East Passyunk shop receives rare gift from celebrity

Philly Typewriter co-owners Bill Rhoda (left) and Bryan Kravitz recently received a typewriter in the mail from actor Tom Hanks. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

At Philly Typewriter on East Passyunk Avenue, there’s a story behind every machine on every shelf.

The cozy storefront, owned by Bryan Kravitz and Bill Rhoda, has become the largest typewriter company in the world with more than 1,300 machines in its collection. 

Even the space at 1735 East Passyunk itself has a story for Kravitz after he purchased it from the South Philly Shtiebel, a synagogue that needed to close at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“I got married in this room,” Kravitz said with a smile as he walked across the beautiful hardwood floors of his showroom. “This was a storefront synagogue. They spent 6 months making it into this beautiful room with exposed brick walls. But, yes, I got married in December 2019 right after the room got fixed up. It was a motorcycle shop (Philadelphia Scooters) before that.”

A few months later, moving trucks began transporting machines and hundreds of typewriters from its previous South Philly location, which was half the size. While the pandemic wreaked havoc on so many small companies, business started booming for Philly Typewriter.

“We got so busy once March 2020 came,” Kravitz said. “This whole front room was filled with typewriters.”

While the company continued to grow, Academy Award-winning actor (and typewriter enthusiast) Tom Hanks took notice. In 2017, Hanks published a collection of short stories called “Uncommon Type” and included typewriter references in all 17 stories, further cementing his love of the hobby. Hanks had heard about Philly Typewriter during his tour for Uncommon Type and gushed about its contributions to his love of typewriters. A few weeks ago, Hanks showed his love and support for the store by donating a 1953 East German Rheinmatall Gs typewriter to the store. Rhoda received the large, heavy package while recovering from surgery.

A special gift from actor Tom Hanks. Photo courtesy of Philly Typewriter

“A big box arrived in the mail,” Rhoda said. “I opened it up and sure enough, Tom Hanks had sent us a Rheinmatall East German typewriter autographed and with a beautiful letter.”

It’s unclear if Hanks typed the letter on the typewriter that he gifted. Nonetheless he wrote: “You may just be giving this miracle of a machine a fuller, newer life of use. I do hope this typewriter comes into use. It is yours now. Take good care of it and help it keep doing its job for another hundred years.”

Earlier in the letter, Hanks says the typewriter’s future is for the shop to decide, whether it be refurbish, display or sell. Rhoda already knows its fate.

“We’re going to keep it as part of our museum collection,” Rhoda said. “They are the things that promote and encourage human connection. The wow factor. It’s something to bridge a connection to other people because who doesn’t love Tom Hanks?”

Philly Typewriter already bridges that gap by allowing guests to type on machines in the store, learn about the history of the machines through a monthly lecture series, type-ins and other community events. In 2018, Kravitz launched the Philadelphia Public Typewriter Program, which lends typewriters to public spaces and schools. He’s seen first-hand the impressions they make, not just on paper.

“I went into a school and put down four machines and the kids wouldn’t stop playing with them,” Kravitz said. “The teacher had to blink the lights and bribe them with food so I could sneak the typewriters out. Children love typewriters. They are colorful and when you do something, something happens. They are like toys to them.”

It’s also why Kravitz and Rhoda would like to make a match of typewriters with people with autism.

“These are the people I really want to reach,” Kravitz said. “Nobody would make the assumption that autism and typewriters are connected, but they really, really are. An autistic person comes in here and they are typing things that they could never get out of their heads. With a typewriter, you can get that precision.”

They hope to someday have some type of program for autistic people.

“I think that’s the next step for us,” Rhoda said. “Once we get more groundwork done and get more involved and get more testimonials on the progress and process, then we’ll be ready.” 

There will be plenty of time for all excursions as Philly Typewriter isn’t going anywhere. Though typewriters have largely been replaced with computers, there’s still an obvious love for the antique machines. 

In February, Philly Typewriter purchased a global manufacturer for IBM Selectric, Wheelwriter and Xerox electric typewriters. It was also gifted equipment from the late Robert DeBarth, who passed away in November 2021 at the age of 94. DeBarth made a career out of fixing typewriters in Montgomery County. 

“He had a lot of people working for him out there,” Kravitz said. “He kept going at it. And when he passed away, he told his family he wanted us to have all his equipment, which included grinders to make cylinders. There’s one other person in the country who is doing it, and he’s happy we are doing it now because he’s overwhelmed.”

The Hanks typewriter and letter sit in the front window of Philly Typewriter accompanied by a rotation of other unique machines from the store’s collection. Guests are welcome inside and encouraged to stay a while. 

“We want this place to become a community space for people to do events, poetry and writing, but we are a typewriter store so you can bring your machines in for repair and restoration, buy machines, rent machines or participate in workshops with us to learn how to repair typewriters,” Rhoda said. “There’s a lot to do here.”

Somewhere on that list is a thank you note to Hanks. Rhoda said they plan on doing some restoration to their gifted typewriter before tapping a note to mail to Hanks.

“Need to do a little bit of work on it first,” Rhoda said. “The fun of it is a lot of the machines that Tom sends out aren’t fully rebuilt. They have some quirks and character so we get to do a little bit of work to the machine and get it up and running and then we will send him a letter to thank him.”

Though currently not for sale, could the typewriter be bought for the right price?

“Well, there’s always a possibility,” Rhoda said “But this is a testament to us and it’s something I want to be able to have at Philly Typewriter as just another part of this amazing global community of typewriter enthusiasts that all have something in common. With Tom’s love of the machine and the books that he’s written, it’s something I want to display proudly.”