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San Antonio's Last Traveling Typewriter Repairman

Don Spring has been repairing typewriters for 50 years. The owner of Affordable Typewriter Services sells them occasionally too.  In fact, he sold one a couple of weeks ago, but the 72 year-old says he couldn't close the deal on a recent pitch.

"She says, 'let's take it back and show it to the girls.' I walk in there and she says to the girls 'how can we get the ribbons?' I say 'I can get the ribbons.' She says, 'Well, who is going to fix it?' I say, 'Well, I can fix it. I've been doing it 50 years.' 'Well, what are we gonna do when he dies," he says laughing.

His customers these days are older individuals. 

"I have customer in Kerrville who's 102-years-old. He has a Smith Corona -- a portable electric -- and he does all his checks on the typewriter."

And his customers are businesses that deal with a myriad of forms, but would rather line up a type writer than pay to program a computer and printer to do it.

Towne Services of San Antonio moves military members when they get transferred, and the Department of Defense likes its forms. They estimate they do between five to seven different forms for each move, and each move is different.

"I could probably do this in the dark," he boasts deftly removing the cover from the IBM Selectric 2.  This business at one time had seven, now they have only two of the typewriters.

"When I worked for IBM, if you hadn't fixed it in 15 minutes you were in trouble," Spring says.

A can of parts.

He was 21 when another Navy veteran talked him into going to work for IBM. He had gone from a missile technician to the typewriter. While that sounds easy, he says it was intimidating.

"When I saw the typewriter, I says no way I can fix those.' It was scary, but I learned," he says.

He guesses there were 25,000 typewriters in San Antonio alone -- maintained by 27 IBM technicians -- all housed at the Cypress Tower downtown. But those were different times. He used to get a dozen calls a day. Now he is lucky to get a dozen calls in a couple of weeks. 

He can do Olivettis, and Underwoods, the Smith Coronas, but the big Kahuna for him and for his business -- representing 99 percent of it -- is the IBM Selectric. 

"It's the best machine made by the best company," he says.

The company manufactured the near 40 lb office standard from 1961 until the late 80s. Spring talks about the Selectric line with reverence. Almost like the commercial.

The beauty of the Selectric is on the type bar, the keys all go up if you hit too many of them. On the Selectric only one character goes up at a time," he says praising the printing element that he says was revolutionary at the time.

With one case and 30 or so tools, he says he can tackle any problem the 750+ part Selectric could have. And he has the proof. He pulls a small piece of paper from the machine's frame and unfolds it.

"This is the medical record right here," he says with a smile.

He pushes up his square, wire-frame glasses and points to the dozens of entries...all service calls for this typewriter. It dates back to 1997.

He say these things are tanks, "They had these down in Corpus during that hurricane back in the 70s, and they got all full of salt water. They brought them up here and we cleaned them out, refurbished them, and took them back to Corpus. They survived a hurricane."

Spring says they don't make them like this anymore.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the Selectric as weighing 55 lbs. TPR found its own Selectric to weigh between 39-40 lbs.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org