Although phone booths are pivotal to fictional plots ranging from Superman to Doctor Who, they have fallen out of use in the real world. Demand is so low that you can adopt a phone booth in the British countryside for just £1!
The phone booth celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. But, instead of leaving phone booths as a relic from a past era, contemporary creatives are celebrating and reimagining these structures to meet the needs of the current era. Since 2008, more than 6,600 phone booths have been converted into new community services in the UK alone, but this concept has caught on across the globe. Check out these 10 ways a defunct phone booth can serve your community, even without a working phone line.
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10 A 21st Century Upgrade: Wi-Fi Hotspots
If video killed the radio star, perhaps the cell phone killed the trusty payphone. The widespread use of internet-powered smartphones has made payphones largely obsolete. In an ironic twist, some payphones have been converted into Wi-Fi hotspots, providing free internet access to the smartphone-using public. In 2014, New York City turned payphones into “LinkNYC” kiosks that offer high-speed Wi-Fi, phone charging, and access to city services. South Africa similarly piloted the idea in 2014.
9 No Late Fines Here: Little Free Libraries
Love to leave your reading material up to chance and hate late fees? There are more than 150,000 Little Free Libraries across the world, and at least 20 of them are built in refurbished phone booths. These mini lending libraries allow people to exchange books for free, with “Leave a Book, Take a Book” as the only rule. These stable, weatherproof structures have a surprisingly natural second life as libraries. The last remaining phone booth in Iceland has been converted into a Little Free Library—fittingly for a country with a 99% literacy rate.
8 Red Goes Green: Charging Stations
Red may be iconic for phone booths, but six booths near London’s Tottenham Court Road have gone green—literally and metaphorically. The award-winning Solarbox project gives unused phone booths a green makeover, converting them into charging stations. Painted green and equipped with solar panels, these booths use the sun’s energy to help people charge their phones up to 100 times a day.
In South Korea, phone booths are going twice as green by providing charging stations for electric bikes, an environmentally friendly way to travel. The project, which began in 2015, has a goal to transform 900 booths.
7 Saving Time and Lives: Defibrillator Stations
The Community Heartbeat Trust, a UK organization, converts decommissioned phone booths into life-saving defibrillator stations. Phone booths are an ideal place to store defibrillators because they’re commonplace in every community, well-recognized, and weatherproof.
This effort is especially important in rural communities, where ambulance response times may be long. Ambulance wait times in Cornwall are the longest, with the average response taking a whopping 1 hour and 41 minutes.
6 Dial for Dinner: Serving Food & Drinks
In 2016, a London restaurateur turned a decommissioned phone booth into a pop-up restaurant, Spiers Salads. The phone booth was retrofitted with refrigeration and served five different types of salads.
One creative Atlanta-based business owner repurposed a classic red phone booth but kept the phone line. At The Red Phone Booth’s Dallas Fort Worth location, a booth serves as the entrance to a speakeasy. Only people who dial the secret phone number are granted access to the establishment, which serves Prohibition-style drinks and fare.
5 Art Is Everywhere: Public Galleries
It takes hours to explore the art in galleries like the Louvre or Rijksmuseum. At a phone booth art gallery, visitors can soak in creativity in just minutes. Cleveland’s smallest art gallery was set up in a defunct payphone in the Waterloo Arts District. In 2021, artists from Glenn Gigon to Patti Smith have turned New York’s old payphones into public art projects.
Most recently, Laguna Beach, California, has turned an old phone booth into a rotating art installation. Artists get the chance to reimagine the same phone booth in their own way. Some artists want to spread a sense of whimsy. Others are using this public space to convey serious messages. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott created a gallery celebrating Jewish artists in his London phone booth, located opposite the British Museum, to raise awareness about the Holocaust.
4 Bard Box: Poems on Demand
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Poetry cannot breathe in the scholar’s atmosphere.” Perhaps he would be pleased to see poetry living and breathing out in the open, available for any public passerby, through the Telepoem Project.
The Telepoem Project reimagines defunct phone booths and payphones as “3-dimensional literary magazines”, where visitors can hear over 1,000 verses of poetry by dialing a vintage phone line. Telepoem booths are available in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. The telepoem numbers are engineered based on the location of the poet (first 3 digits), the first three letters of the poet’s surname (second 3 digits), and the first word of the poem’s title (last 4 digits). If you feel curious, you will have to take a road trip to visit the phone booths in person. None of these numbers will work outside of the Telepoem booth.
Those who prefer a stand-up show to a poetry slam can visit the Joke Phone in Washington D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. Local kids who attend the nearby Lafayette Elementary School can press *1 for a knock-knock joke, *5 for fun facts, and *8 for positive facts. This might be the one time kids should talk to strangers.
3 How May It Help You?: Elderly Assistance
If you need help, what do you do? For cell phone users, the answer may simply be to make a call using their cell phone. However, getting emergency assistance can be particularly challenging for those who struggle to use this technology. In Shanghai, 500 phone booths are being reimagined to address this challenge. Their refurbished phone booths have a simple digital interface, smart cameras, and a 114 senior-friendly hotline.
Other communities have found that the most effective way to keep seniors and others in need of assistance connected is to simply keep pay phones and phone booths in operation. In 2015, Portland launched the Futel No-Pay Payphone. Karl Anderson and Elijah St. Clair reimagined an old phone booth on SE Clinton Street in Portland by connecting it to the internet and turning it into a Voice Over IP phone. A second location was built near a homeless encampment, Right2DreamToo, where residents without cell phones can call their medical providers or case workers or simply stay in touch with family and friends.
2 Squeaky Clean: Free Phone Booth Hygiene
In the German village of Grossenbrode, you can enjoy a dip in the Baltic Coast waters and rinse off in a refurbished phone booth. Even if you’re not by the seaside, a toilet phone booth can be a quirky way to take care of your hygiene needs. This idea has been made real in the United Kingdom by Emily and Daniel Lancaster, who provided instructions and a budget for their DIY project to anyone who wants to try the idea.
The toilet booth was also posed as a solution in Hong Kong, where the public was invited to share ideas for reimagining 2,900 phone booths. Among the top 34 ideas were turning it into a smoking booth, nap booth, or even a stress relief booth where you tap into your inner Ron Burgundy, close the door, and scream.
1 Making Space to Mourn: The Wind Phone
Aside from a cemetery, there are few public spaces specifically designed for sharing grief. The creator of the Wind Phone concept, Itaru Sasaki, sparked a movement that aims to repurpose phone booths into a public mourning space.
When Sasaki’s cousin died of terminal cancer, he longed to reconnect. Sasaki set up an old phone booth in his garden and used the disconnected phone to speak with his cousin, where his words would be “carried on the wind.” After the Tohoku tsunami, Sasaki chose to share this healing space with his community. He encouraged those who had lost family and friends in the tsunami to visit his wind phone and speak to departed loved ones.
Since then, replicas of the original wind phone have been built across the world. The volunteer-run website My Wind Phone lets you look up wind phones in your area.