Manson H. Whitlock, one of the country’s longest-serving repairmen of the clattering keyboard contraptions known as typewriters, died Wednesday at his home in Bethany, Conn. He was 96.
The cause was not disclosed, but Whitlock closed his shop in June, when he was hospitalized with a kidney ailment.
Once ubiquitous in offices and on the dorm-room desks of college students, typewriters have all but fallen silent in recent years, as they have been replaced by computers. But Whitlock kept plugging along, as a dwindling number of customers hunted the streets of New Haven, Conn., and pecked at the door of his second-floor shop near the campus of Yale University.
He had been on the job since 1930, when he began working at his father’s bookstore. Before long, he took charge of the typewriter department. He sold thousands over the years, and customers returned to him for replacement parts and for repairs when the keys became stuck or the carriages wouldn’t return on their Royals, Remingtons, Smith Coronas and Underwoods.
Whitlock was at his shop every day, seven days a week, invariably wearing a tweed jacket, V-neck sweater and necktie — looking like the Yale students and professors of yore. In dress, manner and occupation, he was a link to a long-gone world of the Ivy League and to a time when machines were operated by hand and built with an intricate structure of fitted metal parts.
When a manual typewriter broke down, it wasn’t thrown in the trash and replaced by a newer model. It was taken to someone like Whitlock, who used special tools and decades of experience to put it back in working order. Soon enough, he could roll a sheet of paper around the platen and tap out, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” using all 26 letters of the keyboard.
The last two fingers of Whitlock’s right hand were permanently curled from the countless hours he had gripped a screwdriver, working on many of the 300,000 typewriters that passed through his shop.
“I’ve never known anyone who works on typewriters that can match him in any way,” historian and biographer William Manchester told the Register in 1990. “He’s in a class by himself.”
Whitlock’s other customers included authors Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish and John Hersey, as well as A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale president and baseball commissioner. A Yale classics professor named Erich Segal once bought a portable Royal typewriter from Whitlock and used it to write one of the top-selling books of the 1970s — “Love Story.”
“The typewriter was essential in those days,” Whitlock told the Yale Alumni Magazine in an interview in its January-February issue this year. “Every summer, students dropped off their typewriters to be serviced, cleaned and stored while they were home.”
At one time, he had “a good-sized store,” he said. “I had six assistants. We sold ribbons by the thousands.”
Whitlock often visited pawnshops to search for spare parts, and in time hundreds of typewriters crowded his shelves, constituting a kind of private museum. He kept a bust in his shop of Mark Twain, the first author to submit a typed manuscript to a publisher.
In recent years, Whitlock sat alone at his desk, waiting for the occasional customer to climb the stairs. He remained fascinated by the mechanisms of the classic manual models, but as a concession to modern times, he began to repair electric typewriters as well.
He drew the line at computers, which he never learned to use. As he told the Christian Science Monitor in 2007, “You work a typewriter, a computer works you.”
Manson Hale Whitlock was born Feb. 21, 1917, one of six sons of Clifford Everett Hale Whitlock, who opened a bookstore in New Haven in 1899. He began working at the store in high school.
“I just gravitated to the typewriter department,” Whitlock said in 2007, “because I’d always been interested in things mechanical.”
After a few years, he moved out of the bookstore and opened a shop dedicated to typewriters. In his way, Whitlock was a skilled artisan who made an intimate contribution to the intellectual life of the Yale student body and professoriate.
“I decided that if I couldn’t go to Yale,” he told The New York Times in 2009, “I’d have Yale come to me.”
Whitlock revealed little about his early life, but he once told an interviewer that he “used to race sports cars.” He sold his 1953 Jaguar to help pay the medical bills of his wife, Nancy, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He kept a painting of the car in his home. She died in 1996. A son, Gilbert Ward Whitlock, died in 2007.
Survivors include a son, William Whitlock, and three grandchildren.
Whitlock lived long enough to see a revival of interest in vintage typewriters, if only as a kind of retro trend among literary-minded young people.
“They’re becoming curiosities,” he told the Register in 2010. “They’re not tools of necessity anymore. Kids are buying them on the Internet — is that what it’s called?”