It was not your typical Christmas gift.
A few years ago, Karin Kessler wanted to give her 4 children something more than electronics or gift cards. She thought a typewriter — a big, black 1930s-era machine — might be a way to connect them to a world beyond screens and stuff.
She found one online.
Her kids had never seen a typewriter. They had never heard the clicking sounds of keys on platen, or the “ding” at the end of a line. They never knew the frustration of whiteout, or the fact that “cc” on emails come from “carbon copy” years ago.
They may or may not have loved Karin’s gift. But it sparked a curiosity in her to know more about typewriters, of all kinds.
She researched the history of the machines. (Did you know that the QWERTY keyboard developed as a way to space out the most popular letters — to avoid jammed keys?)
She began collecting typewriters. She found early models — like one where the typist could not even see what he was typing.
She found crazy-looking bat-wing typewriters, heavy typewriters, and the amazing portables that enabled journalists to type anywhere (of course, they had to carry them there).
The machines — including still-newfangled electric models, with rotating balls instead of keys — became dinosaurs in the 1980s, when word processors were all the rage. But, Karin notes, “for 100 years typewriters were a part of people’s lives.”
Many times, sellers had emotional attachments; the typewriters belonged to their parents or grandparents. But the machines were useless, and taking up room. Sellers asked Karin to take good care of the typewriters.
She does. (First though, she cleans them. Many have decades-old nicotine stains.)
Karin’s typewriters come from all over the world. She’s amassed a mind-boggling collection of fonts and keyboards — including languages like Spanish, French, German, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic (the latter two type, obviously, in the opposite direction as ours).
There are complicated keyboards like Japanese, Korean and Chinese. There are Braille typewriters too, which have only a few keys but nonetheless seem very complicated.
Karin’s basement is filled with typewriters. She has no idea how many.
But she does have an idea what to do with them.
Last October, leaving Barnes & Noble, she saw a “For Lease” space on the small building behind Little Barn. She had an epiphany: open a space filled with typewriters. She’d sell them — but also invite anyone to sit, use them, and learn to love them as she has.
She got the lease. Now she’s filled the store (called Backspace) with all her typewriters — plus desks of different height (so people don’t feel like they’re on top of each other), sofas, and a sign saying “Everyone has a story to tell…put it in writing!”
A mentor from SCORE — the nationwide network of volunteer business experts — has helped keep her focus on the business plan.
So who will rent these typewriters?
“Some people want to type thank-yous, or wedding invitations,” Karin says. “Or poems or short stories. Whenever you type, you feel really productive. You have to slow down, and think about your writing. There’s no spell check, no predictive text.”
Typing is particularly suited to fiction writing and journaling, Karin says.
Backspace is available to rent for events, like book signings, lectures and game nights. She also envisions people coming to take typewriters apart, and learn to repair them.
“It’s a work in progress,” she explains. “I see it as a fun, creative, positive educational place.”
There’s a soft opening this Wednesday (February 7). Then Backspace will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.