Everywhere in his garage workshop, typewriters and their pieces rest on shelves, waiting for his precise touch.
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.