The iconic British phone box goes literary

BT (that’s British Telecom—a.k.a. the phone company) has been uninstalling the iconic red British telephone boxes all around the country in recent years.

Now, I understand that pay phones aren’t a money-making proposition anymore, but where cell phone coverage is spotty (and around here it has a bad case of the measles) they can be a lifeline. Besides, people like them. They’re iconic. They’re red. They’re shaped like Dr. Who’s police box.

In places, villages have fought to keep them, and as far as I know they’ve lost the battle, no matter how good their arguments. My village lost two—one by the beach, which could potentially have saved a life because it was in a measles spot, and another along the road, which was less important, although could have presented a better argument for keeping that one if somebody hadn’t set it on fire.

In a few places, though, villages lost the phones but kept the boxes and turned them into tiny red libraries, where people take books, leave books, and, judging by the number of images online, take pictures.

Relevant photo for a change: a phone box library at Wall, Staffordshire. Photo by Oosoom.

Relevant photo for a change: a phone box library at Wall, Staffordshire. Photo by Oosoom.

In Banbury, Oxfordshire, a (rare, and probably endangered) working phone shares its red box with a working library, and BT recently made enemies by threatening to remove the shelves because, they wrote, they’re “concerned the books and shelving could cause injury if they were to fall.”

No doubt. They’d cause an even worse injury if they exploded, but neither one is likely, and local residents launched a twitter campaign to save the library: #Saveourphoneboxlibrary.

I haven’t a clue what this has to do with the usual intercultural mayhem I write about. I’ve seen neighborhood-maintained libraries in the U.S. They looked like oversize birdhouses, not phone boxes. But then, I don’t think the U.S. has any phone boxes left in the wild–they’re all in zoos now, where they fall into despair and refuse to breed. Maybe that says something about our cultural differences. I leave it to you to figure out what.

49 thoughts on “The iconic British phone box goes literary

  1. So much for the pay phones in old movies. Its all cell phones now.
    I sometimes feel sad that old things get thrown away or shoved rudely out of the way. But it is the way of the world, I guess and of course, change is inevitable.

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  2. I recently finished Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island. It was published over twenty years ago, but this is a recurring theme in the book even then – the old and the beautiful being torn down and replaced by the modern simply for the sake of modernising. And sure, maintaining the old buildings and red phone boxes are costly, but Great Britain has such a rich architectural heritage, one would assume the powers that be would think it worth preserving.

    During my brief stay in the UK the issue of the day was bendy-buses replacing the iconic Routemasters on the streets of London.

    P.S. I hear the crime rate in Metropolis has risen sharply. Apparently Superman has nowhere to change anymore ;-)

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    • Personally, I never did change clothes in the old phone boxes. Call me a prude if you like. I’ve been called worse.

      There are some protections for old buildings. People talk about something or other being Grade One Listed, or Grade Two Listed. I’ve heard that so often, I almost think I know what they mean. I don’t. Whatever it is, it doesn’t cover phone boxes, although it should. Buses, though? Oh, come on. That’s just Boris Johnson looking for an issue and finding a dumb one.

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  3. What do they do with the boxes not repurposed as libraries? I would love to get one for my house. Of course that would involve shipping from UK. Oh well.

    Fondly,
    E

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  4. If it weren’t for the movies, I wouldn’t know of the little red booths but because of the movies I am suitable indignant. Pretty soon the only icons will be on our computer screens. THAT’S IT! We should make a Red Phone Box icon and share the wealth. Then we can afford to kidnap those
    remaining and “repurpose” them. I’d like one in my garden. Sometime I’ll bore you with the mayhem invested on our little library bird houses. Nice idea but it doesn’t take into account American adolescence and drug use which, separately or combined, seem to cause people to hate books and tear them up.

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    • We can’t even have a regular post box on our country road, because is on the way to a place where kids like to go drinking and doping and … whatever. Apparently they carry baseball bats with them, and anything within smacking reach after they’ve ingested a sufficiency of Interesting Substances is fair game.

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  5. It’s really a shame, isn’t it? All in the name of “progress”. :( I sure hate them go.
    It was the same with the (old Bundespost) yellow telephone boxes in Germany. Immediately after the phone part of the Bundespost became German Telecom and they changed their colour to Magenta, they started getting rid of the yellow telephone boxes and replace them by Magenta open ones – much lkess visible, btw. And then, soon after that, they started to take them away completely.
    Have a great day,
    Pit

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  6. That is sad that such a historic, iconic (as you say) emblem is disappearing from the landscape. I love the library idea and could see possibilities for other uses as well. It occurred to me that an ‘adopt’ program could work – as we do here with trails and garden spots ( both as likely to explode as books). It is a sad world, indeed, when bureaucracy rules over imagination, whimsey and a touch of belief that humans treasure their past as much as heavy-handed politically-correct what-if a shelf fell ….

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  7. I actually just read about two American tiny library / community library boxes being told they had to cease and desist. I am not one to whinge about “health and safety gone mad” but these examples and the one you reference in Britain strike me as exceedingly petty. Although I have not made use of our local one, I think the whole give-a-book-take-a-book thing is a lovely community project and one sited in an iconic phone box seems even better.

    More generally, I have been sorry to see the demise of phone boxes over the last decade or so. It was justified by the growing ubiquity of mobile / cell phones, of course, but I think that may just have been a convenient excuse since they removed them from areas where there was zero mobile reception. Zilch. Having lived in a rural area of Scotland for over a decade, there were definitely places where the break down of the car would have been a complete pain in the rump as I would have had to have walked a considerable number of miles in order to make a call.

    I at least hope they ensure that the phone boxes get another lease of life when they quit being used for communication. I know of at least one being used as a wood store in someone’s garden.

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    • Another great use. See above, where Belladonna Took just suggested tiny greenhouses.
      I remember when New York (and probably other parts of the country) took the booths out and replaced them with metal–oh, I don’t know how to describe them. Things. Things that held a phone and gave you the illusion of privacy with metal wings around your head that did nothing to block out street noise. They did take up less space–I’ll give them that–but I did miss the booths.

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  8. The red boxes are beautiful. I would contribute to that mini-library. I was surprised to find 2 standing phone booths inside the public library in New York City. The phones were removed, but the wooden seats remained. It was Christmas season and I’d been walking for hours looking for a warm place to sit. I took advantage.

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  9. I’ll never understand England. They get rid of the red telephone boxes, and yet keep the Queen.

    One of my projects (on a very long list of projects) is to stick a Little Free Library on our patch of greenery in front of our house. I’m not sure if I have the carpentry skills for it, but I’m hoping to make such a mess of it, my husband will step in and say, “You’re doing that wrong, let me do it.”

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  10. Pingback: British parliamentary traditions | Notes from the U.K.

  11. I remember as a teenager in Liverpool, if there was more than one person waiting to use one ot the person inside had a huge pile of coins (indicating they were there for the duration) you’d just walk down to the next one.
    They always smelled bad and invariably had cracked or missing pains but they were great!
    I miss them too!

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  12. Pingback: The iconic British phone box goes literary – agfamilytrustcom

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