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Northlandia: Typewriter enthusiast keeps machines clicking, clacking

Josh Nickila wants your unused typewriters for his own collection and to pass along to people interested in the machine computers replaced.

Man fixing a typewriter.
Josh Nickila works on a 1923 Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter in his Duluth home Nov. 24.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Josh Nickila didn’t give typewriters much thought.

The machines were on their way out by the time he was born in 1985, and Nickila, of Duluth, said his earliest memories of typing were on a computer’s word processor.

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But his indifference to the typewriter changed in January when he watched “ California Typewriter ,” a 2016 documentary about a Berkeley, California, typewriter shop and other enthusiasts committed to using the machine in the 21st century.

“I watched this and I was just hooked,” Nickila said. “I got my first official working typewriter about two weeks after I watched that movie.”

It was a 1956 Smith Corona Sterling, which he described as “a Chevy of typewriters.” But he wanted more.

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So he put up fliers in coffee shops and churches around Duluth asking people to offload their typewriters. He also scoured Facebook Marketplace and other websites.

A poster.
Josh Nickila is always looking for old manual typewriters.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Everybody’s got a grandparent or a relative who has one sitting in their garage or real estate sales or an estate sale that have one sitting there and people just pass them by because people don’t think anything of a typewriter,” Nickila said. “But for someone like myself, who is trying to slowly build a resurgence, they are everywhere.”

He figures he has about 35 typewriters, down from 45 after he sold a few, in the office of his Norton Park neighborhood home. The Macintosh computer on the desk has been pushed aside so he can restore a 1923 Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter; a small part from Switzerland had just arrived.

Man and typerwriters.
Josh Nickila talks Nov. 24 about some of the manual typewriters he owns.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The fliers also included a plug for the Twin Ports Typewriter Collective, a group Nickila founded where people can sell, buy and talk about typewriters. That community-building includes connecting area writers and poets with typewriters.

Jess Morgan, who leads the Duluth Poetry Chapter for the League of Minnesota Poets , got to know Nickila, a musician, when organizing entertainment for the Duluth-Superior Pride Festival. Nickila also got Morgan hooked on the “California Typewriter” documentary. They’ve watched it three times so far.

Nickila helped connect Morgan with a Smith Corona Silent, the kind actor and typewriter collector Tom Hanks fawns over in the documentary. Nickila is fixing Morgan’s other Smith Corona.

Jess Morgan sits outside in front of a typewriter.
Jess Morgan, a poet, poses for a photo at Hawk Ridge in front of their Smith Corona Galaxie II typewriter.
Contributed / Jess Morgan

Morgan said poets use typewriters when they’re busking as they can quickly type up a poem on paper and hand it to the customer. Outside of busking, Morgan added, writing on typewriters has advantages over a computer: There are fewer distractions, no batteries to keep charged and no delicate electronics to protect.

“It’s nice to have the speed of typing without the distraction of the computers,” Morgan said.

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And Morgan wants to help area poets get their hands on typewriters. They’re trying busking as an engagement strategy through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board “to explore nontraditional audience connection and engagement strategies for poets and multidisciplinary artists in Duluth, especially among LGBTQ2+, low-income and neurodiverse populations."

A manual typewriter.
One of Josh Nickila’s old Remington typewriters.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“I’ve also been working on slowly accumulating (typewriters) so I can either get them to poets so they hold on to them or do some type-ins and maybe learn more about the machines,” Morgan said.

Type-ins are a gathering of fellow typewriter and/or poetry enthusiasts.

The events would fit in Morgan’s Arrowhead Regional Arts Council-grant-funded project to “support the writing and publishing of a poetry chapbook that focuses on the people, places and topography of the Duluth, MN area.”

Morgan hopes to collaborate with Nickila on some of the type-ins.

Old typewriter ribbon boxes sitting on a table.
Old typewriter ribbon boxes are stacked next to some of Josh Nickila’s typewriters.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“He’s helped spread some more enthusiasm for it,” Morgan said. “And just kind of helping people understand what’s really cool about the machines.”

The connections Nickila has formed through this hobby haven been beyond the Duluth area. He corresponded with some of the subjects of “California Typewriter,” including Tom Hanks.

In October, Hanks, with his typewriter, responded to a letter Nickila had typed him. Hanks addressed it to Nickila and his two step-daughters, Tala and Esme.

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“Thanks for the lovely letter and please, keep typing, to every body …” Hanks wrote.

Framed letter.
A letter from Tom Hanks, a fellow typewriter collector, hangs in Josh Nickila’s home.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Nickila plans to. And he wants to get other people typing, too.

He’ll take an old typewriter, tinker with it, clean it up and get it into working condition. Chances are he’ll sell it, but for him, it’s not about the profit. He said he does it because he wants “working typers out there for people who want to become interested or passionate about typewriters.”

“If people don’t keep them around, they’re going to disappear,” Nickila said. “I don’t want the idea of the typewriter, one of the most prominent instruments of the nineteenth century, to go away.”

northlandia 7
“The Typewriter Repair Manual” lays near one of Josh Nickila’s typewriters.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Related Topics: DULUTHHISTORICALANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLESMEMBERS-ONLYNORTHLANDIA
Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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