Originally created 02/29/04

Old pay phones are back in style



ATLANTA - Old pay phones are selling like they're going out of style.

Collectors and pack rats have made an online rush to buy BellSouth's boxy old pay phones after the Atlanta-based company decided to pull out of a coin-operated phone business that had withered in the wireless age.

"It's a novelty. You just don't usually see pay phones in people's homes," said Hugh Bowen, a retired Atlanta police officer who bought one of the 30-pound phones. "I thought it was so neat and I always wanted one. When I saw this opportunity I jumped on it."

So many people hurried to buy the phones after they were offered over the Internet two months ago that they're now sold out. About 500 orders for the $135 phones (shipping included) were filled, and now there's a waiting list of about 300 more people.

Cell phones have increasingly pushed aside the once-ubiquitous pay phones, which were considered a necessity for anyone who needed to make a call from the road, public buildings or an airport terminal.

Soon they'll be antiques, like rotary phones, crank phones and early model brick-sized cell phones - not to mention other obsolete technologies such as eight-track players, laserdiscs and typewriters.

"My grandchildren and great-grandchildren won't know what it is," said Bill Ray, who bought one of the pay phones and keeps it atop a filing cabinet in his Memphis, Tenn., BellSouth office. "I thought I'd get it for the nostalgia, and it will be a conversation piece for years to come."

When BellSouth became the first major phone company to shutter its wallowing pay phone business two years ago, volunteers with the phone company decided to refurbish the phones, equip them for home use and resell them to raise money for charity. About $18,000 has been raised from the $35 in profit from each phone, which will go toward groups like Habitat for Humanity and the American Red Cross.

Other companies will continue to operate some pay phones, but their numbers will continue to decrease. The total number of pay phones nationwide has dropped 29.5 percent in the last five years, including a 32.9 percent drop in pay phones operated by local phone companies, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

"With less pay phones, it forces people without cell phones to get them now," said Patrick Comack, an analyst with Guzman & Co. in Miami. "They're getting out of the pay phone business because they've lost so much share to wireless. It's not a moneymaking business."

After BellSouth removed the pay phones from phone booths, it rewired them so they can plug into a wall and work on that line. The phone will work without coins, but money can still be deposited.

Some people store change in the coin-box door, which can be opened with a "T" key that comes with the phone.

Pat Barnes, a network sales engineer for BellSouth who lives in Norcross, bought one of the pay phones and has it hooked up on the wall in her garage.

"When you get home from the grocery store, it always seems like the phone is ringing, and that's where we answer it," she said. "I always thought it was really cute. It's a piece of history."