December 22, 2014

Elyria
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Busy? Not so much … but pay phone is far from dead

Denver Meinhold dumped a dime in the pay phone at Eighth Street and Middle Avenue, just to keep his quarter company.

“This phone sucks,” Meinhold said. “I forgot my cell phone – this is the first time I`ve used a pay phone in a year.”

SHAWN FOUCHER/CHRONICLE
Grafton resident Denver Meinhold uses a pay phone at Eighth Street and Middle Avenue in Elyria – he left his cell phone at home.

He dialed a few numbers. No answer from his friend`s house. He popped in a few more coins. The phone spit out 55 cents, and the call never went through.

“I dunno, it just started beeping,” Meinhold said, shrugging and hanging up the receiver.

Ask a pay phone user like Meinhold to explain why he`s using one of these arcane devices, and you`ll get one of two responses: A dirty look for interrupting the call, or a sound explanation.

Meinhold said when he had to call his friend and found he didn`t have his cell, the pay phone outside Gas USA on Middle Avenue was the likely solution.

But with communications juggernaut AT&T announcing last week it would phase out its pay phones by the end of 2008, it started a lot of people thinking that the era of publicly accessible phones – which already has declined considerably – was about to end.

But not every phone company is ready to call it quits.

Windstream Communications, the primary phone service provider in the greater Elyria area, still has about 170 pay phones operating in this area.

“We`re going to remain in the pay phone business as long as it remains profitable for us,” said Erin Ascione, Windstream spokeswoman. “Certainly it`s still a profitable business for us.”

With a generation of consumers who seem to exit the womb with cell phones dangling from their ears, companies like Windstream are up against a changing industry.

In 1999, Windstream had 1,900 pay phones across Ohio; today, it has about 800 – a very substantial decline, Ascione said.

Surprisingly, Windstream`s profit margin from pay phones isn`t necessarily measured in dollars and cents.

Added value

Windstream has re-branded nearly all of its pay phones as marketing tools, outfitting most of the phones located in high-traffic areas – grocery stores, gas stations, libraries – with the highly recognizable kiwi-colored Windstream logos.

Windstream doesn`t value its pay phones strictly on the number of coins dumped into a given machine, Ascione said.

“It`s dependent on the community`s need for it,” Ascione said. “If there`s one that`s really needed in an area, we`ll put it in.”

Case in point: Elyria Public Library`s main building on Washington Avenue.

Library Director Janet Stoffer said the pay phone in the foyer was out of service for months, so Windstream considered doing away with it. Officials at the library didn`t like that idea at all.

“We felt very strongly that we couldn`t do without a public pay phone,” Stoffer said.

So she and her colleagues convinced Windstream to keep the phone, with the library paying Windstream for the phone connection while keeping the coins for the library`s coffers.

The financial payoff is minimal and barely covers the cost of service, but that`s beside the point, Stoffer said.

“Just yesterday, we had a guy come in here and make five or six calls to the phone company, gas company and telephone company,” Stoffer said. “He just moved to the area, and it was the only place he could make a call.

“It`s for patrons like that,” Stoffer said. “Or like the kids who come in, and mom and dad are supposed to pick them up at a certain time, and they don`t show up. (Without a pay phone), the kids are using the library phones.”

Elyria police Lt. Andy Eichenlaub is inclined to agree with the public-service justification for keeping pay phones.

“Cell phones are common, but they`re still a luxury,” Eichenlaub said. “There are people out there who can`t afford them, or they just don`t want to have them.”

When he first joined the Elyria Police Department about two decades ago, there were pay phones on every corner, Eichenlaub said.

These days, there are perhaps one or two at sporadic corners, tucked away in easy-to-miss parking lots or gas stations.

Erasing those few remaining phones, Eichenlaub said, is tantamount to “limiting people`s ability to reach out for help in an emergency.”

California native Marcus Stewart is a perfect example.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Stewart was chatting on a pay phone at the Shell Gas Station on Bell Avenue and Route 57.

