Phone Booth Libraries

At first, the concept of  shelves of books as teeny libraries in New York City phone booths seemed laughable. I mean, we’re talking about NYC, where men relieve themselves openly on buildings, trashcans, and phone booths. Certainly dogs habitually find the steel like protrudents  irresistible. Then there’s the vandalism and theft found in major metropolitan places. Booksellers on blankets across town are likely to grab whatever they can from these astonishing spots, it would be almost like a gift from god for those who make a living on the streets. Another thought came to mind–I know most people have cell phones now, but not all, and these booths, although thought of as obsolete by some, are necessary for those who cannot afford a phone, or who do not have one on them at the moment they need to call mom and tell her they are fine and not to wait up. And then there’s the little problem of legality.  Who owns these booths? Not the city, certainly, but whatever phone company supplies the booths, I would think. AT&T? ‘The Phone Company’? That’s what we used to call Bell Telephone, when they were a monopoly  and controlled the communications for all Americans. With these problems in mind, how did John Locke, A Columbia University architecture grad manage to set up at least two of these libraries, and did they work, or did any of my concerns come true.

A little of both. Yes, he was able to create fantastic custom selves for the booths with his and friends books as the first in donated titles. And they looked fantastic. Unfortunately, all the books were stolen immediately. When replaced with new titles, they too were stolen, and so was the book shelf. Or, maybe the owner of the phones did not appreciate the repurposing of their property.

The second booth fared a bit better in the beginning. There was a bit of borrowing, but people found the display inexplicable, and were timid in taking anything, until Locke decided he needed to leave some low key instructions directing passerby’s what the odd phone booth was. Still, in the end, the same fate occurred, all was stripped bare.

Can something like this ever work in a busy urban environment where crime if not running rampant anymore, still trots along at a steady pace? Is this concept of a lending phone booth, where someone takes a book, and possibly leaves one a fairy dream, or a possibility for a community to bond? Knowing NY as I do, I think there are certain neighborhoods where the library concept may work–but only a few places in the city. And they’d probably be in the trendier, hipster type neighborhoods–wherever that is at the present. Maybe The Village, the East Village, Soho, Noho, are still artsy enough to maintain a phone booth or two. But any borough in Queens, other than perhaps–and this is iffy. Astoria, where I lived for so long, is changing, is slowing being gentrified, but isn’t at a place yet where people living there would understand what a phone booth is doing with shelves of books in it. The Bronx? LOL, if not burned or torn down, the phone booths are probably being used for some other purpose, which I’d rather not think about. Brooklyn? Again, the gentrified areas–Park Slope, maybe near Pratt Art Institute, but unlikely in Coney Island etc. In the areas that may support a couple of phone booth libraries, how would they work? From what I understand from the article, someone comes along–sees a book they would like to read at the phone booth, and takes it away with them. Theoretically, they return either with the same book having read it, or brings  a different title to add to the libraries contents. Or the person brings both. The idea being a mini mini library on a casual basis, no late fees, no shhhhhhes, no stamping of cards.

I read several of the responses to the article explaining Mr. Locke’s idea and implementation, and most were very positive, but naturally some had to throw negativity on the creative fire. One person complained that other cities had already implemented a similar practice–and so?  How is that a negative for Mr. Locke’s idea? Other’s pointed out the problems–echoing what I wrote above.  Mr. Locke has not informed the city of New York of his plans, thereby avoiding any kind of official denial of implementation.

I had engaged in my own personal library, in my building, when I’d put loads of books down on the radiator by the mailboxes–and others after me did the same. But I just read today, that what I thought were people grabbing up my book gifts, may have been the super throwing them all out–as some kind of health code thing. Ugh! That would not be the result I had in mind. I never throw a book away, unless it’s missing many pages and or is completely beyond saving.

My hopes are that the libraries spread across town, and people take advantage of this unique opportunities to borrow a book they may never had thought of reading before, and replacing it with a piece that someone else can expand their minds with. But, always with the understanding that if I need to make a phone call, the browsers will make room for me to dial. 

1 thought on “Phone Booth Libraries”

  1. I am more surprised by the phone booths than I am the libraries. There used to be a convenience store I frequented with a pay phone outside, but I’ve moved and haven’t been by there in a while. I don’t remember seeing other public telephones. Today they would only be used like the emergency phone boxes along the highways in California I imagine.

    Anyway, as far the library goes. It seems with modern technology, something could be set up like a vending machine. It wouldn’t require money, but you would have to put in an email address to access your “library card” and take a book. This wouldn’t eliminate theft (someone could use a fake email), but it might reduce it some. Having the address would allow you to send a message if someone hasn’t return a borrowed book or reciprocated with a replacement.

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