packed it up and quit,” he said with a chuckle. “And I don’t know any better. I keep working on them.”

Despite the personal computer pushing the typewriter out of homes and offices, Montgomery’s shop, Bremerton Office Machine Co., is still lined with Underwoods, Smith-Coronas, Royals, Remingtons and more.

“I don’t what to make of it. Somehow or another we keep ending up with these machines,” Montgomery said.

But Montgomery isn’t stuck in the past. He is fully aware of the future that typewriters face.

“(Computers) are the replacement,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line we still end up with a guy who has to hit a key to come up with something. Now, that may end up being something you can stick in your back pocket.”

Two younger gentlemen often come into his shop to learn repair skills, but Montgomery said typewriter repair will continue to wane.

“Eventually, it will be abandoned,” he said. “I think it will last another 10 or 15 years. But I think there’s enough curiosity with these machines that we are going to end up with people who will learn how to fix them for no other reason than it’s there.”

Still clicking

The typewriter enjoyed nearly a century as the go-to machine for composing documents and more. There are pockets of users that still rely upon them, such as some of Kitsap’s police departments, or correctional facilities across the nation.

“There’s a firm of lawyers in Bremerton — there’s five lawyers and eight or nine secretaries — and every one of their desks has a typewriter,” Montgomery said of one of his local customers.

“A typical place has a computer, a printer and one of these typewriters sitting over there,” he said. “Almost every legal office has at least one or more typewriters sitting out where somebody can type on it.”

There is also a cult of typewriter admirers that keep them in use.

“There’s a lot of people who, for some reason, are interested and are buying these old typewriters,” Montgomery said. “I’m running into people that bought a typewriter because it’s old. I get them in here to clean them up.”

Actor Tom Hanks is known for his love of the machines. Hanks recently released his own app that simulates the typewriting experience on devices such as iPads and iPhones. Authors such as Danielle Steele and Tom Wolfe are also known to continue writing their works on typewriters.

Others endeavor to merge the old with the new. Qwerkywriter ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund production of its 84-key USB/Bluetooth typewriter-style computer keyboard. Typists can also modify their old typewriter to work with their computer with help from www.usbtypewriter.com. The website sells kits that will allow manual typewriters to work with computers. This way, authors can write on paper as well as the screen.

A lifetime of repair

Montgomery’s father worked for Underwood Typewriters in 1902, while also working at a stationary store in Seattle. There was always a typewriter around for him to use.

“I started goofing around with these machines when I was in grade school,” he said.

Montgomery was first in charge of putting the ribbon on the typewriters. He learned more complex repairs, but he didn’t initially want to make it a career.

“I had no intention of being a repairman,” Montgomery said. “I really didn’t get seriously involved with fixing typewriters until I got out of the Army.”

He was drafted into the Army during World War II. But wherever he was stationed, he didn’t get too far with a gun. Rather, it was another skill that set him apart.

“I kept getting steered into it,” Montgomery said of typewriter repair. “It was one of these, ‘Oh, you know how to fix one of these machines? How do you fix this part?’ ”

There was the time he went to Camp Beale, California.

“They literally grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘Here’s your repair shop,’ ” he said.

Then there was England, where he got a brief break from typewriters.

“I spent almost 10 days as a purchasing agent for Army headquarters,” he said. “But it wasn’t why I came to them in the first place. I came to them to fix typewriters.”

Then Versailles, and then Frankfurt, making sure military communications typed smoothly.

Kitsap lacked a steady repairman at the end of the war, so he thought it was a good place to set up shop with his father. His business was strictly local  at first.

“By 1955 some of the old-timers were getting to old to do it anymore,” Montgomery said.

“I’ve been getting (customers) from out-of-town which I didn’t use to,” he said. “I’m the only one around basically still working on these things. There is a guy in south Tacoma, there’s a fellow with an Olympia address, and there’s a fellow with a Lake Oswego address in Oregon.”

Now, across the shelves of his repair shop are various models awaiting customers to pick them up from Seattle, Tacoma, Federal Way and beyond.

The modern era

Montgomery remains at the keyboard — behind it, under it, and where ever he needs to be to get the decades-old machines to click like new. He continues to go to work five days a week. He can spryly talk up a storm, pulling from 93 years worth of memories and prized typewriter knowledge.

Montgomery sees IBM Selectrics most often these days, he said.

“It’s tricky to repair and — oh, boy — if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can really get it screwed up in a hurry,” Montgomery said. “But it works and doesn’t give a lot of trouble. If you got somebody that can type 150 words a minute, by golly, it will do it.”

He has also seen quite a few Underwood No. 5 models pass through his shop recently. First sold in 1900, it was the most successful typewriter of its day and set an industry standard, Montgomery affectionately notes.

“It worked,” Montgomery said. “I mean that if you were used to typing 130 words a minute, that crazy Model 5 will do it. You get an old Remington of that age and if you’re doing 35 words per minute, then you’re doing fine.”

There’s something to be said for a machine that works, like the No. 5. It’s complex, yet simple. It’s seen the last century of social change, wars and technology pass by. It’s been depended upon to carry the thoughts and discourse of American life from offices, homes and on the road. And for some, it still is.

“I think there are just people that are fascinated with typewriters, like this one,” Montgomery said, pointing to a Underwood No. 5. “It’s nearly 100 years old.”

“I’ve been taking them apart since I was about an 8-year-old kid,” he added. “There’s just something about the way this thing is built.”