Test report: Tamara Shopsins ‘LaserWriter II’
Perhaps it was inevitable that when Tamara Shopsin grew up in a family restaurant whose menu was legendary for its incredible length, she would be drawn to endless printed pages. Your new novel, LaserWriter II, is a work of love and beauty, with quirks and twists, after the time of its slightly autobiographical printer repair protagonist Tekserve, an Apple device repair shop in Manhattan that flourished from the late 1980s through the age of Apple’s own retail presence. (Cupertino put its photocopiers into operation, and blurry reproductions from Tekserve and other independent repair shops were inundated as Genius Bars.)
The book will be a painful nostalgia for readers of the right generation: those who remember opening computers or taking them to people who know what it is, those who remember and enjoy PageMaker 1.0 or QuarkXPress 3.0 Oh so carefully refill toner cartridges, and those who wore an anti-static wrist strap to avoid frying computer chips.
For a younger audience, the story is compelling, and the details are curiously read historically, so when I think about it, my bones crumble to dust and I am blown away.
The sentence an Apple repair shop does not begin to describe Tekserve exactly. It was the Repair shop for a good part of its three decades. It was exceptional in many ways including the ability of the staff to fix almost anything, refusing to charge for phone support, and more. Shopsin told me it was an incredibly friendly place too.
For Shopsin, who only worked at Tekserve for three months in the late 1990s – but formative months – this was a sharp contrast to the way her father Kenny ran Shopsin’s general store, the diner he and mother Eve founded in 1982 “I grew up in my family’s restaurant, which was a similarly weird, perfect soup,” she said. âBut it was the opposite. It wasn’t as nice as Tekserve; like, the customer is not correct. Where at Tekserve the customer is always right – throw your wallet at him. “
Kenny kicked a lot of people out of Shopsin’s – one party a day, he once estimated – for violations, such as a party of four or more people or wearing ties. He would swear. He lied to customers because they closed when he didn’t want to serve them. Tekserve owners and founders Dick Demenus and David Lerner took a very different approach. “Dick and David were just so nice,” said Shopsin. âThe goal was to get the customer out of the way by fixing their problems, not to spend money. I feel like anyone who used a Mac in New York City at the time ended up in Tekserve. And the sky opened with happiness when they found him. “
The hero of her novel of the same name, the LaserWriter II, was the first laser printer. Well, not that First such a printer, not even the first from Apple, but the first it is worth owningâAnd thus an important contribution to the Desktop publishing revolution. It was released in 1988 and had about a dozen built-in fonts, some with bold and italic variants. You could feed PageMaker layouts and it would interpret PostScript and spit out WYSIWIG 300-dots-per-inch renditions with the speed and general accuracy that seemed implausible at the time.
We get glimpses of this beauty throughout the novel and later variants and larger siblings. Shopsin loves this model not only among people who grew up or worked in offices during this time. The LaserWriter II lets us try things, produce beautiful work, and get things done. It could also produce monstrously ugly flyers and newsletters, but neither of us blamed the printer.
That LaserWriter II is a novel is almost a coincidence. “When I left, I thought this was a non-fiction book because, to be honest, I’ve never done fiction,” says Shopsin. âAnd it just turned out that way. Tekserve is really important. It’s deep in my heart. âShopsin asked Demenus and Lerner to bless the book as a non-fiction, and then again when it became fiction. She interviewed a number of former Tekserve employees who thanked them with their work order initials in the acknowledgments.
The book follows Claire, a teenage girl who meets Tekserve and is quickly hired. She is painfully introverted, but is intuitive to repair and is quickly promoted to work on printers. Shopsin makes it clear that inside she wasn’t exactly Claire, but she filters versions of her three months at Tekserve in the late 1990s through Claire’s impressions.
As the novel explains, Tekserve’s policy when it comes to printer repairs is to impossibly print 100 test pages to ensure the printer is ready to use before returning it to a customer. I was shocked by the waste: toner was expensive back then! It was paper too! But that was all in the service of the customer. The layout of the novel reflects that endless waterfall of edition, leaving huge areas of white space at the bottom of the pages where the rhythm of the novel calls for it.
