WEST ALLIS, Wis. — To Ed Skibba, 83, nothing sounds sweeter than hammering out a rhythm on a well-tuned QWERTY keyboard.
For the 50 years since he opened Ace Business Machines Inc. in this Milwaukee suburb, Skibba has been repairing typewriters — Depression-era Royals heavy enough to anchor boats, IBM Selectrics with the once-revolutionary golf-ball element, transparent Swintecs used by prison inmates.
Age and brand make no difference. He loves digging into any machine with his dental tools, tiny spring hooks and wire brushes, and restoring the steady tap-tap-tap that marks a healthy typewriter.
"It's like having your first ice cream," Skibba said as he worked on an old Royal to the sound of light classics from the portable cassette player on his bench. "You don't want to give it up."
He doesn't have to. A revival of interest in typewriters among millennials who grew up in the digital age, combined with continuing need for the old machines in certain niche markets, has meant plenty of business for Skibba and others who know their way around a Smith-Corona.
"We still do quite a bit," said Skibba's son, Rick. He took over Ace in the '90s. His father remains the go-to typewriter repairer.
He fixes machines that customers bring in, and those that Rick hunts down at rummage sales and Goodwill stores, figuring they can be brought back to life and resold. Demand for old but working manual typewriters jumped noticeably a little more than a year ago, Rick Skibba said.
"We had a waiting list at Christmastime (in 2013)," he said. "We could not get enough typewriters in. Could not."
Then he lucked out, hitting an estate sale where a woman had 12.
"She goes, 'Which one do you want?' I said, 'I'll take 'em all.' She was happy to get rid of them and I was happy to find them."
At Blue & Koepsell Co. Inc. also in suburban Milwaukee, the story is much the same. Customers are bringing in five to 10 typewriters a week for repairs, and demand for restored machines is strong, said Chuck Krall, who handles sales and service for the firm.
The office supply shop has typewriters that date as far back as 1912.
"The older machines are becoming very popular," Krall said. "A lot of the kids like the concept of having the tablet or laptop sitting on their desk and then having a 50- or 60-year-old typewriter. ... Even some of the professional people — we just had a doctor about a year ago spend about $500 rehabbing a 1948 IBM electric typewriter because he liked filling out their prescriptions on it."
Another source of repair work: prisoners. Ace gets a handful of typewriters a year from Wisconsin inmates — Ed Skibba just received an electronic Nakajima — that arrive with a special anti-contraband seal that isn't allowed to be broken.
It's a small part of Ace's business, but the prison trade goes a long way toward supporting New Jersey's Swintec Corp. About 12 years ago, owner Dominic Vespia figured there was a market in offering typewriters with transparent cases — look warden, no drugs or weapons — to inmates.
"It's a big part of our business these days," said Vespia, who sells to prisoners in almost every state. "... Probably had this niche not come up we'd be a lot smaller than we are today."
Skibba hasn't yet diagnosed the situation with the latest machine, but the most common typewriter ailments involve plain old dirt. Typewriters have lots of small parts moving at close tolerances, and dirt can build up and gum the works.
Skibba attacks with gear such as a high-speed rotary tool and, for Royals, a curved metal pick specially designed to clean the tight slots where the dozens of typebars cluster tightly together.
"You can't buy them anymore," he said of the Royal tool. "I think I've got two ... and I treasure them."
One reason century-old typewriters are still operable, of course, is that people such as Krall and Skibba are around to fix them. Both are enthusiastic about the craft.
Krall spends 60 percent to 70 percent of his time on typewriters, because a lot of other office machines, such as low-end copiers and shredders, are so cheap that they aren't worth fixing.
Skibba more than once has dreamed about a particular typewriter-repair problem and come up with a solution while he slept. After decades at the bench, the job still satisfies and challenges.
"I never get tired of going to work," he said.