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Saying Goodbye to Vale Typewriter, the Second-to-Last Typewriter Shop in Town

The Richfield institution has been open since 1956.

All photos by Jay Boller

For the first time in a long time, things are buzzing inside Vale Typewriter.

Two chatty customers lug typewriters from their cars. Three phone calls come through. Everyone mentions having seen owner Mark Soderbeck on the news.

And that's just during the 35 minutes Viraluae spent at 6319 Penn Ave. S., for now home to the second-to-last typewriter store in the Twin Cities. While St. Paul's Spectrum Business Systems will live to clack another day, Soderbeck plans to shut down Vale by the new year, ending a 67-year legacy of servicing typewriters from the tiny Richfield storefront.

Soderbeck has mixed emotions. On one hand, the attention stirred by Monday's KSTP story about Vale closing kinda annoys the the 68-year-old proprietor. "I don't need the city of Richfield being involved, they've never talked to me for 49 years," he says of awkward visits this week from the mayor and a city council member. On the other hand, Soderbeck lights up as each customer comes through the door, eager to talk ribbons, typewheels, and keys. "The most rewarding parts of the jobs are the customers," he says.

Soderbeck grew up on a Pine City farm about an hour north of the metro. In 1974 he enrolled at a St. Cloud vo-tech college, but he would soon detour from his initial coursework. "I wanted to fix electronics, but my math skills were so terrible," he says. So Soderbeck, a farm kid who could "fix just about anything," figured the 11-month typewriter repair program would better fit his skills. He graduated in five months with straight As.

Post-graduation, Soderbeck took over Vale Typewriter from Ray Vale, who had helmed the stout brick building since it was constructed in 1957. Ray's son would work for Soderbeck for almost two decades, despite the fact he didn't know his way around a typewriter. There was no shortage of things to do during those first 25 years.

"Back in the day, when a typewriter was a tool for business, everything was hectic then," Soderbeck remembers. "I'd be over 100 machines behind per day; I used to work over 100-hour weeks, and that was for 10 years—middle '80s until the mid '90s. I never saw my wife and kids! It was so busy." 

By the early '00s, Soderbeck's old nemesis—electronics—had all but killed the typewriter via the ubiquity of the personal computer. Luckily Soderbeck had long paid off his business and his home, setting him up financially to endure multiple decades of relative obsolescence.

"Business went right to nothing, hardly," he remembers. "As soon as that computer hit the price of under $2,000, that was the end of the typewriter business—80% of the business was gone in three years. When I started there was 27 little shops like this in the Twin Cities, and there was 47 before that."

In recent years Vale has kept afloat catering to hobbyists and collectors. During our visit Wednesday, Soderbeck gestures toward "the Tom Hanks typewriter."

I'm confused. "You know, Tom Hanks the movie star." Sure enough, he's referring to an autographed Corona Junior that Hanks gifted to Vale this past March.

America's Dad has never visited the Richfield shop; he's simply an avid typewriter collector who spreads the love to fellow true believers around the country by mail. Soderbeck notes that he had to fine-tune Hanks's machine, but once it was humming his wife, Roxanne, typed out a thank-you response to the letter that came from Hanks:

When asked to reflect on his shop's legacy, Soderbeck gets choked up, but only for a second. He knows retirement will bring good things, like the vacation he has planned, more time with grandkids, and the freedom to peruse his other passion, farming. (Soderbeck and his two brothers each own farms near their boyhood home in Pine City; they jointly own a pricey combine.)

"Last Friday night or Saturday night I really got upset about retiring," he says. "It's just a legacy that's going to be gone..."

Plus, he adds while lovingly patting a typewriter: "I love what I do—and I won't let these stupid typewriters beat me on a repair either."

He's not kidding: Soderbeck tells us about a recent job that took 40 hours to complete. He ended up charging the customer just $50.

"Well, I already gave him an estimate," he says with a chuckle. "I'm not gonna change that quote, I've been here too long to do that."

Here's a quick photo tour of Vale as Soderbeck readies it for closure:

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