Cities and suburbs alike used to be dotted with millions of pay phones, many sheltered in iconic glass booths. But as the cell phone continues their rise, phone booths have become increasingly rare. Now, writes Steve Barnes for Reuters, pay phones are such an anomaly that a working example situated along a rural highway in Prairie Grove, Arkansas has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bill Bowden notes that this is the first time the National Register has ever listed such a structure—and that the National Park Service, which administers the list, wasn’t so sure it belonged there. After failing to get the booth listed, writes Bowden, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s board had to resubmit the booth for consideration, underscoring its design significance (it was manufactured in the 1950s), rarity and strategic placement.
Though pay phones haven’t died altogether, they’re rare enough these days that they count as a curiosity. The American Public Communications Council, which represents pay phone owners and operators, estimates on its website that there are fewer than 500,000 of them left in the country today. As such, the St. Prairie booth has become a destination for nostalgic tourists.
Given the rarity of phone booths like the one in Arkansas, it stands to reason that the few remaining specimens collect plenty of money, right? Wrong: The phone’s operator tells Bowden that he only collects about $4 in change a year. Only a few people pay for the thrill of the cheapest time machine around - or the necessity of a quick phone call in a pinch.