When walking into Karin Kessler’s new store Backspace Westport, those of a certain age could easily get the feeling of stepping back in time. And those of a younger age might certainly be baffled at the products on display: typewriters.
“From the 1890s to the 1980s, typewriters were part of everyone’s life,” said Kessler, a former registered dietician who transitioned back from years as a stay-at-home mom to a retailer with an esoteric inventory.
Kessler came to typewriters a few Christmas seasons back when she opted to give her teenage children an alternative gift to electronic devices. While her holiday offering of a vintage Underwood typewriter was not greeted with uncontrolled jubilation — “As a mom, nothing I can do is cool,” she added, with a laugh — her children’s friends were intrigued by the item. Kessler began collecting typewriters and offered to share them in school presentations, but not every young person understood the machine’s operations.
“The students said, ‘It doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,’” she recalled. “Because they’re not used to snapping it — they’re used to gently touching the keyboard.”
Kessler soon found herself collecting typewriters for a hobby. Her collection grew a bit too much, and she needed to rent a storage space once her basement could no longer accommodate the harvest of her hobby. Then, an unexpected observation put her on the path to entrepreneurship.
“Last October, I was coming out of Barnes & Noble in Westport and I saw a space was available for rent,” she said, referring to the vacant 8 Church St. South store in a small strip mall opposite the book retailer. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I said to myself, ‘Let me just inquire.’ Everything just kind of fell into place.”
Kessler, who declined to discuss start-up costs, positioned Backspace Westport to serve several needs. Part of her operations involve the sale of the vintage machines, with prices ranging from $300 to $1,200 per typewriter. She explained that nearly all of the typewriters she acquired needed to be shipped off to specialists around the country that still offer repair services on these antiquated items.
“They usually come covered in nicotine and filthy,” she said, adding that the costs of cleaning and fixing the machines are factored into their suggested retail price.
Backspace Westport also serves as a mini-museum for historical rarities that Kessler has no intention of selling, including a pioneering version of an electric typewriter from the early 1900s and a World War II-era machine that used cork for its platen because of the wartime rubber shortage. Culturally significant machines for typists seeking paper-and-ink messaging in Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean and Braille are also displayed, as well as typewriters for the French and German markets that feature changes in the keyboard configuration. (The English-language QWERTY is replaced by AWERTY for the French model and QWERTZ for the German item.)
Perhaps the rarest item in the store is a Smith Corona Classic 12 from the 1970s, which consists of only 10 keys using Greek letters. “Smith Corona made approximately 200 of these, but there are only a few of them left because they are plastic,” Kessler said. “No one knows why this machine was made. If you Google it, you’ll see it is a minor mystery of the typewriter world. The CEO of Smith Corona has one in his house and even he doesn’t know why it was made.”
Kessler envisions Backspace Westport as a new community destination for her town. She has an oversized Scrabble board mounted on a wall and a bag of large magnetic letter tiles, and she is hoping to start game nights for adults and children. She also set aside typewriters for people to rent, either on a $30-per-half-hour or $60-per-hour basis, but she admitted that her initial customers took an average of 15 minutes to figure out how to use the machine. Indeed, since her Feb. 2 soft opening, Kessler found many store visitors were surprised by what she presented.
“People become overwhelmed by the selection,” she said. “They don’t realize there are so many types. I say, try every single typewriter because they are all completely different: the touch, the feel, the font. See which one you can connect with, then I will hold it for a week and go home and read about it. I don’t want people to make an impulse purchase. If you are 100 percent sure that’s what you want, then good for you. But I don’t want someone coming in here buying one for the sake of having one.”
Kessler already has one famous booster for her endeavor: Academy Award-winning actor and fellow typewriter collector Tom Hanks sent Kessler a typewritten congratulatory note that she keeps on prominent display; Hanks’ documentary “California Typewriters” plays on a large-screen television in the store’s lobby. Looking ahead, Kessler is setting her grand opening event for June 23, also known as National Typewriter Day.
“What’s very popular now are Type-Ins, where people bring their typewriters,” she said. “I am hoping we can use the front lot and have people come with their typewriters and just type away.”