Repairing New York City’s typewriters, one ribbon at a time
Across the street from Ronald McDonald House and down the block from the famed New York City restaurant Petaluma, Alex Konstantinovsky still repairs typewriters. That's right - typewriters, not computers, laptops, smartphones or any other mode of "modern communication." In his small store on East 73rd street in the city’s Upper East Side, he makes sure the keys work, the correction tape rewinds and the paper doesn’t jam in the roller. He also builds orthopedic shoes from scratch and repairs regular shoes, but fixing typewriters is closest to his heart.
“It’s not my primary job, it's my hobby," he says.
He even makes house calls. "People call me, I go pick it up, fix it and take it back."
Born in the Ukraine, Alex arrived in the United States, he very proudly says, on "September 13, 1979." Now an American citizen and living in the New York City borough of Staten Island, he’s been in the store since 1992. He learned the easier parts of typewriter repair from the previous owner. "In the beginning I just changed the ribbon."
In the mid-90s, he would buy used typewriters from a local flea market while visiting his vacation home in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains. Alex's cousin, Michael Galinsky, who owns a store in Brooklyn, "knew more about typewriters so he would repair, fix them up," Alex says. Once the typewriters were returned to working order, Alex would re-sell them his local neighborhood customers.
"We sold a few to collectors," Alex says about that time period, "but we also sold to medical students" from nearby hospitals. "Remember," he continues, "in those days they didn't have laptops."
Even as computers have taken over society, Alex still has some local customers. "People in this neighborhood who are older writers don't want to use computers, they want to use typewriters."
Fixing typewriters can lead to some comical moments, he adds with a smile. "People using wrong size correction ribbon try to get ribbons out. People think there's a problem with the typewriter, actually it's not. Sometimes the ribbon is just finished and they don't realize why the typewriter isn't working. They need my help."
Another aspect of his business is refurbishing unique typewriters to be given as gifts.
"I sold one to a famous lawyer whose son was graduating from college,” he says proudly. “The father wanted to give the son the typewriter because his father had been a famous writer. The father gave it to his son as a graduation gift for his office as a memory of his grandfather."
A victim of the times, he describes the typewriter business right now as being very, very, very slow. "Most of the business now is people buying supplies," he says. He still stocks them in his store, including the all important white correction tape. "People still use them, but not as much." The shoe repair business is not dead,"thank God," he adds.
Alex also continues to refurbish older typewriters for sale to collectors. A black one circa early 20th century is currently in the store. "It's unique," he says, placing it on his counter. "It folds like a book."
If the repair is difficult, Alex gives it to his cousin Michael who still owns his store in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. "He also fixes computers, copying machines, you name it," Alex adds.
There is a steady stream of customers walking into Alex's store one recent morning. A couple of women pick up or drop off shoes that Alex has repaired. Another asks about repairing a broken strap on her tote bag, while another brings in a special pair of walking shoes to be cleaned. Business varies, Alex says. "Sometimes like this, sometimes no one, sometimes busy all day."
Like many small business owners, Alex is a Republican and very proud of it. He's also taking a very active interest in this year's presidential election. "I lived for almost 30 years in Russia and I hate the socialist system," he says, explaining why he is now a member of the GOP. What he is proudest of is being able to vote.
Sitting in the midst of Manhattan’s shiny new skyscrapers, Alex’s store is a true piece of living history. And if you pass his store one night, you might just see a great New York City writer from yesteryear banging away at the keys, white correction fluid nearby.
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Alex Shoe Store