OLD TECH NEW SPIN

By PENNY CARNATHAN

pcarnathan@tampatrib.com

Published: February 7, 2010

Mention cool gadgets with all the bells and whistles and, chances are, members of Generation Digital will smile and say, “Old school.”

As in typewriters.

Ding!
Manual typewriters and rotary telephones, those clacking, crackling non-digital dinosaurs with knobs and levers and dials, are making a comeback. People too young to remember when microwaves were magic have taken to playing vinyl on record players and shooting photos with film cameras.

Even newer old technologies, like Nintendo game systems and VHS tapes, are embraced for their old-fashioned quirks and unique capabilities.

These new old-tech fans are young, from tweens to 30 years old, and their numbers have been growing over the past year or two.

“Younger people are on a steady diet of digital media. They wonder how the world ever ran with things like manual typewriters,” says Steve Hilsz, an antique phones repairman who noticed an uptick in young customers about three years ago. “They’re fascinated that this stuff works with all the gears and motors.”

The generation that grew up with CDs and cell phones says old school technology is more fun – and rewarding – than the new stuff. They like pushing buttons that click and set into motion mechanical chain reactions. They like the organic crackles and pops of moving parts, and working a little harder for the payoff of hearing a song or making a call.

It’s a complete sensory experience, from hefting a heavy phone handset that feels more like a suitcase handle to watching a record spin. And it’s all good for the planet.

“Older products don’t have a throwaway culture. They were designed for quality,” says John Mola, 20, a Florida State University student from Lutz majoring in environmental studies.

Mola prefers vinyl over MP3, VHS over DVD, and a 30-year-old Black & Decker Coffeematic for his morning joe.

The old stuff doesn’t break as easily, and if it does, it’s easy to fix, he says.

“There’s a desire among young people to reuse older things, to be able to repair them to make them ‘new.’ It’s not the norm, but it’s definitely growing. We know the age of cheap, dispensable goods isn’t going to last. It’s not realistic.”

And for now, at least, those rugged oldies are much less expensive than their digital descendants.

Antiques expert Lori Verderame, a Pennsylvania-based author and TV personality known as Dr. Lori, says the new fascination is beginning to show in the marketplace.

“I’m seeing, online, spiked prices. An Imperial or Royal typewriter from the ’40s or later can go for $125.”

But old phones, typewriters and hi-fi stereos are mostly still dirt cheap at flea markets and on eBay, or available free from parents and grandparents.

Record players – better yet, stereo systems – are among the most popular must-haves.

The first resurgence of vinyl fever back in the ’90s prompted manufacturers to start cranking out turntables again, so brand-new systems are available. Some buy new – but not if they can get old.

Robert Camacho, a 21-year-old from Tampa studying applied economics at FSU, cherishes the circa 1970s Stamford turntable, complete with equalizer and Pioneer amplifier, handed down to him by his father. It gives him the ability to “touch” his music, he says.

“I have the best of the old school, before digital music. Using knobs and dials, I can manipulate the speed, the sound, the bass.

“I feel like music is an intimate thing. The ability to manipulate it makes it even more intimate. You can’t do that with digital. On iTunes, you pick an equalizer setting and it’s all preprogrammed.”

‘A closer relationship’

John Sharby, 22, of Tampa, a history major at the University of South Florida, inherited his stereo from his great-grandmother. He likes the crackly pops of vinyl, and the durability of records and record players. But it goes deeper than that, he says.

“In this day and age, as technology advances, things are becoming less and less personal. We’re becoming more detached.

“It’s nice that it (a record player) involves more work. You’ve got to lug around the records, place the needle on the record. It gives you a closer relationship to the object. … We are privileged, my generation. We don’t have to work quite as hard. It gives us the opportunity to be disillusioned, to say ‘I want something more.'”

More work?

That’s crazy talk to David Randall, the 74-year-old owner of one of the last typewriter repair shops in the Bay area, D&W Typewriter Service and Repair in Progress Village.

Most of his clients are old folks homes and lawyers’ and doctors’ offices. But for the past year or two, kids have been coming in with manual typewriters they’ve picked up at flea markets and thrift stores. Randall refurbishes them with a deep clean and new ribbon for $65.

“I can’t understand why they want them,” he says. “They’re too slow. I’m with the modern stuff.”

No, he’s not talking computers.

“I have an IBM Lexmark Wheelwriter, the greatest typewriter in the world.”

Old telephones aren’t as much work, and they’re even cheaper to buy and repair, says Steve Hilsz, 65, of VTS Industrial Co. On his Web site, www.navy salvage.com, he offers to walk people through repairs over the phone for free. They can also mail him their old phones, which can often be fixed for as little as $15 plus the cost of shipping to Salome, Ariz.

“The guys want to tinker, the girls want me to repair them,” he says. “I don’t mind (helping others make their own repairs). I have 50 years of experience, and I don’t want to keep all that knowledge to myself.”

His youngest customers, teenagers and college kids, have phones they’ve bought for as little as $10 on eBay. Those might date back to the 1950s.

Hilsz has seen the phenomenon before. Thirty years ago, wooden wall phones were all the rage.

“They probably remembered the same phones at their grandparents’ place,” he says.

Nintendo 64 forever

And then there’s the newer old stuff, which comes with a surprising nostalgia quotient, a testament to the amazing speed at which technology has advanced.

“‘Mario’ was so much better when I was 5,” says Ryan Anderson, a 19-year-old from Tampa majoring in marketing at USF. “Nintendo 64 was my first love.”

You had to hit the console, shake it, blow on it, jiggle the cable to get it to work. But that just made it special, say he and his friend Sam Metzer, also 19, a physics major.

“Only you could control your own console. Only you knew what to do to make it work,” Anderson says.

Both still prefer those old Nintendos, available for $5 at flea markets, over new systems like Wii.

And yes, they appreciate the irony of being nostalgic when they’re still so young. But that’s what happens when so much changes so fast. The 1990s were a different time, Anderson says.

The old stuff isn’t as convenient or portable, but it’s more fun, these students say.

“Technology is better with interaction,” says Hilary Fox, 20, an accounting major at USF.

True, agrees her friend, Maurisa Simmons, 20, a communications major. “The only thing I don’t like about typewriters: They don’t have a ‘delete’ key.”

But they do have something great, says psychology major Meghan Hirsch, 21. She smiles big.

“Ding!”

Editor Penny Carnathan can be reached at (813) 259-7612.

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