Hart of the Issue: A penny for your thoughts

By John M. Hart III, Esq.

Picture yourself walking down an English street almost a century ago and you want to get in touch with a friend.  You wouldn’t reach into your pocket and pull out a phone, rather you’d walk to the nearest red telephone kiosk, topped with a dome made of segmented curves, a national icon that anyone can quickly identify with Great Britain.  

While the famous British Phone Booth we picture today isn’t the original design, it has been the main design, for the better part of its iterations, since the early 1920s, after Sir Giles Gilbert Scott submitted his winning design for an architecture competition. The phone booth remained in service for decades until the need for phone booths dwindled due to technological advancements. 

It’s clear that English phone booths were stylish, particularly compared to the ones I remember here in the States when I was growing up.  But they also served a bigger purpose besides the convenience of placing a call when you were nowhere near a “landline” in a building. They also provided privacy.  

The newest version of the Hart Free Library is in the offices of Hart Law, East Grove Street, Dunmore.

The telephone booth is a particularly interesting, yet overlooked, device in our society.  It even came up in a landmark case while I was studying in law school.  In Katz v. United States, 389 US 347 (1967), a gentleman was using a phone booth that federal agents had previously planted an eavesdropping device to the outside of… without a warrant. 

Based on his phone conversations, the agents charged him with several counts of illegal transmission of wagering to various cities across the country and he was found guilty based upon that evidence. He appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was entitled to Fourth Amendment protection and that the wiretap on the phone booth was an unreasonable search and seizure.  He won.

The need for a phone booth was even taken into consideration with the design of our footwear.  Did you ever wonder why they call them “penny loafers”?  I did, so I looked it up.  In the 1930s, a phone call at a phone booth cost two cents.  The penny loafer was designed specifically with just enough space to fit a penny in each shoe, so whenever you were out and about town, you could always place an emergency phone call.  (https://magazine.brooksbrothers.com/penny-thoughts/)

Speaking of the cost of a phone call, have you ever heard the phrase “drop a dime”? At some point in the phone booth’s history, a phone call cost 10 cents. And due to the anonymity of using a phone booth, if someone wanted to “snitch” or “rat” on someone, they’d drop a dime in the phone, and call in to the police to report a crime.  

But much like the passage of time, the intended use of the phone booth, and its interesting idioms that came with them, has come and gone. Yet while the intended uses are no more, those landmark monuments remain, particularly the British-styled booths, and we are left to repurpose them because we can’t get over their nostalgic charm.  And because of that iconic charm, we don’t just repurpose them, but even replicate them.  I know, because we did.  

For those that don’t know, Maureen Hart, (the editor/publisher of the Dunmorean), is an avid book reader.  And when she learned of an organization called littlefreelibrary.org, a nonprofit organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose vision is to have a little free library in every community and a book for every reader, she wanted in.  

So, she set to planning to build one in the Green Ridge neighborhood of Scranton.  The typical style of a library for this program is small–think breadbox on a mailbox post–and can hold maybe a dozen books at most.  The idea is that anyone can walk by, drop off a book, pick up a book, swap a book, whatever they want to do.  The goal is to just promote reading and make books accessible to all.  

John Hart Jr. poses with the Hart Free Library prior to the ribbon-cutting on Sept. 28, 2013.

But when Maureen discussed the plans with her husband, she didn’t get a bread box.  Her husband, the founder of the Dunmorean, and my father, John M. Hart, Jr., doesn’t do anything small. Everything he does requires a parade, a ribbon-cutting ceremony, or a speech.  

For this scheme, a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a few speeches, and a couple of past mayors were added for good measure.  Instead of a 12-book library, he envisioned a British-style phone booth.  At first, he wanted an official, decommissioned British phone booth, as discussed in detail above.  But the cost would have been astronomical to ship, let alone purchase.  So, he had a replica designed and built to house the new neighborhood book collection.  

When I learned of this endeavor, I was a skeptic.  I figured it would attract vandalism, among other things.  But it still stands to this day, albeit it’s seen better days. I was amazed to see the community’s reception.  People of all ages visit the library round the clock.  Children come with their parents to pick out a book, teens come to get books or even get their photos taken near it, or in it. Elderly come often and treasure the ease of access to books. And people periodically drop off books for a new owner to discover.  

Sure, some of those donors tend to treat it like a book dumpster, and leave cardboard boxes outside, (which we aren’t keen about) but for the most part, it’s a wonderful place and an incredible landmark in our neighborhood. 

The “little” free library is still in service today and can be seen and used at 1175 Morel Street, Scranton, PA 18509.  It’s located near Park Gardens, in Green Ridge, just a block away from Marywood University.  

As mentioned earlier, it’s getting a little worse for wear, but it is now a registered non-profit, and has a GoFundMe account. (Scan the QR Code to donate!)  If you get a chance to check it out, please do, and consider contributing.  

And if that location is a bit out of the way for you, we’d like to welcome you to stop by Hart Law, (134 E. Grove Street, Dunmore, PA 18510) where we started up our own Little Free Library.  It may not be as grandiose as our British Phone Booth location, but it’s convenient, and we welcome anyone to stop by for a visit and talk about their favorite book!

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