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Oldster Passions, Hipster Fans, Long Lives

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The weekend obits toasted two American originals who died in their 90s. Both dedicated their many hours to preserving bygone technologies -- in one case typewriters and in the other vinyl records. Both would have closed shop sooner were it not for young hipsters, raised on the digital, seeing novelty and beauty in the great inventions of the mechanical age.

Either man could have come out of central casting for "American Experience," though for different episodes.

Manson Whitlock was born on his father's dairy farm in Bethany, Conn. A reserved Yankee, he spent over a half-century fixing typewriters in New Haven, wearing a suit and tie till the bitter end. No emoticons for him.

Murray Gershenz was born in the Bronx, son of a Jewish cab driver and a hat-making mother. He was not reserved.

Gershenz loved music and helped found the Bronx Playgrounds Operetta Club, if you can imagine such a thing. In 1962, he opened a store, Music Man Murray, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. His wife worked the cash register.

You've seen those inspiring TED talks, in which a restless speaker urges audience members to do what they love. In this Happy Valley of career advice, taking a boring, dues-paying job to get to a better place is actually counterproductive to success. Doing what you love can make you rich, and the talkers have real-life stories to back them up.

The late Steve Jobs gave one of the most popular (and best) TED lectures. He tells how dropping out of college and studying calligraphy, just for the heck of it, provided the brilliant idea behind his tech-history-making Apple Computer startup.

First off, few of us earthlings can replicate Jobs' gutty genius in our average or even above-average selves. But also, listen closely. Note that the reward is great insight and the end of the road is not gold but death. That nuance may not register among the many who hear "follow your muse" and see only the coin in her wake.

A commonplace in medical literature is that wealth and longevity go together. That's not always borne out by other findings -- that not retiring from work one enjoys does the same or even more than lounging by the pool.

At the peak, Whitlock had six guys under him fixing the Underwoods, Smiths and Coronas. Eventually, the literary types at nearby Yale University stopped using typewriters, and the helpers were no longer needed. But Whitlock kept the business going, at the end serving hipsters newly fascinated by the retro typing machines. He knew how to stop the "R" keys from sticking.

For all the talk of a vinyl-record revival, Gershenz saw his business taper off under the assault of compact discs (now losing out to downloads). At the end, he had a quarter-million unsold records.

Gershenz did develop a minor second career as a character actor playing mainly himself, a noisy old man with opinions. (He was Uncle Funny on "Will & Grace.") Much of the money he made acting went back into keeping his dying record business alive.

Such as there was a vinyl revival, it came thanks mainly to the cool ones, who found awesomeness in revolving records and the warm vinyl sound.

Whitlock died at 96 and Gershenz at 91. Neither died rich, but both were working at their shops as recently as June -- full of joy and vigor till the near end.

In a recent Yale Alumni Magazine interview, Whitlock neatly drew a circle around his passion and long life with this intriguing question: "Has the typewriter remained in use because of me, or am I still around because of the typewriter?"

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @fromaharrop. 

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