Patt Morrison Asks: Two from the ‘typosphere’

There’ll be a pair of Pasadena institutions along Colorado Boulevard for New Year’s -- the Rose Parade, and a company marking 100 years in business. Anderson Business Technology, nee Anderson Typewriter Co., has bucked two trends: It’s been a one-family operation all along, and it’s managed to leap from the age of slammed return levers and carbon paper to ctrl.alt.delete. Don Anderson and his son, David, are chairman and president, the second and third generations in the firm. Change has been crucial to their century of success, and yet a romantic roll call of anachronistic mechanical brands -- Royal, Underwood, Smith Corona, Olivetti, Sholes and Glidden, Hermes -- still connects the Andersons to the “typosphere,” where poet Charles Bukowski’s manual Olympia stars on a mouse pad, and composer Leroy Anderson’s whimsical “The Typewriter” stars on YouTube.

Your family has seen a lot of Rose Parades go by, literally, and Elmer Anderson, the founder, was once president of the Tournament of Roses. Did your company ever have a float?

Don: The Royal Typewriter Co. did -- that was our mainstay. [In 1934] they had a float; I think my dad enticed them. That year the theme was “Tales of the Seven Seas.” The float was called “The Royal Barge.” I rode on the royal barge. I was 5 or 6 years old. My sister was the queen or something, and I was her attendant. [It rained epically that year] and we got soaked.

Three generations and 100 years of a business founded on a device most people under 30 have never used.

Don: My dad was 22 and got apprentice training at the Woodstock [Typewriter] Co. In 1912, he came to Pasadena to visit his aunt and uncle, and brought his typewriter tool kit. He found nobody really repaired typewriters in this area. He repaired the typewriter [at] the Wrigley Mansion, and for [Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president,] Charles Fairbanks, who came here in the winter and stayed at the old Maryland Hotel on Colorado.

We went through the Depression; I remember as a boy [in 1941] when war broke out, most typewriter manufacturers stopped making typewriters and started making machine guns and things like that. We existed on repair work.

David: When I joined the company, typewriters were starting to decline as computers were growing, so we were looking for other technologies. We moved into fax machines; from there we moved into copiers as they made the transition from analog to digital, and that’s really our core business today.

And we don’t sell anything we don’t fix. That’s how we market ourselves.

And there are still people who want you to repair typewriters. Where do you find people who can do it?

Don: We have two technicians from the old era; one of them just retired. We have a [typewriter] graveyard down in the basement. People trade in their old machines, and if they’re still workable, we can still repair them, or [they] have parts that are workable. Pedro, who just retired, can fix them and keep them going.

David: He loves to come back in and work with them. He can even take a part off one machine and grind it down to fix another.

When did you change the name of the business from Anderson Typewriter Co.?

David: In the ‘90s, [when] the typewriter didn’t really tell our story anymore.

I actually resisted changing because I thought it’s going to be valuable, because it’ll show your history, how long you’ve been in business. But it got to the point that my sales staff told me, “I’ll call a client and say this is Anderson Typewriter and I’d like to meet about copiers, and they’d say, ‘We don’t use typewriters in our office.”’ At that point I realized we probably needed to make a name change.

How does a family business stay a family business?

David: I actually didn’t intend to go into it. I worked here in the summers. We had contracts to repair typewriters and clean them once a year. I’d go out with our technicians and get rid of the eraser dust and WiteOut. Later on, when I got my driver’s license, I could do deliveries.

There was never any pressure to join the business. I majored in geology at UC Davis and worked for an engineering firm for a couple of years before joining the company.

Don: David’s coming in when he did -- I’d say probably 99% of the old typewriter dealers we knew across the country are gone now because they didn’t make a transition. David made [survival] possible with his engineering training.

David: You had to. Either you wind your business down and close the door one day and go home, or you transition.

Manual typewriters are suddenly in vogue among a few twentysomethings. Are you seeing that too?

David: We get people who come in and are certainly interested in them. Somebody came in with an old machine and wanted us to refurbish it for his grandson who wanted to be a writer and wanted a typewriter.

Don: Every year starting in the late ‘60s we’ve had a warehouse sale, hundreds of old typewriters we’d get fixed up. We’d have people lined up at our door waiting.

David: We still sell typewriters. We don’t do very many and we couldn’t survive if that’s all we did, but we still get orders occasionally.

At one point, someone was buying old manual typewriters and I asked what they were doing with all of them and he said, “We’re shipping them to the Philippines because they go through brownouts every day and they can keep going in business if they have these manual typewriters.”

I have a nice little manual typewriter at home; I don’t think I’ve used it, but it’s there if I want it.

Don: Banks will quite often have at least one typewriter for doing envelopes and little account cards.

A lot of things, they make them so cheap -- you don’t repair things anymore, you just throw it away and get a new one. These little calculators, when we first started selling them, they sold for like $109. I bought this [one] the other day for $4.95.

For about 100 years, it seemed typing was what women did. Now with computers, everyone does it.

Don: Remington [Typewriter Co.] was the first one to have a typing school. Up till that time everyone who used a typewriter was a man.

There’s this Betty Grable movie, “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim” -- it’s really fun, the story of the first typing school that women attended. In those days, the typists were called typewriters and the machines were called the writing machines.

David: At one of our profit-sharing dinners, Dad showed part of that movie.

You have this enormous collection of almost every brand of typewriter ever made, some of them on display next to digital copiers.

David: It wasn’t like we worked to collect them. We cleaned out the basement and found a lot of them and we’d put [them] in display cases. Of course before something is interesting and valuable, it’s junk.

Does it bother you to see old typewriters turned into decorative objects like planters?

Don: We have an old Blickensderfer typewriter we made into a lamp!

Is there going to be a fourth generation on Colorado Boulevard?

David: I have four kids, so we’ll see. [My son Eric] uses the computer at home, but one Saturday I had to work and to keep him occupied, I put him in front of a typewriter. He came running up the stairs: “Dad, you have to see this! You type the letter and it prints it right away!”

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: