What scant sunlight there was slanted through the windows, pooling light on the wooden bar as the bartender tidied up. The mid-week, late lunch crowd had dwindled in the dining room. A couple of regulars hunched at the bar and an elderly couple moved towards the exit as a phone rang. A man in shadow slid off the end stool and moved smoothly into the booth, carefully sliding the glass door closed before answering.
That happened not in a black and white 1940s gangster movie, but the other day at Gardiner’s Mountain Brauhaus which still has a payphone booth. In this digital age, what in the world for?
The phone booth is located next to the hostess station and, explained Ilka Ruoff Casey, one of three owners of the Brauhaus. “If you phone the Brauhaus for reservations, hours or what have you, the call goes to the payphone. The payphone number is on our matchbooks, business cards and ads.” But what if the hostess is away from her station? “Well, one of the people waiting for a table would answer the phone. For years, it was the only phone we had. My father always kept a dime in his pocket. If he wanted to call home, he’d let the phone ring once and hang up. My mother would hear it and then call back.”
Originally, Ilka said, “The carrier paid us for having the phone. Now, we’re billed monthly. Probably fair, since I can’t remember the last time anyone made an outgoing call on it.”
In 1991, payphones in this country peaked at 2.1 million. Today there are fewer than 250,000. Pacific Telemanagement Services in California owns the payphones in this area. Their records show, based on billing address, that there is only one pay phone in Gardiner and eleven in New Paltz, though if any exist in chain stores they would not show on Pacific’s records.
A few years ago the Brauhaus considered getting rid of the booth, but people immediately protested. Ilka says, “The last time we had an issue with it and needed to rely on the cordless phone we found ourselves taking it into the booth anyway. It’s like a mini-office—quiet, with a little desk, light, even a working fan! A useful oasis on a noisy night.”
The phone booth is also a magnet for small children, who just love it, and there has been a remarkable change in people’s response to the fact that the phone booth is their main phone. “For a time, it seemed hopelessly out of date and a bit of an embarrassment,” Ilka says, “but now people seem to really get a kick out of it. I’m especially amused when people take pictures of the phone booth with their smartphones.”