Wonder Pens Family Goes to Sigma Typewriters in Hamilton
Today is something a bit different for the blog! Another Wonder Pens Adventure.. Ages ago, I stumbled across this article about Sigma Typewriters from the Hamilton Spectator, and I told Jon that one day we were going to have to make a trip to this tiny shop tucked away in Hamilton, and get me a typewriter from here. As someone who really loves fountain pens, of course I love the idea of a typewriter - something analogue and mechanical, something to feel the keys and record your mistakes that may turn into stories or maybe not at all.
I remember in university, typing up papers on my computer, and living life on the edge by not saving my work until a certain point. It really was living life on the edge, because any freak electronic spasm could mean my paper would disappear just like that. But something about typing on a typewriter, that physical paper, just like with pen and paper, it's not so easy to just switch it off or delete. For those of you that don't know, I come from Hamilton, or just 'up the mountain' from Hamilton (a small town just beside it). I know Hamilton sometimes has a bit of an unglamorous reputation as 'Steel Town,' or an industrial city, but it's actually a pretty beautiful place, especially if you know where to go. Hamilton has been growing and changing a lot over the last ten or twenty years, and even has a surprising indie art scene. The city has a monthly Art Crawl on James Street North, where cafes and art galleries and independent shops stay open late, and also a yearly Super Crawl that attracts artistic and creative folks from near and far. Two Mondays ago was Chinese New Year, when I had a dentist appointment before heading to my family's for dinner, so being in Hamilton anyways...
Sigma Typewriters is at 600 Upper James Street, and run by Nick Kadak, who buys, sells and repairs typewriters. Admittedly, the shop looks a bit sketchy from the outside, but the Chan family is nothing if not adventurous (and also a foolhardy variety of brave). The door was locked when we got there, but I had called earlier in the morning before we left Toronto, so we knocked on the door for a bit until someone, Nick, came to rescue us.
It is a shop to remember, rivalling our old Dundas West space for its tight aisles and crammed shelves. Oh, the treasures! In addition to typewriters are all sorts of odds and ends, like cups and books and decorations.
I explained to Nick what I wanted (a working typewriter that is also pretty), and Nick pulled out a bunch of typewriters for us to clack away at. He explained a bit about each one and its history, where he had gotten it from or when it was manufactured. He had them tucked away everywhere, behind shelves and on the floors and between furniture desks.
Nick let me take a photo of him, and even showed us the back of his shop, where all the repairs happen. Crazy stuff. Nick and I bonded over the similarity between the state of his desk, and the state of mine.
This is the one we brought home with us! A grey Royal Quiet De Luxe (quiet being a relative term). I was momentarily elated to find out that it was made in Canada, but Nick said that it was probably made somewhere else and partially assembled in Canada...
The best thing about going into a shop like this is that Nick shows you how it all works. I know it sounds like a typewriter shouldn't be so complicated, but there are actually lots of functions, like setting different margins and tabs and releasing the margins for a few keys, and adjusting the line heights and adjusting the paper to keep it straight, and how to tell what's going on with the ribbon. I also picked up an extra ribbon from him. Knowing basically nothing about a typewriter, we picked this one on its looks, and the fact that it's pretty easy to press the keys down. Fun fact: There is no numeral 1 key, it starts at 2 across the top, because the lower case letter L suffices, and it saves space on the keyboard. Fun fact No.2: When writing something on a typewriter (as opposed to a computer), it is much more satisfying to hear the bell ding when you reach the end of the line. It's as though you've successfully accomplished something! You've completed a whole line's worth of writing work! Pavlov would be proud.
What a day! Adventures to a typewriter shop! Finding out I'll need dental work but that won't have to be done for another four months! Chinese New Year dinner with enough leftovers for a week! Maybe it's running a shop that sells fountain pens, or maybe it's just running a small business and getting to know so many other small businesses as part of the ride, but I think there's something so romantic and beautiful but also really important about the soul and character about tiny, hidden away shops like this. We call them independent shops, but really they're shops where you are chatting with someone who is deeply invested in what's going on, and who has touched and restored and cared about the treasures at hand and whose physical presence contributes to our communities. We shop at the places we want to keep alive. As we were leaving, we chatted a bit about being an independent shop that sells things like typewriters and fountain pens. Nick joked that he was like the Last of the Mohicans, which was funny, but also I hope it's only funny because it's not too true. With his knowledge and skills in repairing these old analogue machines, the stories and history in these shops, I hope he's not the last. I guess we're hoping and trying to be part of the new generation of these shops, but we're just young pups still.
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Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Nick is great, and his shop truly is a treasure – I can only hope our shop will last as long as his! He does service his machines and others, I’ll be sure to bring mine in for a tune-up soon.
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I don’t think you need to know too much! It’s a bit slower, and certainly more effortful, than typing on a computer keyboard, but I think for me it was more that my fingers tired out after a while because you have to physical press down on each key, and then draw each finger up fairly high, as compared to the laptop keyboard I normally use. At Sigma, I got to try out a few, so you may be able to try out a few at a shop you visit :)
The Bindery | Middle Watch Press said:
[…] Wonder Pens Family Goes to Sigma Typewriters in Hamilton Wonder Pens It’s bigger on the inside. […]
Thank you so much for your blog post. So great to see Nick and his shop getting some attention. He’s so Hamilton – also a hidden gem! I bought a 1930s Underwood from Nick ten or more years ago. He’s a star! I believe he also services the machines he sells – a lovely old fashioned trait. Which reminds me, the old Underwood should pay Nick a visit!
Michael McCarthy said:
I would love to own one of these old typewriters but admit I know nothing about typing. That is what is holding me back. Is it a steep learning curve to learn how to type a letter?
Thanks so much for reading! What a great piece of your own story – you should definitely dig it out and see how it’s doing :)
What an amazing coincidence! I used to love Hemingway, although I haven’t read anything by him in years. Now the pressure is on to write something beyond my random words and one-liners ;)
Thanks so much for always reading and following along with us! We had a blast, or maybe just me in particular – analogue tools are a soft spot for me! :)
Michael Simon said:
Liz—Another charming trip down Memory Lane. The Underwood Olivetti is the one I bought with my Bar Mitzvah money in 1963 or 64 and used through college and beyond. I still have it, though I’m pretty sure I haven’t used it in at least 25 years.
Oh man, I would go NUTS in that shop! I’ve cruised down Queen St. W going in and out of various antique shops in Parkdale to occasionally have a look for typewriters (and old crokinole boards). I don’t even have room for one, but still want one. Looks like you guys had fun!
We did have a blast! Caleb’s eyes were wide open the entire time with every nook and cranny filled with treasures and more. If you’re ever in Hamilton you’ll have to check it out! I also love roaming antique shops and furniture shops, but I love that at Sigma, you know that the typewriter is fully restored and working and your ribbon is new :)
Pamela Keown said:
I LOVED your photos and the post about typewriters. (Also one of my favorite things.) Thank you Liz for sharing this with us.
Dr JD said:
You might be interested to know that a Quiet Deluxe was Ernest Hemingway’s preferred typewriter.