A phone booth with a new purpose.

The days of the phone booth may be numbered in New York City: with the flood of smartphones, vandalism and lack of maintenance, it may be time to re-think how else they might be used. Local architect John Locke’s proposition is to convert them into communal libraries or book drops, complete with brightly coloured shelving, much like your bricks-and-mortar institutions…

Like similar projects in Los Angeles and Britain, this NYC version was created as part of Locke’s “Department of Urban Betterment” (DUB) project. Locke realized that the 13,569 NYC phone booths were in competition with 17 million cellphones; posing the question of whether they were “an anachronism or an opportunity,” as Locke writes:

Even as they are rendered obsolete by the ubiquity of smartphones, I’m interested in pay phones because they are both anachronistic and quotidian. Relics, they’re dead technology perched on the edge of obsolescence, a skeuomorph hearkening back to a lost shared public space we might no longer have any use for. Something to be nostalgic for, in the way I can’t think about a phone booth without conjuring up images of an old, impatient woman banging on the door to one while I was inside using a calling card to ask for money. And of course they are nuisance, basically pedestrian level billboards that only blight certain neighborhoods (good luck finding a payphone in Tribeca, while there are eight separate phone kiosks on one block between 108th and 109th streets and Columbus Ave). But they can also be a place of opportunity, something to reprogram and somewhere to come together and share a good book with your neighbors.


Different locations, different results
Using donated books, Locke tried a first version in one uptown neighbourhood that was promptly cleared of books in six hours and had the shelving stolen in a little over a week. His second version in another neighbourhood eight blocks south and pictured above, fared much better, thanks to the change of location and the addition of a Dewey-like organization system and official-looking DUB logo.

Without any explicit sign indicating that it’s a streetside library, t’s an interesting experiment, as Locke notes on his website, to observe how people interact, construe and use the library. Will this fascinating project give new life to NYC’s neglected phone booths? Let’s hope so — check out John Locke’s website for more detail.

Images © John Locke