This 70-year-old typewriter store will take you back in time

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The quaint establishment with large Dutch windows along España is one of the last typewriter stores in Manila. Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The bustling street is filled with colorful and noisy jeepneys. Constructed in 1913, the road España is named after Spain, and has become a thoroughly used route in Metro Manila.

The quaint establishment with large Dutch windows along España is one of the last typewriter stores in Manila. Ramon Avena, the owner who still runs the place, is a tall and sturdy gentleman in his mid-80s.

He opens the door for me and there is a feeling of instant relief as I enter the cool and roomy store. A few years ago, I bought a fully refurbished vintage Remington Monarch from Avena. It has worked like a charm. When I have the time, I like spending the afternoon with him. Conversations are pleasant and repetitive. His yarns take you back in time.

Avena’s family owns the low-rise building and lets out the remaining rooms to tenants. His parents established a sporting goods store on the side of town now known as Recto, before their business shifted to typewriters in 1939. They moved to its current and final location in the 1960s. Ramon learned the trade as a child. His father, Vicente Avena, was an accomplished sportsman and played center for the Philippine basketball team in the 1920s Far Eastern Olympics.

The typewriter was first sold commercially in 1874. It did not become common in workplaces until the mid-1880s. It was an essential tool for professionals in offices, businesses, and used for personal correspondence in private homes.

As we walk towards his desk, a man works patiently on a deco period Underwood along a well-ventilated terrace.

The typewriter has a cluster of keys which allows a single character to be printed on paper using an inked ribbon. 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.

3.jpg On the floor leading to the terrace lays a graveyard 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. Every typewriter brought to the store has a personal history, a story-some hold onto as a memento of a loved one who has passed. Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

6.jpg The recycled parts of cannibalized typewriters from every brand conceivable are placed in well-organized glass bottles. Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

The heavy mechanical machine with all its nuts and bolts can outlast any computer keyboard. Our gadgets constantly change and fall apart, we lose memory and speed. It becomes obsolete over such a short period of time. You’ll never have a problem with a typewriter. Picture this: a 100-year-old typewriter, with proper maintenance and refurbishing, can outlast any keypad by Apple. Long before we had email inboxes, there were high piles of paper and stacks of impulsively written letters made from these heavy metal contraptions.

On the floor leading to the terrace lays a graveyard 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 holds Avena’s handwritten list of clients, including a few famous personalities. The business has survived the Japanese occupation.

A petite lady walks in, twirling a set of keys. “Can someone please help me carry a typewriter from the car?” she says. Avena instructs his assistant to help her. “It was my father’s,” she says. “I learned how to type on it. My father died recently, it was in his office. Would it be possible to have it reconditioned before his death anniversary in a couple of months?” she asks. Avena politely accommodates her request and takes out a piece of paper to write down her name and details of the rusty old Underwood. He understands her sentiment.

Every typewriter brought to the store has a personal history, a story some hold onto as a memento of a loved one who has passed.

The smell of paint thinner and oil fills the air. The recycled parts of cannibalized typewriters from every brand conceivable are placed in well-organized glass bottles. A wide metal filing cabinet carries an abundance of steel, rollers, spools, and keys.

“I have kept everything,” Avena exclaims as he pulls out the drawer with small wooden compartments that hold each letter of the alphabet.

The onset of the 20th century brought businesses and writers to the typewriter. You’d put more thought before typing as you would now — with fewer distractions. Ideas are printed and translated into ink. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Orson Welles became associated with the brand of typewriters they used.

5.jpg Times have changed since the period when government agencies, universities, offices, and factories would constantly call for their services. At present, two typewriters are repaired a day and if luck would have it, one sold a week. Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

2.jpg When asked if he has any regrets, shopowner Ramon Avena says, “No, this is where I started. All of this will end with me. The typewriter is my life. As long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters.” Photo by SHIRIN BHANDARI

We may be in the computer age but V. Avena & Sons was never drawn to upgrade. “I need technicians I can trust,” he says. His faithful assistant Nemecio Matalang has been with him since 1972. From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, except for Sundays, Avena & Sons has remained open for the past 70 years. Ramon, who recently turned 85, is the only son among four siblings. He is as strong as an ox and still takes a jeepney to work every day. Sadly, no member of the family has any interest to continue the trade.

Times have changed since the period when government agencies, universities, offices, and factories would constantly call for their services. These days, two typewriters are repaired a day and if luck would have it, one sold a week.

The second floor of the store is his private sanctuary. His withered hand gestures to random clippings and photographs against the wall. Another office is filled with basketball memorabilia of his late father.

“It is what it is. I kept my promise the day my father died. Life is about holding on to your word,” he says.

Avena took out two typewriters for me to try, both in mint condition, restored meticulously. A short blank piece of paper was around 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 copy 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.

A time will come when no typewriters can ever be repaired in Manila or the rest of the country.

Before catching the bus back home, I ask Avena if he has any regrets.

“No, this is where I started.  All of this will end with me. The typewriter is my life. As long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters.”

***

V. Avena and Sons is located at 2282 España Street, Sampaloc, Manila.