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Payphone Road Trip! Can We Find a Working Payphone in Our Small Town?

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

NYC payphone.

Payphones were once a staple of public spaces. Now they're a vanishing breed, and spotting a payphone in the wild is a novelty. I keep a lookout for payphones when I'm traveling, because I've been clinically diagnosed as "weird." I also notice when local payphones come up missing. It's true that I have something short of a payphone obsession, and I can tell you why: Payphones are a tangible link to a bygone era, when communication wasn't as free and easy as it is today, and when people didn't take as much for granted. Payphones are quaint and fun, but more importantly, they remind us of where we've been.

You used to have to find a payphone, and hope your intended recipient was near their landline phone to get your call. It was a tenuous connection, and looking back, it's a wonder anyone got picked up from the mall.

Of course, the '80s were flush with payphones, and great films such as Miracle Mile payed homage to their ever-ready presence. However, the payphone hearkens all the way back to the early 1900s. For generations and indeed lifetimes, the payphone was always there, waiting for that pocket change. Up until the early 2000s, payphones were still a viable industry. My college campus had several of them, all functional, and I graduated in 2003. (Don't do the math.)

On a very small scale, I took a trip with my wife and got some photos of former payphone locations around our area. Let's get this questionable premise started!


Located at a bakery/coffee shop, this payphone kiosk is a lonely testament to analog days gone by. Directly across the street from here is a vintage supermarket and a sorely-missed Chinese take-out place.

Payphone kiosk in a coffee shop.
This was the first photo we took on our payphone road trip. We were at the coffee shop anyway, so I figured it was a great time to stop procrastinating on this article.
AT&T Long Distance Service decal.
It was the first nice day in what seemed to be years.

The AT&T Long Distance decal on the window was a real treat for this payphone junkie. (The decal was photographed from inside, so that it didn't look like we were taking photos of any customers. That wouldn't be illegal in a public place, but sometimes it's best to not invite trouble.) Thankfully, someone's efforts to peel it off were abandoned. When was the last time you heard someone say "long distance"? Of course, the corporation's name bears testament to another, long-gone vestige of communication, AT&T standing for "American Telephone and Telegraph." The eventual eclipse of the telegraph by the phone should have been obvious even back in the day, so nice job with the company name, AT&T.

Right around the corner from the coffee shop was this sad sight at Sunoco:

Empty payphone kiosk.
How many drug deals were set up here?

And about a block away, in a parking lot, stand these silent sentries:

Empty payphone kisok in a parking lot.
The heading on the yellow sticker reads "Free calls." It's mainly a prayer request line. I once called this number at a Wal-Mart payphone, just before getting married. You left a recording with your request, and that was it. That Wal-Mart phone is now gone. It was in another city, so it's not included in this article.

This is the same parking lot. When you see yellow poles in the ground for seemingly no reason, chances are they once flanked a payphone, protecting it from getting hit by vehicles.

Always be on the lookout for those yellow posts! Unless you have something better to do.

Close to these former phone locations is a McDonald's, which also housed a payphone until the store was remodeled about a year ago. Sadly, no trace of the phone remains. My wife popped in and got an iced coffee at this point, so as not to make us look too suspicious.

McDonald's wall.
Posting a photo of a wall is the true test of confidence in your writing.

Another phone location was spotted at a tire store in town. All six of these phones were within a mile of each other, and there was another one that I couldn't photograph, because it's located in a closed arena with tinted windows. (I must look a freak when I'm out doing this stuff.) Even during the heyday of payphones, this concentration seems to border on overkill.

Former payphone at a tire garage.

We then ventured to that Mecca of consumerism, the mall where I used to hang out at Kay-Bee Toys. Tragically, it seems as though all of the mall payphones are no more. Even a year or two ago, they had a working phone, which I once used to call my dad. One nice thing about being a pessimist is that you're not easily disappointed.

Bell Atlantic payphone at a mall.
Note the "Bell Atlantic" sticker on receiver. Founded in 1984, it was part of the original Bell System. Verizon ate up Bell Atlantic on July 3, 2000. It's a miracle this decal is still present and legible.

Yes, that is a calculator watch. And no, I'm not a hipster. My math really is that bad.

The mall's other phones at the entrances have been shuttered up, their rings silenced forever:

Former payphone location at a mall.

As a sign of the times, the food court's payphone has been replaced by a cell phone recycling kiosk. I remember seeing a high school crush using that phone in the '90s. I tried to talk to her after she hung up, but she didn't want anything to do with me, a trend which would continue with women until I met my wife in 2015.

