Some look at a typewriter and see an outdated piece of equipment. Ole Kehlet sees art. It’s an occupational hazard for the owner of Kehlet Typewriter & Fax Co. His personal collection of machines has grown so large, he’s lost track of how many items comprise it. He’s spared calculators, adding machines and typewriters from the trash bin. Some are worth a decent chunk of change, but the value of others is strictly sentimental. The digital age is taking its toll on Kehlet’s 16th Street business, bought in 1984, but he’s reluctant to let go of the work he loves.
How did you get started repairing office equipment?
It’s like a lot of people: You just fall into the profession. I was going to [American River College]. I had a friend that was in the business, and they sublet space to another man, and he was looking for a part-time helper. I was looking for a little pocket money, so that’s what I did.
How did you launch your own business?
I bought the business from my former boss, who was going in for open heart surgery. He sold me everything I needed to get set up: a tool kit, a bench, a parts cabinet, a few tools and a workbench light. He had IBM rental typewriters, and that’s where the guys in town used to make their money. When I bought the business, it was well over $3,000 a month coming in off the rentals.
I used to get a call from a big company like GTE Sprint. They’d want to rent a typewriter, so I’d go to the Price Club, and I would buy one. At that time, in the mid-'80s, they were selling them for $700. I’d go in, I’d just write a check, and I’d deliver it.
It was really a good business. It paid for everything. I think it took seven or eight years to pay off the note when I bought the business. By that time, computers were coming in, and the rentals were coming back and stocking the shelves. But in the heyday, we had a waiting list. I had one law firm in town that paid my rent. I about broke down in tears when they called me up and said, “We’ve got computers coming in.”
What is the appeal of fixing office machines?
I always liked fixing things. My dad was a machinist’s mate in the Navy in World War II. His father was an airplane mechanic in France in World War I. We’ve always messed around with cars. My first car was a Model A.
How large is your collection of machines?
I couldn’t even tell you—between 50 and 75 machines. I have a calculator that’s made by Casio. It’s from the ‘70s. It has wood grain. It has no advanced functions, no percent key or anything. I actually bought it in a case, and I only wanted the case. I may have the only one in existence. They’ve all been thrown away. Why would you keep it? I could take it to all the antique shops in town, and maybe I could find somebody who would give me $5 for it.
I have a 1952 Smith Corona tabletop electric, and they were famous for their portables and portable electrics. They tried to get into the office market, but [with competition from] IBM, there was no way they could make it. It’s extremely rare, and it might be worth $10.
I think some day, they’ll be collectible. If you talk to anybody in an antique store, there’s that transition when something was new and useful to when it hits bottom, and it’s likely to be thrown away. Anything, with enough time, is going to have some value to it. But if it’s an item that is less desirable for a longer period of time, the survival rate diminishes.
What is your prized possession in your collection?
I have a machine from 1958, and it’s a little portable called a Voss that was made in Germany. It’s a portable manual typewriter in a little flat case.
It’s not really a valuable machine, but it is to me because of the quality of how well it’s finished off. It’s kind of like a work of art. It’s the difference between a Volkswagen and a BMW.
Are there many others still in the business?
It’s kind of sad because when I got into the business, I was the young guy. There were company men that were trained by Remington, Underwood and Royal; and, one by one, they died. Both my bosses have died. I have tools for adding machines and early typewriters I acquired that are very old. I have no idea what they’re for, and the people that did are all gone.
Have you thought about doing something else?
I still enjoy fixing the machines. I think I always will, but if it comes to the point where the operating expenses of the business just aren’t covered, I’m going to have to look for some work.