Students cram into them, Superman gets changed in them, and in Brockley, people borrow books from them. The humble phone box has seen many uses beyond actual telephony, but the conversion of one booth in a corner of Lewisham has perhaps caused the most chatter.
The box which stands near the corner of Loampit Hill and Tyrwhitt Road, just a stone’s throw from St John’s station, has operated since 2013 as a book exchange. The Lewisham Micro Library — as it’s become known, and as Google Maps now labels it — is touted as London’s smallest book repository.
With no registration, and no fines, it’s a casual walk-in-and-browse setup. Anyone is free to take home a book, provided they bring it back or replace it with another.
"It’s definitely given people an excuse to stand around chatting," reflects Seb Handley, "and in that sense, I suppose it’s really failed as a library." Seb is the man who bought this particular George Gilbert Scott-designed model from BT for a nominal £1. He spent a further £500 and several Saturday afternoons gutting the thing, before transforming it into the venerable, if petite, beacon of learning you now see today.
It's rush hour, and as buses and bikers bomb up and down Loampit Hill, people pop in and out of the little library for a flick through some of the volumes on offer. As well as the Ruth Rendells and Jeffery Deavers, there’s a lot of the weird and wonderful in stock today. We wonder who’ll be the first to snap up Alan Young’s Modern Sea Angling, or the AQA Mathematics Syllabus A Pure 1?
A man named Rob emerges with a quiz book on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. He just craves the simplicity of an old-fashioned lending service. "Don’t get me started on libraries these days, and all that distracting stuff they have to offer as ‘civic spaces’", he explains.
Lewisham’s micro library wasn’t the first. According to one estimate, it might not even have been the 150th. From Somerset to Derbyshire, it seems that telephone kiosks have been turning into libraries since at least 2009.
"It wasn’t my idea at all,” Seb says. "My mum’s got one in her village in Wiltshire. And it wasn’t even my idea for Lewisham — it’s others in the Brockley Society who deserve the credit for that. It’s odd really: all I did was respond to an ad and put up eight shelves."
In much the same way that the Micro Library quickly attracted intrigue beyond its immediate locality, Seb himself achieved a degree of reluctant mini-celebrity. "I’ve been interviewed by newspapers in Japan, Mexico," he recalls. "A friend saw me on TV in Denmark. It got a bit much after a while." He was even commended by the Prime Minister. There was something very ‘Big Society’ about the whole idea.
But while a quirky but unpoliced book exchange was always likely to succeed in Britain’s rural parishes which have a traditional sense of togetherness, big bad London poses a different challenge. You suspect that if an idea like this could work here, it could work anywhere.
For the micro library operates on a system of trust. Seb recalls leaving a couple of planks of wood unattended while working on the booth. They were promptly pinched. “I though, uh-oh, what have I got myself into?” he reminisces. “But I think people have come to realise that nobody’s doing this for themselves. And on the few occasions it has been vandalised, people have rallied round to fix it up.”
Lewisham locals Helen and Michele show up to peruse the shelves. In a bid to de-clutter their homes, they like to donate unwanted books. “It helps circulation,” Michele beams. “And it’s just closer and easier than the main library,” Helen points out. In the face of bruising local authority cutbacks, we wonder whether this is the future?
Seb ponders that. “There is a problem with what I’ve done,” he says, self-effacing once more. “That phone box could be seen to undermine what proper librarians provide. Theirs is a job that deserves to be respected and professionalised.”
But with a second micro library — dedicated to children’s books — now operating nearby, at the top of Wickham Road, you don’t have to go far to see the influence of the project. Seb identifies a third booth which could be taken over too.
BT, though, tell us there’ll be no more phone box-adopting in London or other major cities for now. They have “pending plans of [their] own for these areas”. As for more the detail on that — we remain on hold. In the meantime, the Lewisham Micro Library gives a simple answer to two problems: how to get the community reading, and what to do with beautiful old phone boxes.