At 85, Harold Smith — known as “Smitty,” of course — may be best known around town for the days when he held a 25-pound Underwood upright typewriter firmly against his hip with one hand while handing the streetcar conductor 7 cents fare with the other.
Smitty remembers those days well, when he could be seen traversing the streets of the Central Business District with a 40-pound tool kit hanging from his shoulder or the aforementioned monstrous, newly repaired typewriter under his arm.
In today’s world of do-it-all computers, Smitty may be the king of keeping those clacking anachronisms of yesteryear up and running, just like the day they came off the line at Underwood or Olympia.
Nowadays, Smitty plies his trade alongside brothers Mike Hanner and Steve Hanner, of ACY’s Office Equipment on David Drive in Metairie. And while the sign outside the building says “computers, printers, copiers, fax, typewriters,” it’s the last word that jumps out at passersby.
“Typewriters make up anywhere from 10 to 12 percent of our business,” ACY’s owner Mike Hanner says. “Most people would be amazed at how many businesses still use typewriters today. They may have computers, but they still hold onto typewriters for any number of reasons.
“I have a priest who has a manual and an electric. And when something breaks, he’ll send a picture and say, ‘It’s for this typewriter, and you’ll see a picture with a finger pointing and the words, ‘I need one of these parts.’ A lot of times we have the part. Or we can cannibalize it from an old typewriter or send to the factory. We have a customer in China that uses manuals, and they’ll contact us for parts. We mail those parts to them. We have customers from third world countries who contact us for parts.”
“If we don’t have those parts or can’t find them, generally we can make the part right here in the shop,” Steve Hanner says. “Many’s the time we saw what was needed and we made the part and welded it in. … We know there’s still a need for typewriters: writing checks, typing envelopes.
“Many have the IBM Selectric (electric) typewriters, and they place them in a central location in their office. That way, 20 or more people can just walk over and use it when a computer just will not do … like rolling one of those big yellow envelopes in to address it.”
Mike says there’s a generation of office workers out there who grew up with a Selectric III or even a Panasonic word processor, and when the company decided to move into the computer age … well, it just became a leap some didn’t want to make.
“There was one lady who had been with a company for many, many years,” Mike Hanner says. “She was a secretary and had always worked on a manual. I guess it was like a third arm to her. When the company went to computers, she just retired.”
Mike Hanner explains that while ACY’s has been in business since 1968, he bought the company in 1992 from a man who had named the company using the first initial of the first names of his three grandaughters: Alicia, Catherine and Yvonne. Hanner says the name and reputation of the business were so good he wasn’t about to tamper with them.
In the warehouse, Steve Hanner shuffles down one aisle, up the next, among shelves loaded with typewriters being wakened from the past and stacked like books on a library shelf.
Each old typewriter he pulls down is trailed by a cloud of dust. As he handles this old Underwood or that small Olympia, it’s almost as though they are lifelong friends of Steve Hanner.
“This one can be used for parts,” he says. “This one is in great shape. It’s the type of typewriter that somebody may want to place under glass in a fancy office as a conversation piece … And this one … it’s going to take some work …”
A few feet away, Smitty is working on a Selectric, and he’s ruminating again about the days so long ago when typewriters were big and bulky and didn’t have screens attached to them.
“I remember the telephone company down at 1713 Prytania St.,” Smitty says. “They had three floors loaded with typewriters, and each one had a ‘stroke counter’ on it. Every time you hit a key, the counter would count that as a stroke.
“The people hired to work at those machines were paid by the number of strokes they had totaled up on the typewriter. This was to eliminate phone company employees signing in in the morning and spending the day drinking coffee. Then there was this company in the CBD …”
Somewhere there are memories of a smoky press box high atop the now-vanished Tulane Stadium. Tulane is having an especially good afternoon kicking the stuffings out of Georgia Tech and the sports writers using the two-finger method of typing a game story on a battered old black Olympia typewriter are catching every nuance of the game.
… and somewhere late on a dusky afternoon a middle-aged woman is placing a plastic covering on a coral Selectric III and calling it a day in a big law office on Baronne Street.
… and a detective at the Second District Police Station is filling out yet another form laying out the details of yet another robbery Uptown, every depressing detail spewed out on a form from a dog-tired old Remington.
“A lot of history in all these old typewriters of the past,” Smitty says. “A lot of history.”