'Quintessential British treasure:' What next for London's disappearing phone booths?

Like a throwback to a bygone era, bright red phone booths still line the streets of London’s central tourist area. These days, they serve much less as a means of communication than as a backdrop for visitors’ photos.

Chi Hoi Leung, a first-time visitor from Toronto, smiled as his daughter Regina snapped a picture on her smartphone. He said the sight reminded him of “the old days” and, with the proliferation of cellphones, he said, soon they’ll “be gone.”

London phone booth - tourist

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

The most common model throughout Britain, the K6 (“kiosk,” as Britons call it, Model 6), was designed in 1935 to honour King George V’s silver jubilee. The original design with the “Tudor Crown” can still be seen throughout London.

After her ascension to the throne, Queen Elizabeth II had newer models and other royal symbols updated to feature St. Edward’s Crown, used in her own coronation.

Model K6 London phone booth

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

While telecom company BT plans to scrap half of all pay phones throughout the U.K. over the next five years, 7,000 traditional red kiosks (or “phone boxes”) still stand. Tens of thousands served Britons as a means of communication before cellphones.

Other than the most-photographed phone booths in highly visible areas, many elsewhere in the British capital have fallen into disrepair. Inside, they feature lewd sex ads and smell of urine, both signs of what they’re used for at night.

Ads in unused London phone booths

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Groups can adopt a phone booth from BT for a one-time symbolic fee of less than $ 2 Cdn and have it repurposed for public use. Resellers, too, offer old, decommissioned kiosks for individuals. Some are sold refurbished to look like new, with prices starting at $ 4,500 Cdn.

Between their decommissioning and refurbishment, phone booths often await a new life in a sort of phone booth graveyard.

London phone booth graveyard

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

At any given time, a half-dozen old K6s can sit in Carl Burge’s yard and garage. He refurbishes the kiosks from his home in Norfolk, two hours north of London. Burge fills in the cracks developed over decades and gives the phone booths a fresh paint job and a new lease on life. 

His work is shipped throughout the country and around the world. “Initially my business was going to keep telephone boxes in the U.K., but people all around the globe are so passionate about red telephone boxes,” he said with a smile. “It’s the quintessential British treasure.”

His refurbishment process takes five to seven weeks, and he’s booked with orders until 2019. (He calls the work “time-consuming and soul-destroying” but loves it.)

London phone booth refurb

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

His refurbished phone booths are put to use in many ways. In the British countryside, a growing number house defibrillators. BT has pledged to provide electricity for new “public access defibrillators” for seven years. 

The Community Heartbeat Trust charity calls it “great for bringing disparate parts of the community together” with red kiosks providing a highly visible location for defibrillators in far-flung parts of the country.

Defibrillator in unused London phone booth

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

In densely populated London, where hospitals are a short distance apart, business owners are putting phone booths to other creative uses. 

London-based company Lovefone runs cellphone repair shops out of phone booths on busy streets. They also offer free Wi-Fi and charging.

“Some people just thought we were just doing it as a PR stunt,” said Rob Kerr, Lovefone’s Canadian co-founder and chief executive, originally from Calgary. “Granted,” he said, cellphone technicians “do have to be relatively skinny” to work inside. 

Technician Fouad Choaibi said his immediate concern was how he would ever find a lost screw in such a cramped workspace.

Lovephone — Fouad Choaibi in London phone booth

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

In suburban Hampstead, North London, Umar Khalid opened a phone booth café last year, just big enough to fit an espresso machine, a small fridge and freezer and a selection of teas. Neither a customer nor an employee can fit inside so Khalid spends his days enduring London’s fluctuating climate outdoors. “The main challenge is the weather, but the rest is amazing,” he said.

Phone booths “should be kept on the street,” he said, to honour English history. 

London phone booth cafe — Kape Barako

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Other history buffs are using old phone booths to house little libraries, ATMs or even a shower (one of Burge’s oddest requests). 

In London, they’re most often used as backdrops for photos and reminders of another era.

London phone booths on Parliament Street

(Thomas Daigle/CBC)

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