Type Casting

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Though Mr. Gomes's father refused to leave British Guiana, the younger Gomes saw no alternative but to depart. Taking little more with him than his wife, a couple of typewriter ribbons and whatever cash he could sneak out of the country, he moved to Denver in 1958.

"It was a nice little town in a fast-moving country," he recalls. "We had never seen television, for instance, and we had been living below sea level. I discovered that, frankly, I prefer this. It may have been more relaxing in the tropics, but I liked Denver."

Cruising 17th Street for a business-machine company that might have an opening, Mr. Gomes ventured into the Stahl Typewriter Company, in business since 1885. He never left -- in fact, he bought the business in the mid-Eighties. The company, whose ownership had passed from the Stahls to a family named Santangelo, had quickly taken Mr. Gomes under its wing, sending him to train on various machines that now seem as lost in time as the button hook or the corset stay. "I trained on the Address-O-Graph," he recalls. "I was sent to calculating school. I became certified for service and repair of the complete line of Eversharp pens and pencils."

"You actually repaired a pencil?" I ask.

"Well, they were mechanical pencils. And the pens weren't ballpoints then. Mechanically, they were quite complex. Of course, now everything's plastic."

"That's right!" I say. "Disposable! Cheap!"

"You can get a pen for 39 cents," Mr. Gomes says, with evident approval and no nostalgia whatsoever. "At one point, we had four repairmen working full-time, working on all those machines and more. We serviced typewriters for the colleges, the public schools, the libraries. We were very big. Everyone knew us. Every time we had to move, I made sure to keep the same number: Main 3-1024, which really was the 1,024th phone number issued in Denver. I kept the number; I kept the customers."

Mr. Gomes is the first to admit that today he is Stahl's sole employee and that his typewriter work is part-time as best -- but the loyal customers keep coming back. The National Rifle Association continues to rent several electric Olympias for its national convention each year, as do the Native American Artists of New Mexico. Arthur Andersen's downtown office is a regular account, as is the law firm of Trimble, Tate and Nulan.

"We still have three Selectrics around here," says Trimble legal secretary Cheryl Curtis. "They come in handy for typing legal forms, like for probate, and I do like 'em. They're no-brainers. I'm 48, so I remember all those old machines, and these are the best. When they break down, we just call in Mr. Gomes, the typewriter doctor, and he takes them away to his hospital."

"The advantage," Mr. Gomes opines, "is that when you have a quick letter to address or a form to fill out, a computer program is simply too expensive and hard to learn. A typewriter is just the thing."

Indeed, filling in forms and addressing envelopes is what Mr. Gomes uses his own Olympia for, although his words-per-minute have slowed considerably since he lost two fingers in a snowblowing accident. For business accounting and storage of files, he uses an ancient Silver Reed word processor. For prompt index and retrieval of his customer base, he uses a disposable lead pencil and a small-ruled, spiral-bound notebook. In order that his wife may e-mail her sisters in England, he keeps a home computer with a modem. He may, in fact, be the only person on earth who has been able to pick and choose successfully between current technology and its less-sophisticated forebears.

I don't know how he does it. I only like my computer when it likes me, and how often is that? Meanwhile, I cultivate a simplistic longing for simpler times.

"You're like Andy Rooney," Mr. Gomes tells me. "Whenever he came to Denver, he rented a typewriter from us, and he insisted that it be manual. He was very old-school."

"Well, so was Hemingway," I point out, treating myself to an image of Papa typing, in a muscular fashion, in a Havana hotel room.

"I do hear from the secretaries that they miss the feeling of actually producing something. Pushing down a key, hearing the sound, seeing the letter," Mr. Gomes says. "When the IBM Selectrics went electronic, that was the hardest on them. They missed the durability and the sense of touch."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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