Claire becomes an expert in printer repair. A slower printer repair colleague changes from passive-aggressive to slightly aggressive when Claire improves. An ex-employee who is a master at fixing output devices pays her unwanted, slightly creepy attention. She watches employees come and go – no one is laid off, but some quit or leave when they see their own inadequacy. She’s making a mistake that she can’t quite forgive herself.
LaserWriter II is good and easy to read. In certain places it also uses a narrative device that I found absolutely unique and surprising. Shopsin asked me to keep it a secret so it would be fresh for their readers.
So let’s talk briefly about Shopsin’s General Store menu. It’s not a character in the novel, but it was familiar with LaserWriter IIs and beyond. It had 900 articles on its 6 sheets. The diner was seated 34. No takeaway food was allowed. In 2008, Kenny said so New York Times, âI’ve spent nearly $ 3,000 on toner in the last three months.â Perhaps the restaurant ran into toner as much as it did the creative intensity of its owners and five children.
Eva died in May 2003; Kenny in September 2018. The current menu is a little shorter. Shopsin’s now lets people order takeaway. Tamara’s brother Zack cooks every day the restaurant is open; At the weekend she and her sister Melinda cook.
âThe shop has a different atmosphere now, mainly because Zack is a treasure, but it’s still a very special place that regularly gives me goose bumps,â Shopsin wrote in an email. âCooking with my brother is a great and pure joy.â In LaserWriter II ‘s Acknowledgments, she thanks her brothers and sisters “for giving me all of Papa’s toner after his death”. Her favorite printer, of course, is the LaserWriter II, even though she owned a Xerox and now has an HP.
Shopsin’s main occupations are graphic designer and illustrator. She purposely (and wisely) avoids Twitter. You can find your work on her Instagram account, however, and as tiny bitmap chapter separators in the book. It also appears in The New Yorker in the form of small thematic illustrations that appear in every issue. For a week it was fish whose bodies consisted partly of noodles. (Yes sir, The New Yorker checked her pasta fish: “They told me, ‘Your tile fish still needs a fin.'”)
I never made it to Tekserve despite hearing about it from the Kodak outpost where I worked in Maine in the early 1990s. I ran 100 Macintosh IIfx and early scanners and printers far away from repair shops. We had a lot of New Yorkers stepping through our doors and everyone was talking about Tekserve. It seemed mythological.
But a friend from the publishing industry led me to Shopsin’s, an institution that remained incomprehensible to me until I read it Calvin Trillin’s account in The New Yorker several years later. (Kenny cooperated with this because the restaurant was about to relocate.) I was amazed by the menu. How could they possibly have enough ingredients on hand to make so many different items? I liked the food and was told by my friend that I was in an institution. I don’t remember Kenny getting mad at anyone.
Shopsin is no longer. (The current incarnation and oversized menu are in the historic Essex Market on New York’s Lower East Side.) And Apple doomed Tekserve when Steve Jobs decided Apple had to do personal repairs. Shopsin notes in the fictional account of LaserWriter II that Apple asked to watch Tekserve operate as an authorized repair center and then abruptly tightened the pictorial screws by sending more hardware to Apple for repair and less reimbursing for work on site. It’s not fiction.
The Genius Bar in the early Apple Stores was clearly modeled after Tekserve and other independent stores, though Apple’s bars were just as cool as the rest of the company’s strict design philosophy. A genius was knowledgeable. A genius wasn’t exactly kind.
Eventually, Apple ditched Genius Bars in favor of free tech support in its stores. It did away with easy repairs for Macs years ago, while iPhones and iPads were never designed for repairs. Tekserve was closed in 2016, until then a shadow of itself.
Shopsin’s LaserWriter II captures a longer moment under amber (or maybe under beige) and brings back old memories for me and a few streaks of toner over my cheeks.