After a week touring south Devon, from Exeter as far down as Plymouth, it would be easy to fill an article with a blow by blow account of the antiques, vintage and collectibles shops we found and the purchases we did or didn’t make in each but, frankly, you could get the former from a quick bit of internet searching, and the latter would just be us showing off about the latest haul of goodies that we’re now trying to find shelf room for. However, there’s one place we found – and ironically where we didn’t buy anything – that I just had to write about.
Fore Street in Exeter has long been a bit of a vintage treasure trove. I remember exploring there as far back as 1985 when staying with relatives and coming back with armfuls of books and my first original Harris Tweed jacket, and each time I’ve been back to the city it’s been worth a visit. Sadly, the area between Fore Street and the old docks has fallen victim to the kind of brutal redevelopment typical of a university town, with a collection of particularly unlovely blocks intended to empty the pockets of students’ parents, but Fore Street itself remains refreshingly free of gentrification. Inevitably, the shops are a bit of a curate’s egg – one friendly and reasonably priced record shop, another where mediocre LPs carry a standard and unrealistic price and we couldn’t get out fast enough. There’s an awesome TV memorabilia shop with a quite breathtaking selection of rare collectables – I didn’t dare ask the price as I wasn’t sure I could trust myself not to be tempted (step away from the original 1960s Gerry Anderson toys, Mr M, and stop dribbling on the display cases).
The jewel in Fore Street’s crown, though, is the modestly named Francis Kay Vintage tucked away in McCoys Arcade. I was instantly captivated by a floor to ceiling window display made up entirely of vintage typewriters – and it was immediately clear that this wasn’t the ‘buy some old junk and shove it up on a shelf’ style display; these were all clean, with many carrying a sheet of paper demonstrating just how clear the typeface was when fitted with a shiny new ribbon. A closer look revealed a mouthwatering display of radios and record players, too, and was that a shelf of vintage cameras I could spy inside, too? That makes four types of mid-century technology I just can’t resist and, like a comic book spaceship trapped in a tractor beam, I was drawn inexorably inside.
It’s no coincidence that all of these products have had a similar history. After achieving mass market penetration in the 50s and 60s, each reached its mechanical peak in the 70s and 80s, before being swept away by digital technology as the millennium drew near. Typewriters all but disappeared from most offices as word-processing computers took over; record players gave way, first to the CD and then to ‘virtual’ music collections; wet film cameras were rendered almost obsolete by the ease and ubiquity of digital photography and now, for many, the idea of carrying a camera as well as a mobile phone is an almost archaic concept. Radios as a product have lasted longer, but Medium and Long Wave models are now virtually useless and even FM/VHF has the air of obsolescence about it. Yet, in every case, the pure physicality of the analogue original has retained an enduring charm, and their design offers an aesthetic pleasure that their digital counterparts cannot begin to compete with.
Thus it’s no surprise that typewriters in particular, with their relative mechanical simplicity, have started to make a regular appearance in all kinds of vintage and collectable outlets. Portable models are the more frequently found as they would have been in private, rather than corporate ownership, and so more likely to be stashed rather than thrown away. They’re also a much more practical proposition than an industrial desktop model. Often, though, they’re in poor condition, with ribbons long dried out and the mechanism sticky with long congealed oil. The ones in Francis Kay, however, have been lovingly overhauled, with a slick movement and gleaming cases. There’s a lovely selection from across the decades, starting with the upright models of the 30s and 40s, through the streamlined 50s and 60s and on to the more angular 70s look. Prices are very attractive, too, although if you want the same one Tom Hanks uses, you’re going to have to pay for it (though who for a moment could resent a man who takes time out from making blockbuster movies to collect vintage typewriters to compose short stories on?).
Inevitably, I got talking to the charming chap behind the counter, surrounded by intriguing drawers full of restoration bits and bobs. I was delighted to learn that most of the typewriters they sold went on to be used, with budding writers finding that the discipline of hammering out their work on a real keyboard added something to the creative process that was missing in the total flexibility of digital word processing. We got deep into the intricacies of restoring mains valve radios and record players, especially the earlier models where the difference between serviceable and lethal is sometimes frighteningly narrow. Having found my own trusted sources of expertise in this area, it was refreshing to find another specialist dealer willing to draw the line at working only with products they were confident they could restore properly. That explained why the models on sale tended to the later end of the mid-century period, but were mouthwatering nonetheless.
Although massively, massively tempted, I had to confess that I already had more typewriters than even a prolific octopus author could use, let alone a surfeit of radios, record players and wet film cameras. It’s a measure of the place that, even then, we parted on excellent terms – despite my popping back a couple of times to get just a couple more photos.
So, Fore Street, Exeter – great place to visit. And if you haven’t already got yourself a vintage typewriter, radio, record player or camera, best you make sure you’ve got a bit of room in the car because you just might have one when you leave…