Five Go on a Treasure Hunt: A musty old Underwood is my type of bargain
You have to load it up with a ribbon, use a carriage return, and hit the keys hard to make an impression on the paper. But typewriters are making a comeback, I’m told
Catherine Cleary with her Underwood typewriter, bought at the monthly flea market in Newmarket Square in Dublin for €60. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
We gave five treasure hunters €100 each and sent them off to bag bargains. In next week’s series conclusion, James O’Halloran of Adam’s Auctioneers will value the items and the winner will get €500 for the charity of his or her choice. Catherine Cleary’s charity is Headstrong, the youth mental health charity.
Hard-nosed treasure hunters aren’t swayed by coincidence and Kevin Spacey. But I have a soft spot for serendipity. So here’s how it happens. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m looking online for an image of an Underwood typewriter. Someone needs me to give them something on an official letterhead. I don’t have one. But I do have an obsession with House of Cards. The scene where Frank Underwood pulls out an Underwood typewriter and types the most audacious letter of his life pops into my head. So I find a drawing of an Underwood typewriter and paste it on the top of my letterhead. It’s hackneyed and lazy. I need a typewriter for work about as much as I need a butter churn. But it’ll do.
A few hours later I’m wandering around the monthly flea market in Dublin’s Newmarket Square with a nagging suspicion that any real treasures have been bagged by early-rising hipsters.
The market is busy. There are lots of secondhand clothes, a blue canvas Swissair cabin bag, and some ferociously ugly china. And then I see my treasure. It’s a handsome black Underwood typewriter sitting on a shelf, its case open behind it like a snake-oil salesman’s travelling bag displaying wares. To my eye there’s a huge neon-bulbed arrow pointing down at it from the sky that reads “Buy me”.
The stallholder, Suzie G Walls, is selling it for €65. She thinks it’s from the 1950s and she bought it in San Francisco in 1998, she says. I have a phobia about haggling. But it’s fading the older I get. So I try out my line. “Is that your best price?” And we settle at €60. I am a haggler. One who settles quickly, but a haggler nonetheless.
“We already have a printer,” the five-year-old says, bewildered by this hunk of metal when I put it on the kitchen table. I slot in some paper and I’m back in a high-ceilinged room in my Dominican secondary school getting my typing speed up to 80 words a minute. That skill got me through college, one temping job at a time.
I remember how to load the paper and the surprisingly physical effort it takes to make the keys punch a proper impression on the whiteness of a page. My little finger feels too weak to match the power of my index finger, so my “a” lacks the emphasis of my “f”. I have a vague memory that we were taught to type on manual typewriters, as they were tools that were unforgiving of a woolly aim. Then we were allowed to move on to electronic ones. So I have a notion of what to do when the keys clump together and have to be eased apart to drop back faithfully into their slots.