All large cities feature that staple of stand-up comedy, the retail storefront which seems to change hands every few weeks, and our own is no exception. The left-center unit of the Pioneer Square strip mall, currently S.E. Huang’s Kenpo-Karaterie, was a Spanish-language tax preparation service catering to the South Street area’s large Ecuadorian population as recently as last November- and, in the summer of 2006, it was a boutique specializing in salsa-related merchandise. Lot 47 in the Galleria at Woldman Heights is particularly infamous in this regard; in the last three years alone, it has been a Wittman’s, a Sunglass Hut, a Gap for Seniors, a Dobbins Farm Dairy outlet store, and a shop where one could commission tailor-made potato chip varieties.
Perhaps more curious, however, is the diametric opposite of this phenomenon: the retail store that has remained exactly the same, regardless of market forces or consumer trends, defying all known rules of shopping for astonishing periods of time. There is no more stubborn an example in the city than that of Gillard’s Electric Typewriter Service, which has occupied the same spot at 2704 West 31st Avenue since 1911.
Located on the ground floor of what was once a necktie factory but was converted into budget apartments in the early 1940s, Gillard’s has weathered the changing of its neighborhood from industrial to commercial to residential and from nearly uninhabited to fashionably hip to working-class. It has seen its nearest neighbor change from a chemical plant specializing in dry cleaning agents to a middle school to the city’s only cricket grounds to, currently, an Estonian Orthodox Church. When it opened for business in February 1911, William Howard Taft was president, the neighborhood – now Furleigh Park – was known as Badgerton, the Chicago Cubs were a mere three years from their last World Series win, and the founding of the IBM Corporation (as the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation of New York City) was a good four months away.
IBM, of course, would play a rather large role in the fortunes of Gillard’s Electric Typewriter Service – with the introduction of the IBM Selectric in 1961 came their greatest period of success, a twenty-year span during which they made so much money repairing and supplying downtown businesses with electric typewriters that they were able to advertise for the first and only time in their history. Anyone who was a regular radio listener in the late 1960s and mid-1970s remembers the “Gillard’s gets it done” jingle, accompanied by a harpsichord and sung in an unidentifiable accent. Just as difficult to pin down was how, exactly, Gillard’s stayed in business the fifty years prior to the invention of the Selectric; the number of electric typewriters in the entire city prior to the mid-fifties could not have exceeded a few hundred, and Gillard’s opened its doors only two years after the invention of the Krum Machine, a teletype device, at which time the electric typewriter was scarcely known outside of a few industrial development laboratories.
There has been even more curiosity about how Gillard’s has remained in business after the widespread popularity of word processors and personal computers has relegated the typewriter to the status of the buggy whip. In 2005, the New Press (the city’s leading alternative weekly prior to its purchase earlier this year by a west coast conglomerate which converted it to a coupon book) launched an investigation into the baffling persistence of Gillard’s; they discovered the shop had a 99-year lease on its current location, but yielded very little information about its ownership, learning only that it was registered as a holding of the Gillard’s Electric Typewriter Service Corporation, traceable to a post office box at the Willow Avenue postal station. The only regular employees are a Slovakian immigrant couple and their teenage son, none of whom appear to speak English and who spend most of their work day playing preferans, and the walls are lined with only a few electric typewriters and a large number of nesting dolls. Gillard’s has not advertised since 1979, its tax records indicate that it has been a money-losing operation for at least three decades of its existence, and on top of everything else, it is only open Monday through Thursday from 11AM until 2:30PM. Still, Harvey Preakston, who writes the for-amusement-only “I Make the Odds” column in the News, gives better chances to the Cubs winning a World Series by 2010 than of Gillard’s closing its doors.
– L. Pierce