With mobile phones making pay phones a thing of the past, public phone booths in cities across the world have become near-obsolete. Earlier this year, New York City replaced thousands of pay phones with free Wi-Fi hot spots, while in Japan, the art collective Kingyobu repurposed phone booths in aquariums of goldfish. Further south in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a group created a public art project called Call Parade, which invited 100 artists to transform 100 telephone booths across the city into works of art.
London’s red phone booths have long made for iconic landmarks in a city full of idiosyncrasies. In fact, one poll found that 40% of British adults voted the telephone booths the greatest British design of all time. Originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – a British architect also known for his work on Liverpool Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge and Battersea Power Station – the hugely popular telephone booths have gone from utility to relic in just a matter of years, with the number of booths dropping from 92,000 in 2002 to just 48,000 in 2014. In spite of the fact that the booths are today largely archaic – or perhaps because of it – the UK’s 20th Century Society, which claims as its mission the preservation of 20th Century buildings, thousands of these phone booths are listed on Britain’s register of historic places, making it impossible to remove them.
Although many are still owned by BT (British Telecom), they have been transformed into everything from libraries and galleries to – in one case – a pub for one night. One of the company’s initiatives, Adopt a Kiosk, sells phone booths to local charities for the nominal fee of £1. For the adoption of their 3,000th phone booth, Adopt A Kiosk collaborated with the charity Community Heartbeat Trust to transform a phone booth into a defibrillator to help heart attack victims in Cumbria.
A few companies are finding ways to put the phone booths to good use by re-purposing them into everything from salad stalls to coffee booths into co-working spaces. Red Kiosk Company, which has worked closely with BT and aspiring entrepreneurs to re-purpose these city’s telephone boxes, removes the boxes’ innards and installs power, leaving entrepreneurs to do the rest.
Here are a few of the ways that these booths are being put to good use.
Food & Beverage Outlets
Many aspiring entrepreneurs have transformed phone booths into small companies in collaboration with the Red Kiosk Company, re-purposing them into stalls selling coffee, salad and ice cream. Founded by Ben Spier in 2011, Spier’s Salads promises a nourishing salad experience that is neither over-priced nor miserly in portion size. Located in a central London park better known as Bloomsbury Square, the company uses organic, locally sourced produce and serves up their salads in biodegradable and recyclable packaging. Elsewhere in the British capital, an immigrant couple that traveled from the Philippines and Pakistan only to meet on the number 94 bus in London manages another coffee shop, Kape Barako on Hampstead High Street.
Beyond London, Jake’s Coffee Box in Eden Place in Birmingham, was the first business to open in a Birmingham phone box last year. The box – which was repurposed by a charitable trust called Thinking Outside The Box – is possibly the smallest coffee shop in Birmingham.
Phone booths are not just being used to sell consumers food and drink, though. Established by the New York based co-working company Bar Works and the Red Kiosk Company, Pod Works are basically small offices for entrepreneurs. Each office is replete with Wi-Fi, a 25-inch screen computer, a wireless mouse, printer, scanner, outlets and a machine for hot drinks. The project, which began with a pilot of 20 booths last summer, is a subscription-based service that costs £19.99 (US $29) per month. In return for this fee, entrepreneurs may use any box at any time of day or night, with access being regulated through a smartphone app.
“Entrepreneurs and others constantly on the move need a convenient, affordable and private place to work,” said Bar Works CEO Jonathan Black in a press statement. “Why should they sit in Starbucks or any other coffee bar when using one of our Pods will allow them to truly focus on their job before an important meeting or presentation at less than the price of two cups of coffee a week?”
Just how safe and private these booths will be remains to be seen.
Smartphone Repair Shops
In an almost ironic twist, the UK-based company LoveFone has transformed a number of these booths into smartphone repair shops, with the first opening on London’s Greenwich High Road. The workspaces are big enough to accommodate one repairperson, making for the smallest repair shops in the country. The booths include a wooden workbench and cupboards to store tools and parts, but the windows of the box are left open, allowing the public to see inside. The booths also include free charging docks for passersby. The company began with six shops in Greenwich and Knightsbridge and plans to have 35 locations across London within the next 18 months.
Opened in November 2013, the Lewisham Micro Library is a library and book exchange that is housed in a phone booth that is classified as a heritage site. The library, which was established by 45-year-old Sebastian Handley, was purchased on behalf of the Brockley Society as part of BT’s Adopt a Kiosk initiative. Handley’s renovation of the booth included the installation of shelves, lighting and carpet, as well as stocking it up with a range of 200 titles. The library has a range of fiction, autobiographies, guidebooks, and even a section for children’s literature. Visitors are nonchalantly invited to ““Take a book. Leave a book. Steal a book. Whatever.” – allowing for a constant and differentiated flow of literature.