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Nearly the last of a type: The Selectrics repairman

U. Earl Dunn
info@nnbw.biz

John Devries never met Jesse White — the guy who played the lonely Maytag repairman — but he can empathize.

Devries makes his living as one of the last of a breed that services IBM electric typewriters. He’s seen his business plummet since the late 1990s as computers have replaced the machines that had been his bread and butter.

But the owner of Reno-area based Sierra Typewriter Company still gets calls from individuals and businesses that have a need for IBM electric typewriters to be maintained or repaired. He does not have an office, but travels to job sites in his 1993 Subaru four-wheel drive sedan. Some weeks, he may get six or seven calls. Other weeks are much quieter.

Very quiet.

And lonely.

Beginning in 1972, Devries went to work for IBM in its Reno office as a customer field service engineer for the company’s line of office products. He would go to offices to provide maintenance on IBM’s standard typewriters, but when the Selectric model came out business began to flourish. At one time, IBM had captured 75 percent of the typewriter market.

Devries still is wowed.

“The Selectric is an amazing machine,” he says. “The first one came out in the 1960s. The technology and the design on how it works is mind-boggling. When I first saw one and watched that typeball go whap, whap, whap, and put the correct letter up there in one-hundredth of a second, I thought, ‘My God, how can they make this ball do that!’ The machine was a mass of little parts and wires. Thousands of tiny parts.”

He says the big explosion in his business, however, came in 1975 when IBM came out with a correction ribbon that eliminated the need for erasures or correction fluid. “IBM sold millions throughout the world,” says Devries.

Today, Devries’ customers commonly are looking for typeballs, and they usually are looking for a specific font among the dozens that were made by IBM.

“I’ve bags and bags of type balls that I carry with me all the time,” he says.

Devries never intended to work for IBM. He first came to Reno with a degree in geology. His sights were set on the mining industry. But jobs were few and far between and most positions were claimed by graduates at the University of Nevada Mackay School of Mines.

After he worked for IBM for 18 years, the computer business had become more important. Devries was asked to be trained on computer systems that were being installed in Reno hotels.

“I am not a computer guy,” he says. “I don’t have the patience for them, and I don’t like them. I am a mechanic. I am a wrench. That’s who I am and that’s the way my head was made.”

Subsequently, Devries went to work for an office machines company in Reno that had maintenance contracts to service typewriters and other office products for a host of businesses and government offices. In a few years, Devries decided he would go out on his own.

“I saw how big some of the service contracts were,” he says. “I low bid all those government contracts — places like the Fallon Naval Air Station, the Army Depot at Herlong, City of Reno, Sparks, the Job Corps at Stead. I got them all, so I was on my way with my own business.”

While he laments that most of those large contracts are gone, he still has arrangements with a few government agencies, including the Washoe County courthouse, the county library, and with several real estate title companies. “The title companies still keep typewriters for forms they cannot get into their computer,” he says.

He’s old enough to draw a Social Security check, but keeps his hand in the business he loves.

“I don’t make much money. A service call is $65 and that has to cover gas and travel, but I do have some small contracts and I do enjoy working on the machines,” Devries says.

He also owns upwards of 100 IBM Selectrics and Wheelwriters, many of which were just given to him when businesses no longer required them. “I have them to sell and I can get a couple of hundred dollars for those machines today.”

As for computers, Devries admits he does own one — one he assembled from spare parts, just so he can get e-mail.