Endangered Red Booths

By Jessica Lechtenberg

Photo courtesy of Mike Dixson.

It’s no surprise that an estimated 92 percent of the British public owns a cell phone. What is a bit of a surprise, however, are the lengths to which forces are attempting to save the iconic, but obsolete, red telephone booth. In 2005, the former Lord Mayor of London began reaching out to phone companies as potential buyers, in order to preserve these tourist magnets. The booth remains as inherent to the city’s landscape as Big Ben or The London Eye.

For all of the visual and cultural appeal they offer, in the past five years, actual telephone calls from the red boxes have dropped over 80 percent. As such, it’s no mystery that some say it’s time for them to go, especially as they become difficult to maintain. Today, refurbished phone booths are actually being sold off to private buyers for over $3,400.

Londoners find creative uses for these booths. In 2012, anonymous fans of BBC’s Sherlock (a revamp of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective series Sherlock Holmes) made a shrine to the show in a telephone booth in front of St. Bart’s Hospital, where a famous season opener was filmed. (Warning: link contains show spoilers).

The local government executes the “Adopt-a-Kiosk” plan, which facilitates UK communities to purchase the booths for as little as one pound, as long as they are preserved and repurposed. Decades ago, a single telephone booth served as a communication device for hundreds of UK citizens. In the age of the cell phone, booths are transformed into hubs for book exchanges, art installations, or even emergency defibrillator stations.

I can attest to the appeal of the red telephone booth from my trip to London in 2010. It was impossible to resist jumping in and taking too many photos. Peering out from the solid red shade of that box served as a contrast to the preserved testaments of British monarchy, architecture, and country lore.

While the 21st century forces these boxes to extinction, such preservation efforts and creative examples provide hope that while the red boxes might not be for phones much longer, they will remain iconic in other innovative ways.