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Steve Soboroff's typewriter time machines

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp

This typewriter, used by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was eventually evidence in the trial that convicted him. When Soboroff got it from the FBI at an auction raising money for the victims' families, it was missing parts Zaczynski used to make bombs. John Rabe

Some people collect parasol handles, baseball cards, ceramic cats. L.A. businessman Steve Soboroff collects one of the most cumbersome objects this side of Ward Kimball's steam locomotive: typewriters.

And while some typewriter enthusiasts collect rare or interesting machines, whether or not they have significant meaning, Soboroff said he has strict requirements when purchasing the machines.

"I'm minor league when it comes to collecting, because I have a caveat on my typewriters. The typewriters that I collect were previously owned by famous people," he explained.

Soboroff owns 16 historic typewriters, including machines owned by Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon, Joe DiMaggio, the Unabomber, Jack Kevorkian, and Andy Rooney.

"Andy Rooney was thinking when he was sitting at that typewriter. And so was John Updike, and so was Ernest Hemingway. Tell me how you feel when you just typed on Andy Rooney's typewriter, having been a fan for all these years," he said.

According to Soboroff, winning Rooney's writing tool was a steal at the auctions. "It was cheap, it was a joke. Nobody showed up at that auction – $700. I probably would have paid $5,000 in my brain, and I think that as part of the collection that it's probably worth four or five times that, because John Lennon's typewriter I have been offered $250,000 for," he continued.

Soboroff said he loves knowing that Lennon crafted his first songs on the typewriter he now owns; that the Unabomber's typewriter is missing parts that were used to construct bombs. And aside from owning a piece of history, Soboroff revels in discovering treasures within the typewriter cases.

"In the case of Joe DiMaggio's I found his scissors-clipped up Master Card," he recalled. "I tried to use it and they were so busy that the owner didn't even look at the credit card, and he just swiped it through and said, 'No, this doesn't work, do you have another one?' I said, 'No **** it doesn't work, it's Joe DiMaggio's from 40 years ago.'"

Soboroff discovered a more valuable item in Hemingway's case: old negatives. "Inside one of the boxes – it looked like burnt bacon. I went to touch one, and it turned to dust in my hand. But it was obvious what they were, they were parts of negatives," he said, adding that he had someone steam and let the film settle before making a print of each of the remaining negatives.

"I sent it to the number one Hemingway scholar in the world, and she came back to me within two minutes and said 'Oh my gosh, that's Ernest Hemingway when he was two-years-old, that's his father, the boat is on their lake in Michigan,'" he remembered.

But Soboroff's collection isn't purely for private enjoyment – the businessman opens his collection for public viewing in order to donate money to charities. He said that he's thrilled people will drive 200 miles to look.

Soboroff has already made $200,000 at charity auctions, by giving enthusiasts the chance to sit in front of these time machines and peck out a page of prose.

To Soboroff, a typewriter carries more meaning than the story of the hands that have touched the keys of the machine.

"What the typewriter symbolizes now is timelessness, and also a slower, more thoughtful way of life," he said. "What is made these days that will be used 60, 70, 80, 100 years from now? I don't think there's anything, and these typewriters have hundreds of years to go."

Andy Rooney's comedic take on typewriters vs. computers:

With contributions by Andrea Wang

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