Architectural Designer Updates One Outdated Technology With Another

09jpphonebooth3 popup Architectural Designer Updates One Outdated Technology With Another

A close-up. (New York Times)

The endangered and extinct species of Manhattan are myriad: affordable apartments, mom and pops, the middle class. But perhaps none are so endangered as pay phone booths: not only do they take up precious real estate in a packed city, but the pay phone itself is considered Jurassic technology by the smart phone-wielding set.

So why not match them up with another endangered species—the book? Enter John H. Locke, an architectural designer profiled in The New York Times. Mr. Locke spends his Sunday mornings transforming pay phones into mini lending libraries (the phones remain functional), creating what you might call delightful book nooks that would fit right into a Wes Anderson set. Obsolete technologies unite!

More delightful still, the project is not taking place in some impossibly twee corner of Brooklyn, but on the Upper West Side.

Mr. Locke designed lightweight, easy-to-install shelving that he pops into phone booths and fills with a variety of novels, non-fiction and children’s literature.

“It’s a spontaneous thing that just erupts at certain locations,” he told The Times. “People like it, people are inspired by it, but then it disappears again.”

Maybe the whole death of the book thing is overstated? Not to mention that Manhattan’s pay phones, while their use has declined sharply, still have an average of six calls made from them each day (and their shelters are advertising cash cows for the city).

The project, while more an exploration of art, architecture and the urban fabric than an ongoing lending library, bears some resemblance to little free libraries popping up in some locations of Brooklyn. Mr. Locke checks in on his projects periodically, but does not interfere as they slowly disappear.

And disappear they do. The Times looks on as a group of men with trash bags surreptitiously scoop up all the books inside and walk away. Which is kind of depressing, but not altogether disheartening: gritty Manhattan, while endangered, isn’t gone yet.

kvelsey@observer.com