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Some shops that fix outdated items -- like typewriters and film cameras -- still kicking [The Dallas Morning News]
[April 20, 2011]

Some shops that fix outdated items -- like typewriters and film cameras -- still kicking [The Dallas Morning News]

(Dallas Morning News (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 20--These stores, these relics of the past, are shuttering their doors one by one, with little fanfare. Their owners see no reason to stay open. The services offered are no longer needed. The roiling economy doesn't help much, either.

These are the book binders, the film camera restorers, the typewriter repairman. The shoe cobbler, the record store, the radio retailer. They are once-ubiquitous products now outdated, that must be fixed with knowledgeable hands and not machines.

Now is the age of Kindles and iPads, digital cameras worth thousands and computers that can do almost anything. IPods will be 10 years old this October. People are more likely to hang records on their wall than play them on a turntable.

These are the businesses that 10, 20 years ago were thriving. Now, the few remaining stay afloat because of loyal customers and the trend of young people discovering old things and deeming them "hip." "The sad part is, we're dinosaurs," said Art Urban, who's been fixing film cameras for 39 years.

Extinction hasn't quite happened yet, but Urban and his fellow craftsmen are on the endangered species list. With him there's Candice McKay, who repairs books page by page, and Ed Ellis, who fixes typewriters.

Despite technology trying its best to render them obsolete, their skills and services are still being sought out.

Typewriter repairs Ed Ellis swung his 30-pound tool kit out of the trunk of his SUV as Joy Nees ushered him into her Far North Dallas home.

"If you ever retire I don't know what I'm going to do," Nees said, as Ellis followed a familiar path to her study. "I hate using the computer." Ellis brushed past her computer and sat down in front of a hulking piece of plastic -- an IBM electric typewriter. He pulled off a piece hiding its mechanical organs and got to work. Oil to keep everything moving. A new ink ribbon and print wheel so every letter shows up nice and dark.

After five minutes, Ellis rolled a crisp white piece of paper into the typewriter. Lightning-fast he typed out, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country." It's Ellis' test phrase when he's done fixing a machine. It's the first sentence he learned to type in school.

Ellis was a typewriter repairman when there were companies solely devoted to the trade in the 1980s. Today, he doesn't have much competition and keeps busy making house calls.

"If you Google 'Dallas typewriter repair' I'm the only one who comes up," said Ellis, 63.

He can fix anything from old 1940s manual typewriters to the more high-tech electronic kinds, which have monitors like their successors, the computer.

His expertise continues to be in high demand. Ellis makes about four or five house calls a day, to banks and hospitals and law firms and people's homes. There are typewriters all over Dallas with a tiny silver sticker stuck to them that have Ellis' name and phone number.

He's fixed Ross Perot's old typewriter, an old IBM, the kind Perot made his fortune selling. During the Y2K scare, people called him to order 10 typewriters, afraid of their computers crashing. He opened a secret compartment in the typewriter Adolf Hitler used to write his autobiography Mein Kampf, the owner watching Ellis' every move over his shoulder. (There was nothing in it.) Ellis isn't sure how much longer he'll be toting his tool kit around. He's just surprised he's still getting phone calls today.

"Typewriter men are hard to come by," Ellis said. "They're always real happy once they find me." Book restoration In a quiet corner of the Bishop Arts District, the employees of The Book Doctor labor for hours on end, repairing the yellowed pages and cracked bindings of books sometimes centuries old. The process is tedious -- sometimes done page by page.

Owner Candice McKay and her fellow book binders spend their days handling tattered books that are priceless to the people who bring them in. Their staple restorations are family Bibles, cookbooks and children's books, but sometimes they'll get a relic like a Civil War diary.

"Most restoration work takes about eight to 12 weeks," McKay said. "Bigger projects can take 20 weeks." The Book Doctor also does book bindings, from the self-publishing novelist to the mom who brought in her 9-year-old son's self-written guide to his favorite video games.

Christopher Lee, 25, spends most of his days restoring old tomes. His apron is stained with old glue, and he's fixing tears in a 1920s Bible page by page.

Lee started working at the shop a year and a half ago, and said the sometimes monotonous and meticulous work fascinates him.

But there's one thing he hates -- when people use duct tape to hold their deteriorating books together.

"It leaves this awful residue that's hard to get off," Lee said. The Texas climate also doesn't do book lovers any favors with the heat, as well as bugs that eat binding glue. People bring books in that have been shoved in the backs of closets for years, and McKay's and Lee's jobs are to make them look as if the bugs never feasted on the spines.

McKay said "the last three or four years have been strong" even amid the closing of hundreds of Borders stores and the popularity of Kindles and iPads.

She said she's not worried about the electronic tablets decimating the book population.

"People still love books as an object," McKay said. "I think loving books and loving reading are two separate things." Camera know-how The Shutter Works showroom in Fort Worth is lined with old cameras of all shapes, ages and sizes: Big flashbulb ones and simple box ones, from Kodak to Polaroid to Nikon.

Behind these walls are two men tinkering on cameras in various states of disrepair, on both ends of the technology spectrum. Art Urban tears apart film cameras with ease, dissecting the antiques with tiny screwdrivers and Q-tips. Abel Flores, who started working for The Shutter Works right out of high school, examines a sketch of a digital camera's innards on a computer monitor.

"I fix about three or four cameras in a day," said Urban, who's been in the business for 39 years. "In the heyday [the 1980s] I would be doing around eight every day." Urban has notecards with hand-drawn sketches that reveal where every quarter-inch screw goes. Manuals were (and still are) hard to come by, so Urban and other repairmen had to do their own autopsies to determine how the cameras worked.

On the other side of Urban's desk sits Flores, who does most of the digital camera repairs, which keeps the business moving forward as film cameras die out.

He primarily fixes sensor and shutter problems, and cameras that suffer from "impact abuse." These cameras have gone through the traumas of falling onto baseball diamonds, getting drinks spilled on them or getting dropped on the ground.

"The worst was when a cat barfed on one," Flores said.

A third of their business is film cameras, another is digital cameras, and the last is video cameras.

Owner Gary Bicknell collected the old cameras that line the store's showroom walls, and uses many of them for parts. He meticulously sorts them into labeled boxes so Urban and his other repairmen can find replacement parts for cameras of all ages and brands.

"Young people like both, film and digital cameras, like a retro thing," Bicknell said. "And there are people who are too old or don't want to learn to use digital cameras." ___ To see more of The Dallas Morning News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

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