Bill Skillman

In an age of sleek computers and skinny laptops, Bill Skillman is one of a vanishing breed of typewriter repairmen. Business is not as slow as one would think, even during these high-tech times, Skillman said. Everywhere in his garage workshop, typewriters and their pieces rest on shelves, waiting for his precise touch.

A technician for IBM since the 1950s, Skillman had a hand in developing the famed IBM Selectric typewriter. After retiring, he continued to work on the machines and eventually opened his own business, Bill Skillman's Typewriter Service.

He took a break from his work on an old Smith-Corona to talk with the Daily Tidings about his love of the craft and the future of typewriter repair.

DT: How long have you lived in Ashland?

BS: 32 years.

DT: What brought you here?

BS: Other than my old Dodge van, you mean (laughs)? My wife and I both have family here. When we first met in Santa Cruz. We got to chatting and discovered we both had family in Ashland. I was able to get a transfer from IBM, so we were lucky to be able to move here.

DT: What were you doing at IBM?

BS: I started as a typewriter mechanic in San Jose, California in 1959. Before that I repaired school buses, but it was a dead-end job, so I went down to IBM one day on my lunch hour for an interview. The guy doing the hiring showed me a typewriter, laid out some tools and told me to take it apart, put it back together and come get him once I understood how it works. About 5 minutes later, I went back to him with what I'd learned. He was surprised and I got the job.

DT: What do you enjoy about typewriter repair work?

BS: I enjoy the challenge of bringing something back to the way it was when it was brand new. I like diagnosing, analyzing, making it work the way it was designed to work. I get a kick out of that.

DT: How long have you had your own business?

BS: Since 1997.

DT: Where do your customers come from?

BS: Everywhere. I get individuals who just have their own personal machines and businesses who still use typewriters. There are an amazing number of those, such as Harry& David, law firms, accounting offices. I get businesses from all over the country that send me typewriters. People don't use them all the time — there may be just one or two in the back room — but they are definitely still being used.

DT: What's your favorite typewriter to work on?

BS: The IBM Selectric. I was on the development team for them, and I taught them at the factory, training technicians on them. It's not an intuitive machine at all, but I know it. I know it real well.

DT: Where do you get your parts?

BS: Some are still available and some I have stockpiled. When IBM sold its typewriter division, all the typewriter parts that were out in the field offices were supposed to be disposed of. I can't throw anything away so I ended up with a whole bunch of IBM parts in my garage. If I can't find a part for a machine, like the Smith-Corona I'm working on now, I make it.

DT: How does it feel to be a typewriter repairman in an age of computers?

BS: I find it very satisfying. I kid with people and tell them I bill myself as a doctor of dinosaurs. I know it's a niche market and few people still have typewriters, but I don't think in my lifetime there will be a time when nobody has typewriters. There are always people around who hang onto the old stuff and I want to be the guy who can satisfy that need for as long as it's there or for as long as I can — whichever comes first.

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