Cell phone recycling kiosk.

I didn't let the lack of payphones ruin my day, setting up this sweet photo op with no external assistance:


By this time, we decided to head back home, tapping out everything our illustrious area had to offer. But, the phone spotting wasn't quite over. I hope you're as excited as I am at the prospect of more vacant space!

Grossman's Bargain Outlet
On the left-hand side of this store...
… is the only evidence you need. That pattern of holes is the sign of a payphone. I'm sure you could have gone the rest of your life without knowing that.

We stopped at Wendy's for lunch, but it wasn't all fun and games: I knew the joint was once host to a phone, and I had to document it for the article.

Former payphone in a Wendy's restaurant.
This payphone was originally outside, before the dining room area expanded way back when. People have stuffed straw wrappers in the holes. Inspired.
Topps Friendly Markets interior.
This supermarket was a major payphone player, with phones on both entrance walls. After the phones were removed, I tried to get one of the kiosks. The store manager gave me the number of the vendor, and I left a message. I never heard back, and when I returned to the store a few days later, the kiosks were gone.
Payphone kiosk holes in Topps grocery store.
I took a photo of the other wall, but it was hard to see the phone holes. You're going to have to trust me.
This phone was located in the straight-up ghetto. My wife didn't even want to stop for me to get the photo. But in a previous life, I delivered pizza to this area in the wee hours of the morning. Daylight didn't phase me!

Bidding us farewell on our payphone tour were these gas stations. UPDATE: These gas prices look pretty good now!

Payphone at gas station.
Payphone kiosk at a gas station.
This kiosk once had the "free calls" sticker.

Hold the line! We've got a working payphone here! I remembered it being up and running a couple of years ago. (Yes, I periodically check payphones.) I was only semi-surprised it was still functional; it's right across the street from a hospital.

Working payphone.
Working payphone receiver with tape on it.
The tape on the receiver likely covers a former service provider. You'll recall the Bell Atlantic decal on the mall's phone.

Lastly, this Domino's used to be a convenient store called Parson's Stop and Go. During that time, there was a phone attached to the building. The location once had a "Phone" sign on the white awning, but it's been lost to the ages. Just after taking these photos, I saw some little kid inside the store watching me and freaking out. A few seconds later, the store manager came out, along with a burly dude. They both started to approach the car, at which point I made a hasty exit. What's a road trip without some adventure?

Domino's pizza store.
Former payphone at an old convenience store.

Here's some bonus content worth phoning home about!

Unlike my area, large cities still have droves of payphones, many of which are operational. Often it's cheaper to make international calls from them, and the phones are used by the homeless. Also, the chance of an emergency is higher in densely-populated areas, so payphones in cities serve partly as a public service for 911 calls. Payphones see huge spikes in usage when cellular service is out. When Adrienne and I visited NYC in 2016 to get her engagement ring at Tiffany's, I was in payphone paradise.

A couple use a payphone in New York City.
The blue tip on the receiver indicates the phone is hearing-aid compatible.

We went to Tokyo for the honeymoon. After collapsing upon arrival at the hotel, we woke up at about five in the morning. We felt like a million bucks, and hit the streets immediately. We found a 7-11 two blocks away, and ate the best sushi we've ever had. Right outside the store was one of Japan's famous green payphones. I'm not sure why I have the exact same expression as in the above photo. I guess it just proves that no matter where you are, you're always the same person. Yeah, that sounds good.

Tokyo, Japanese payphone.
The phone worked. You can see the sushi in the bag behind me. This was the beginning of an insanely epic week.

Japanese payphones can use a pre-paid card, many of which are printed with anime and video game characters. (If you care, you can see the phone's card slot, right under the cord in the above photo.) I've owned the card below since 1999. Japanese phone cards expire after one year, so mine was probably useless when I got it.

Japanese Sailor Moon phone card.
I bought this from a friend in college. I think it set me back three dollars.
Japanese phone card.

Our local 7-11 doesn't sell sushi. Even if it did, I'm sure it wouldn't come close to any 7-11 in Japan. However, it does contain the yellow post signs of a payphone.

And here's the grand finale (or maybe "finally"): I have my own payphone at home! It runs on magicJack, and it's located in my arcade! I reprogrammed my Protel 7000 to work without coins. Did you catch that? Seven thousand. That's almost five thousand years from now! Long live the payphone.

Payphone in arcade with Donkey Kong and Frogger machines.

UPDATE: Contributing Retro Injection blogger Luke Worle found this relic we'd somehow missed.


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