Test yourself. At what point in the 103-minute documentary California Typewriter do you decide that the analog machine is something you must have? If only you could mention this to collector and advocate Tom Hanks, you learn in the film, he would send you one for free.
While that’s unlikely to happen, such is the seduction of Doug Nichol’s documentary that it doesn’t matter. The interviews with artists, writers and collectors makes you believe that your world will be better with a Smith-Corona Galaxie Classic, a Royal KHM or a Hermes 3000.
The title of the documentary, which shows Saturday at the Roxie as part of SF DocFest, comes from a 34-year old business of the same name that is now at 2362 San Pablo in Berkeley. The owners, Herb and Carmen Permillion, and their struggles with the shop provide the story’s spine. Various subplots fill it out including one that follows the career arc of Jeremy Mayer, an artist who sculpts from typewriter parts.
In their own ways, the Permillions and Mayer each have a difficult time making a living, but they love what they do, and even as difficult as selling typewriters or making art can be, they never appear bitter or ready to give up.
Instead Herb Permillion’s soliloquies on typewriters make him the everyman of small business, one who fixes the machines that many hold dear. Similarly, as Mayer lugs around a deer sculpted from typewriter parts to different galleries, he seems to bear the burden of all talented yet undiscovered artists.
Nichol also explores the typewriter’s history and its usefulness in the creative and communicative process. Mission resident and poet Silvi Alcivar talks about her Royal typewriter as a “medium” that she doesn’t allow anyone else to use. Other writers offer lovely tributes to the machine’s qualities.
Sam Shepard speaks to its tactile attraction. “When you ride a horse you have to saddle it, when you use a typewriter, you have to feed it paper,” and he describes its percussion quality and how “ink flies on the paper.”
Songwriter John Mayer says he’s able to “go deeper without being stopped by this squiggly red line” telling him to stop and correct a misspelled word. Typed riffs for lyrics he says, “are almost what thoughts look like.”
The various threads that Nichol picks up as he goes along all mesh beautifully, including a collector in search of an 1875 Sholes & Glidden and Richard Polt’s Typewriter Manifesto.
Fifty minutes into it, I was convinced I would visit the shop in Berkeley and I did exactly that. Herb Permillion was there with his repairman Ken Alexander, who also features prominently in the documentary. So was a friend who insisted on buying me a portable Smith-Corona, very much like the portable I used to carry on reporting trips in Latin America. It is a fine, easy machine and as someone in the documentary says, “the typewriter doesn’t judge you,” and you never have to upgrade.
Roxie Theater, Saturday, June 10, 5 p.m.
The Vogue, Wednesday, June 14, 7 p.m.
Buy tickets here.