November 13, 2017
Fixing office equipment, he doggedly pursues dying art
Photos/Don Del Rosso
Ronnie Stevenson lubricates a typewriter in his Goldvein workshop.
Mr. Stevenson and his wife Christa, the president of their company.
Everything in our business evolves so fast, it’s unreal. You no sooner have one thing done and ‘Boom!’ — they’ve changed it.
— Ronnie Stevenson
Stevenson On-Site Repair
Ronnie and Christa Stevenson
Office equipment repair company
13295 Deep Run Mill Road, near Goldvein
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays
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The office equipment repairman feels like a dinosaur living on borrowed time.
When Ronnie Stevenson started Stevenson On-Site Repair at his Goldvein home in 1991, he had about 15 jobs a day — all but a couple or so for electric and manual typewriters.
Twenty-six years ago, typewriter work constituted about 90 percent of the work.
“From the 1970s on, typewriters really started to take off,” Mr. Stevenson recalled.
But the personal computer eventually devastated that segment of his business, he said.
“It killed it. I’d say for 10 years, up to 2005, is when everything really started slacking off.”
“Technology changes,” his wife Christa, the company’s president, said of the downturn.
Today, Mr. Stevenson gets two to three typewriter repair calls a week.
Typewriters usually require routine work — fine-tuning or simple part replacements — Mr. Stevenson said.
“The biggest problem I have with typewriters is people will drop things down inside them and jam them up — a pencil, an ink pen, paper clips.”
Versatile and virtually indestructible, the IBM Selectric remains among the most popular typewriters still in use.
IBM stopped making the machine in the mid-1980s. Mr. Stevenson since has collected about 70 Selectrics, stripping them for parts.
While typewriters have all but disappeared, some clients — law firms, accountants, title companies, schools, state and local governments and individuals — still use them to produce carbonless paper duplicates of certain documents or because of convenience and neatness, Mr. Stevenson said.
Judy Mullins of Saratoga Title & Escrow in Warrenton helps process assorted real estate documents.
“It takes a little extra time, but it looks so much more professional than handwriting,” said Ms. Mullins, who uses an IBM Wheelwriter. “Call us old school; we like to be different.”
Like Ms. Mullins, Fauquier County Deputy Treasurer Deborah Frey and her staff prefer the appearance of typed to hand-written documents.
Ms. Mullins, for example, uses an IBM typewriter for forms that cannot be completed online and documents the treasurer’s office prepares for other government agencies.
“Sometimes type looks much nicer than just handwriting,” she said.
Town of Warrenton Senior Administrative Assistant Jan Miller occasionally uses a Swintec 7000 because the electric typewriter allows her to do small jobs more quickly.
“For me, it’s easier to slap a label or envelope in a typewriter than format them on a computer and send them to a printer,” Ms. Miller said.
Mr. Stevenson, who also takes care of the county treasurer’s 17 printers and two fax machines, has proven indispensable, Ms. Mullins suggested.
“He’s pretty much a fix-it-all for us. He’s very good at taking care of whatever we need.”
“He doesn’t fix things just to fix them,” Ms. Miller said. “If it can’t be fixed, he tells you no. Very professional, very friendly. He’s usually here the next day after you call. He’s definitely a dying breed.”
Now about 75 percent of his work involves printers, fax machines and laminators.
Mr. Stevenson charges customers who bring machines to his shop off Deep Run Mill Road $60 per hour.
On-site work costs $90 per hour — that higher rate covering travel expenses and the time it takes to get to an office, he explained.
Partly because few small-scale businesses such as his exist in a dwindling market for such services, “I travel everywhere,” said Mr. Stevenson, whose customer base includes Fauquier, Northern Virginia and some of suburban Maryland. “In January, I bought a new car and already got 33,000 miles on it.”
A 2016 Kia Sole, it replaced a 23-year-old Chevrolet Geo Metro.
“It died in January,” Mr. Stevenson said of the Chevy, which went through four transmissions and had 878,000 miles on it. “I cried.”
“Taps played,” added his wife, smiling.
Mr. Stevenson began his equipment repair career in 1974, after quitting the construction business in search of steadier employment.
That year, he took a three-week course in New York City to learn how to fix and service the IBM Selectric, a mechanical marvel with 2,800 parts that for decades dominated the electric typewriter landscape.
For the next 17 years, Mr. Stevenson worked for several office equipment repair companies and the Fairfax County school system, before starting his own business.
When he worked for Fairfax in the mid-1970s, the county had 20 high schools, each with five classrooms that had about 30 typewriters apiece, totaling about 3,000 machines.
“That was a lot of typewriters,” Mr. Stevenson said.
Besides electric and manual typewriters, the Fairfax school system’s seven-person maintenance and repair department fixed laminators, mimeographs, microscopes and adding machines.
“They taught us to fix everything,” Mr. Stevenson said.
Over the years, he has relied on a network of repair service colleagues for help on tricky jobs or unfamiliar equipment.
“With all the new stuff today, I pick up the phone and call different friends at different companies. And they help me fix things.”
But those days are numbered, Mr. Stevenson acknowledged.
The rapid change in technology and the ability of businesses and people to inexpensively replace printers rather than fix them eventually will lead to the demise of his and other independent repair companies, he said.
“Everything in our business evolves so fast, it’s unreal,” said Mr. Stevenson, 64. “You no sooner have one thing done and ‘Boom!’ — they’ve changed it.”
Big companies such as Hewlett-Packard “know supplies is where they’re making money,” he said. “The HP 605 (printer) cost $1,000-plus. The toner cartridge is $200. That’s where the money is.”
Mr. Stevenson — a one-man repair operation — doubts whether his business model will exist.
“It’s just harder and harder for the little guy to make a living” in this environment.
The Stevensons, who raised three children, hope to retire in two or so years.
“We’re making ends meet,” said Mrs. Stevenson, 60. “We’re not wealthy by any means. We managed to pay off our house last month, after 30 years. We don’t take vacations. We have some money for our retirement. We’re doing OK.”
But her husband will continue to hit the road for as long as needed to pay the bills.
“I’ve got a beautiful wife I’ve got to keep happy,” he said, laughing.
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