Budget discussions can be dry, and right now, all across the Island, town department heads are going before boards of selectmen and finance committees to justify their spending plans in details that can be sleep-inducing.
On Feb. 4, during a lengthy discussion of department budgets in Tisbury, fresh-faced building commissioner Ross Seavey piqued our interest. In between discussion about the need for more training and his request for a new set of wheels, there was this gem from his fiscal 2021 budget.
“Equipment and repair went down a tiny bit,” Seavey told selectmen. “We got rid of our typewriters. That’s where that line was used mostly.”
The comment prompted a chuckle from town administrator Jay Grande, an inaudible quip from selectmen chair Melinda Loberg, and a puzzled look from this curious reporter, old enough to remember when an obituary writer at his first newspaper job, circa 1986, took notes about her “deadies” on a manual typewriter with the melodic clanging of keys against an ink ribbon.
Aquinnah, Chilmark, and Oak Bluffs still have their wooden ballot boxes for elections, you can still get your mail in Post Office boxes inside Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury, and apparently there are typewriters lurking in town halls, police stations, and attorneys’ offices across the Vineyard.
“People say stepping onto Martha’s Vineyard is like stepping back in time, and that’s true,” Seavey said. “Just not in the building department anymore.”
We checked in with Seavey the day after his budget presentation to find out what the typewriters were being used for in the building department. “They had two typewriters that were being used to fill out every form in the office,” Seavey said, the “they” being former building inspector Ken Barwick and his assistant Rhonda DeBettencourt.
But when those two moved on last summer — Barwick to retirement, and DeBettencourt to Tisbury Water Works — Seavey purged his department of the relics.
“I’m not unfamiliar with typewriters,” Seavey, a 32-year-old licensed attorney, said. He used them in a previous job doing eviction notices. “They had to be originals,” he said.
But in a fast-paced office like the Tisbury building department, they had to go. “They’re inefficient in an office that produces a lot of paperwork,” he said.
Instead, Seavey has created forms that can be filled out online. “It saves us a lot of time, especially for Lynn [Merry],” he said referring to his administrative assistant.
Seavey said he believed the working typewriters were shipped up to town hall. We went to investigate.
In town accountant Suzanne Kennedy’s office, where there are two typewriters, she said neither of them are repurposed from the building department.
“We’ve had these two typewriters for years,” Kennedy, a 33-year veteran of town government, said. “I’m a dinosaur.” Then she added, we think jokingly, “I still have stone tablets.”
Kennedy said she mostly uses the typewriters for labels on her file folders. “It’s too much effort to set up labels on a computer,” she said.
John Minnehan, her assistant, said he uses them to type envelopes: “Have you seen my handwriting?”
On this day, neither of the old electric typewriters were in use — unless you count the one that was being used to hold a stack of papers.
“Computers definitely improved things,” Kennedy said, “but there’s still a need for typewriters.”
Grande later wrote in an email that one of the building department typewriters went to the planning board, and the other is in storage.
Paul Vietro of Vietro Repairs is the typewriter service guy. Twice a year he jumps on a ferry from his Woburn headquarters, and spends three days on the Island servicing typewriters.
Along with the two at Tisbury Town Hall, Vietro estimates he repairs about 50 typewriters across the Island — in Oak Bluffs Town Hall, at police departments, and in attorneys’ offices in Edgartown. He’s been doing it for more than 25 years. “I know the Vineyard well, to the point where they leave the doors open for me, or I know how to get in,” he said. “I service the machine, and they’re happy when they come in.”
Through the years he’s met famous people — Jim Belushi is apparently a typewriter fan, and “the guy from ‘This Old House’” — and he has a classic story about helping one of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists who discovered the Titanic wreckage. (He couldn’t recall if it was Robert Ballard himself.) “I joked with him, ‘So you can find the Titanic, but you can’t change your typewriter ribbon,’” Vietro said.
Vietro said he still services about 500 typewriters throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Look closely, you’ll probably see one of his stickers on the next Island typewriter you see. That’s what keeps him in business, he said.
“People see my stickers and say, ‘You know someone who fixes these?’ and they write down my number,” he said. “I’ve gotten business years and years later just from those tags.”
At 59 years old, he’s not worried about guys like Seavey who toss his technology aside. In 2016, Tom Hanks, a typewriter fan, did a documentary that provided a bit of a resurgence for Vietro. People love nostalgia.
But it’s the advice Vietro received from others that gives him staying power, despite folks like Seavey who cast typewriters aside in favor of iPads and portable printers. Vietro also services printers, copiers, and another relic — the fax machine. “I don’t think I’m going anywhere soon,” he said. “It’s like the stock market, diversify enough and you can get hurt, but not that badly. I’ll be fixing something somewhere.”