He said that he uses the same pay phone once or twice a week when he needs to make a call when he`s in the area. He doesn`t own a cell phone.

“It`s too expensive to use on a regular basis, but it works in a pinch,” Stewart said of the pay phone. “The only thing I don`t like is you get about five minutes of talk time for 35 cents.”

But it shouldn`t be all about money, Stewart said.

“It`s not always about the profit margin, like it is with AT&T,” Stewart said. “It`s about customer service. Kids need the phones in emergency situations, whether they got lost or they`re on their way home.”

Like Eichenlaub, Stewart thought back to the days when pay phones were the norm – the primary means of communication before the advent of cell phones.

Some folks, as it turns out, miss those good old days.

Pay phone compendium

Oberlin College graduate Mark Thomas was building Web sites before most people even knew what a personal computer was.

In 1995 – the Internet`s infant years – Thomas built his first Web site, www.payphone-project.com.

A 1990 music graduate at Oberlin, Thomas is a jack-of-all-trades sort. And if there are two things this man knows, they are pianos and pay phones.

Shortly after graduating college, Thomas moved to Manhattan, the metropolitan mecca for pay phones. He started his pay phone Web site as an art project, something of an experiment.

“I was doing Web sites as early as anyone was,” Thomas said. “I started talking about pay phones – I was always interested in technology and its ability to connect people randomly, or bring them together in ways that couldn`t be done before.”

As he puts it, pay phones, cell phones and the Internet make it “just as easy to talk to someone in China as it is to open my window and yell at my neighbor.”

He speaks from experience as he`s tried it – calling people on pay phones in China. Once, he called 10 pay phone numbers and then strung them into one conversation – a 10-way call.

“They all rang at the same instant, and people all picked them up,” Thomas said, chuckling. “It was the most amazing sound; it was total chaos. They were all like, ‘Who are you, and what`s going on?` ”

The notion to call pay phones and make random contact is moot these days, since most pay phones don`t even take incoming calls anymore, and most people accomplish the same thing on Internet chat rooms.

Thomas began collecting pay phone numbers from random phones in Manhattan, posting them on www.payphone-project.com. Soon others started posting pay phone numbers on the Web site, with submissions coming in from all over the country.

“For whatever reason, I found there was this little subculture of people who collected pay phone numbers,” Thomas said.
Today, Thomas is pretty certain that his Web site offers the most comprehensive listing of pay phone numbers – some 750,000 numbers of pay phones that may be working or out of service.

“As whimsical as this project was when I started, people legitimately wanted to know what the pay phone numbers were for their location,” Thomas said.

After he started his Web site, Thomas got a call from a New York district attorney who was trying to match the location of an old pay phone with a number the attorney`s office had. It was a case they`d been working on, and the pay phone had long since been shut down and removed.

“The call was made from a number like six years ago or something, and they needed the number to find out where the call was made,” Thomas said.

A search of the www.payphone-project.com database turned up the number of the defunct pay phone and its former location in New York.

For Thomas, the payphone-project.com site has taken a back seat to his more current interest, a Web site listing drop-off mailbox locations throughout the country, although he still manages the pay phone site.

“There`s no question that the decline in pay phones is directly related to the rise in the cell phone,” Thomas said. “You can`t argue with the convenience of a cell phone.”

But there are still benefits the pay phone has, like the clear reception that comes with a landline.

“(Pay phones) are never going to vanish,” Thomas said. “It`s just unfathomable that they`d vanish completely. There are too many disaster scenarios that come into mind – like the blackout in 2003, when people were lined up half a mile waiting to use the pay phones.”

Not to mention that yanking out all the pay phones would eliminate one mode of communication for a communications-hungry society.

“If they yank out the only pay phone on a street, in an emergency, there`s nothing,” Thomas said. “You`re in 1865, and you have to yell down the street to see if anybody will hear you.”

Elyria police Lt. Eichenlaub agreed, and said it was critical to have pay phones available to Elyria`s public.

“But I don`t even know where they`re at anymore,” Eichenlaub said of the pay phones. “I have a cell phone.”

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.