Herb Permillion, Berkeley typewriter repair wizard featured in acclaimed documentary, dies at 79

Herb Permillion, owner of California Typewriter, arranges typewriters in his Berkeley shop in a scene from the documentary “California Typewriter.”

Herb Permillion, owner of California Typewriter, arranges typewriters in his Berkeley shop in a scene from the documentary “California Typewriter.”

American Buffalo Pictures

The personal computer may have overtaken the typewriter but it could not overtake Herb Permillion, the quiet wizard of California Typewriter on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley.

As a typewriter repair man, Permillion’s first love was the modern IBM Selectric with its rapid-fire rotating ball of typeface and electric clacking. But he also could not resist the old-time chime of the carriage return bell on vintage mechanical units.

Enthusiasts from everywhere found their way to Permillion’s storefront, if just to talk typewriters and admire the collection on display. Eventually a Bay Area filmmaker also found him, and the story of Permillion’s shop became the focal point of the feature-length documentary, “California Typewriter,” a paean to the typewritten word, with testimony from Tom Hanks, John Mayer, Sam Shepard and David McCullough.

Permillion and his devoted employee, Ken Alexander, gave the film its dramatic tension with their determination to keep the shop open despite the march of time and technology. The film reached its climax when California Typewriter hosted a a type-in, with people coming from afar to create a symphony of clacking. That scene — with typists admitting to something akin to an addiction — helped win a few more years for the shop and a premiere for “California Typewriter” at the Telluride Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival before its theatrical release in 70 cities in 2017.

A humble technician who began his career as the only Black member of an elite IBM service team, Permillion died peacefully of natural causes on Dec. 27 in his home of 45 years in Richmond. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Candace Permillion. He was 79.

“Dad was not a computer man, that wasn’t his era,” said his daughter. “He was a typewriter man. That’s where his interest was, and that was all he knew.”

Herb Permillion in his shop, California Typewriter, during the filming of the feature-length documentary, released in 2017.

Herb Permillion in his shop, California Typewriter, during the filming of the feature-length documentary, released in 2017.

American Buffalo Pictures / American Buffalo Pictures

Herbert Lloyd Permillion III was born May 3, 1943, in New Orleans, where his father was a big-band trumpeter. The family moved to Oakland, where Permillion attended elementary and junior high, before moving to Berkeley. He graduated from Berkeley High School in 1961, then worked for Pacific Bell. In 1967 he became a repairman for IBM. That same year he married Ginger Dellenbolt. They had two daughters, Candace and Carmen, before divorcing in 1978.

Permillion bought California Typewriter in 1982, when it was on Shattuck Avenue. After moving it to Grove Street, he bought a building on San Pablo Avenue so he would not have to move again. His timing was good on real estate but not so good on typewriters.

In 1984, Apple Computer introduced the boxy Macintosh, helping to usher in the era of the personal computer and the twilight of the typewriter. Permillion withstood that onslaught with professionalism, dressing smartly and carrying a businessman’s briefcase that contained his tools and parts.

“Even during the hard years, on the days when few customers came into the shop, Herb would show up each morning in a freshly pressed shirt, suspenders and tie,” said San Anselmo filmmaker Doug Nichol of American Buffalo Pictures, which produced “California Typewriter.”

Nichol was looking for a restoration on an Underwood 5 he bought on eBay when he walked into the store. He ended up spending five years there.

“When I walked in I thought this would make a documentary, about trying to keep a shop like this going during the age of technology,” he said.

Nichol thought it a David vs. Goliath story that would make for a short film, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. It ended up being an hour and 43 minutes long, after taking five years to make. Nichol spent much of that time embedded at California Typewriter.

“Herb used to repair the Black Panther typewriters secretly at night, while he was the IBM repairman on the UC Berkeley campus,” said Nichol. “When the FBI was searching for the Unabomber, they came to the shop and talked to Herb, to see if he knew anything about him or his typewriters.”

That was probably a tough interview because Herb would not say much — even in the film — about his shop. After its release a publicity tour was mounted, with Permillion and Alexander treated like royalty at screenings. They’d be onstage after a screening, Permillion quiet as ever.

“There would be 500 people there and I’d say, ‘Herb, you’ve got to say something,’” Alexander recalled.

Herb Permillion on the UC Berkeley campus during his years as an IBM typewriter technician.

Herb Permillion on the UC Berkeley campus during his years as an IBM typewriter technician.

courtesy Permillion family / cortesy Permillion family

The California Typewriter property included a small residential building in the back, and over the years, Permillion received offers from prospective buyers, which would have allowed him to retire. The film makes the point that the main reason Permillion held on as long as he did is that closing the shop would put Alexander, his longtime employee, out of work.

“Herb never said it to me, but I got the feeling that he hung on to the building because of me,” said Alexander, of Oakland. “He was a caring man. He cared about his employees, and he cared about his customers. Typewriter people are a different lot. They are poets and writers. They need that sound of the typewriter, and Herb understood that.”

Jeremy Mayer, a Sonoma sculptor who uses typewriter parts to create human figures, naturally found his way to California Typewriter by way of an artist supply store.

“It was just an interesting place to be,” Mayer said. “It was just really fun being there and talking to everybody.”

At some point, a conversation with Permillion about typewriters walked out the door and into the flea market, which became a regular shopping trip, either to Alameda or to the market by Laney College in Oakland. At one point the filmmaker Nichol grabbed his camera and followed along.

Permillion was a careful shopper but he could not pass up a rarity, like a bright red Royal with white keys and its original carrying case. He tried it out enough to see that it needed some work, but he met the sales price.

“If it had been any other color I would have passed right by it for $150, I guarantee you that,” he tells Mayer, in the film. “It definitely needs some attention... but red is sort of a hot color and it’s an easy lure.”

Permillion held on until early 2020, when California Typewriter finally closed without fanfare.

“Just shut it down and that was it,” said Alexander. “No going out of business sale or nothing. I wish I’d had the money to buy it.” The building finally sold in late 2022.

But Mayer’s relationship with Permillion continued on, with Permillion and his second wife, Juanita Daley, regularly driving up to Sebastopol to sit on Mayer’s deck and look out at the Freestone Valley. Sometimes Permillion would bring a Selectric or two, the ways some people might bring a bottle of wine.

“Herb was like a father figure to me,” Mayer said. “He never said too much but he was wise, and good company. There were a lot of comfortable silences being around him. You didn’t have to talk all the time.”

His wife, Juanita, died in July, leaving Permillion with both a garage and storage container at his home, filled with typewriters.

“I will surely miss him,” said Alexander, who has an apartment cluttered with old typewriters himself. “If you need to have a boss, you want somebody like Herb.”

Survivors include his daughters, Candace Permillion of San Pablo and Carmen Permillion of Reno; son, Michael Permillion of Denver; brother, Lloyd Permillion of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren.

Sam Whiting (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SamWhitingSF