F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ELENA SCOTTI
No One Wants a Printer, but Everyone Wants to Print
A generation of holdouts confronts the stress of printerless life
Feb. 27, 2023 12:01 am ET
The apartment building had a 24-hour gym, a swimming pool flanked by grills and something called the Sky Lounge on the 12th floor, with an expansive view of downtown Minneapolis.
But the amenity that Olga Lobasenko and her husband couldn’t get out of their minds as they sized up potential apartments last year was situated in the lobby, illuminated by the glow of a fireplace. People sometimes gathered around it.
It was a printer.
“We just assumed it would have to be something you’d struggle to find for your entire life,” says Ms. Lobasenko, 33 years old.
They moved in and now feel the sweet relief of being able to print whenever they want, without having to beg, borrow or curse a dried-out ink cartridge.
“This one,” Ms. Lobasenko says of the printer, “is somebody else’s problem.”
When only paper will do
Much of the world has moved on from hard copies. We have our phones and our tablets, scannable QR codes and the DocuSign app. And yet, it comes for all of us eventually—the need to print, and print now.
“When you need it, you need it,” says Leigh Stringer, who works at architecture firm Perkins&Will helping companies design sustainable offices.
How much of our lives have we given to the mad dash of trying to find a working printer? Hybrid schedules mean we’re in the office, with its gleaming fleet of equipment, only a few times a week. So too, it seems, is the IT department, which has yet to fix that combination printer-scanner-fax closest to your desk. Sure, we could buy our own for home—or replace the mysteriously ailing one languishing in the cabinet—but why invest in a hulking piece of hardware when you’re living in a nearly paperless world?
Until you realize that that return label or your kid’s homework assignment isn’t going to print itself.
“Paper doesn’t go away,” says Keith Kmetz, an analyst who tracks the printing market for research firm International Data Corp. Printer sales have mostly been declining since 2007, the year the first iPhone was released. Still, IDC forecasts more than 17 million printers will be sold in the U.S. this year.
Agony and opportunity
Not that owning a printer is any guarantee you’ll be able to print. In an attempt to produce two sheets—pages one and five of a tax form—Chella Diaz of Orange, Calif., unknowingly embarked on a three-hour odyssey last summer. Her computer wouldn’t connect to her printer. On to Staples, where all three printers were labeled with (handwritten) “out of order” signs. She got into her car, screamed, listened to smooth jazz for five minutes and continued on to FedEx. There, her flash drive wasn’t showing any documents.
“You begin to doubt yourself,” she says. Eventually, she was able to locate the documents and successfully print them, though she ended up paying for thick résumé paper someone had fed into the tray. By that point, she didn’t care. When it was all over, she took herself to the taco place across the parking lot, where she enjoyed a bean burrito, french fries and some cathartic journaling.
Where there’s a problem, there’s a business opportunity. Tyler Eshleman was wandering through a dorm at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University his freshman year when he came across two intrepid roommates. They’d purchased a color printer and were charging students to print out term papers, reading assignments, even entire textbooks.
They weren’t doing people’s homework. Just printing.
“I wish I would have gotten in on something like that,” Mr. Eshleman says, noting the pair was turning a profit.
Now 21 and living in Troy, Mich., Mr. Eshleman is mostly envisioning a printer-free life for himself, like many young people I talked to.
“Some point, you buy an apartment, house, car, second house or a boat. Then maybe you think about buying a printer,” he reasons.
The power of being the printer person
Printing at the office comes with its own struggles. Terri Barris of Ontario, Canada, once found herself sending off confidential tax documents, including her pay information, to…where exactly?
The list of printers to choose from, some in offices hours away, were named by nonsensical strings of letters and numbers. After guessing wrong, she clicked cancel, only to be confronted with “this spinning wheel of death,” she says. “You’re starting to sweat and your heart is palpitating.”
After a year of mounting printing difficulties, her manager bequeathed his personal printer to her. She loved it. So did everyone else. Her colleagues would line up at her door, bearing chocolate chip cookies and candy, wondering if she could print their documents.
“There’s this sense of power,” Ms. Barris says.
Some printer hookups can reach their limit. The day after 38-year-old Theresa Paolo coached her dad through printing out five separate forms for her business as a romance novelist on his home printer, there was a knock at the door of her Long Island, N.Y., house. There was her dad, holding a brand new printer. She felt conflicted.
“It was super sweet of him to take the time to go to the store, do what I never wanted to do and pick out a printer,” she says. And yet, she dreaded having to install it, house it and tend to its ink and paper needs. “Where the heck am I going to put this big hunk of plastic?”
It would be a year before she even opened the box. The Brother MFC-J480DW, now set up, is mostly something she has to dust every week.
“I feel too guilty to get rid of it,” she says. “I have it now. I have it for life.”
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at Rachel.Feintzeig@wsj.com