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In search of the last telephone booth in the mid-valley

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Salem Avenue is a good route to take from Interstate 5 to downtown Albany — or even across the Willamette River toward Corvallis.

It’s got fewer traffic lights than Pacific Boulevard, and the neighborhood is interesting, especially this little market near the railroad tracks.

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Why? Because outside the market is a shell of a telephone booth. No phone, of course, but the infrastructure still is there. And while passing the spot the intrepid reporter (known hereafter as IR) has often wondered: Are there any working phone booths left in Linn and Benton counties?

The short answer is no … we think. If anyone out there knows of one, call me (my contact info is below … and you get extra credit if you call FROM a telephone booth).

So how do you find out for sure? Well, you do things reporters always do: You call people, you email experts, you go online and you prowl around.

“Wow. What a great question,” said Steve Clark, vice president for marketing and university relations at Oregon State University or the phone booth search.

Clark recalls being on campus for the 2010 football game vs. Oregon and his cellphone did not work around Reser Stadium. So he went to the Memorial Union and the Valley Library looking for a pay phone with which to make a work call. No luck. He finally found one on Monroe Avenue that we are sure now is gone.

“But I cannot remember if the phone even worked,” Clark said. “I do recall that I got lots of blank stares from students and others when I asked where I could find a pay phone.”

Breaking news! Right before deadline Clark came back with more: "I learned that the pay phones placed on campus by US West and CenturyLink were removed in the late 1990s or early 2000s by the firms based on their determination of usage and profitability. OSU negotiated with the firms to keep a few around for safety reasons, and I understand the last one was located at or near Reser Stadium."

Pam Vaughan, the franchise utility and right-of-way specialist for the city of Corvallis, had a suggestion.

“I’m aware of one at the Shell station at Fourth and Jefferson, and I was under the impression that it was the last one in the city. Not sure if it is operable,” she said. That franchise utility tag for Vaughan is important here because if a phone box was in the public right-of-way, she would be involved; the phone company would have had to have a deal in place with the city. Those on private property work with the property owner.

The IR went to Fourth and Jefferson and carefully circumnavigated the station. No phone box. There is, however, a concrete platform tucked into the northwest corner of the station building that is just the right size for a phone booth. But that's all that's there, the concrete pad.

While in Corvallis the IR looked into three more tips. Former Public Works Director Mary Steckel, during a casual conversation a couple of years ago, said she believed there was a phone booth “at a gas station on Ninth Street.”

Gee, that narrows it down. We found a Chevron, a Mobil and a Fred Meyer. No phones. We also found a battery outlet whose layout clearly indicated it was a gas station in a former life. No phone.

Fellow reporter Kyle Odegard recalled an occasion when he received a story tip from a source via a telephone booth. The source reportedly was at the 7-Eleven in South Corvallis.

Q: When did you publish the story?

A: 2007.

Uh, oh. Relentless to the end, however, the IR headed south, found the convenience store which had all kinds of other paraphernalia out front, including an ice freezer, cases of water, an ATM and one of those movie dispensers. But no phone box.

Here ensued a brief inner dialogue on how long those movie boxes will remain anywhere, given the might and convenience of streaming services. A story for another day, perhaps.

Our final Benton County side of the river tip came from Visit Corvallis. Executive Director Christina Rehklau, who has only been in town since the summer of 2018, said, “For some reason, I think there is an old phone booth left down on First Street near the No Nations restaurant. It wasn't in working order, but I think the shell of the booth might still be there.”

Ka-ching! It was there. One of those nail it to the wall with a hockey rink shaped casing numbers.

But no phone, alas.

Interlude

Before we head across the river to Linn County, the IR must stop and insert some valuable — and perhaps heretofore missing — information. Why did the phone booths go away?

The obvious answer is cellphones. Our online research shows that, according to a Pew Research Center report, about 96% of Americans own cellphones. Methinks the 4 percenters are all under the age of 7.

Once people needing to make calls had a mobile, the phone box was toast. Or at least the financial model that required a certain amount of revenue to be derived to offset the building, placing and maintaining of the phone box was toast.

But I had to be certain. Sources close to the maintenance crew that works the Democrat-Herald office told the IR that CenturyLink used to have (that’s the mantra of this story … "used to have") a vacant lot in Lebanon that was full of discarded phone boxes. But no more.

So I called CenturyLink’s office in Albany. Here is how it went:

• If you are calling about new equipment for the home, please press 1.

• If you are calling about new equipment for a business, please press 2.

• If you are an existing customer, please press 3.

I pressed 3, and was asked for a ZIP code. The IR truthfully answered. Which opened up a whole new world, or series of options.

• If you need to talk to someone in billing, please press 1.

• If you need to talk to technical support, please press 2.

• If you want to change existing service, please press 3.

• If you are calling about service that has not yet been installed, please press 4. The IR thought about pressing 4 to try to discuss service that had been de-installed … but didn’t.

• All other questions, the IR was told, can be found by going to centurylink.com/support. No mention of phone boxes there.

End of interlude. Back to Linn County.

Some cool stories

First, I had to pay a visit to my phone booth shell on Salem Avenue. Up close it is even more impressive than is discernible while passing at 35 mph. It is structurally sound and flanked by classic convenience store accoutrements, such as those boxes that used to contain real estate sales brochures and signboards for Kratom.

When you get closer, you are greeted with a fine selection of graffiti scratched into its inner sanctum and a nice, fat ballpoint pen sticking out of the ceiling of the thing.

In a gesture of support, I bought a candy bar from the store.

Then, the IR rang up Alex Paul, the public information office for Linn County. He might know if the county has any phone box franchises out there.

“My answer to all your questions is, I have absolutely no idea,” Paul told the IR, then added, “I actually thought about this the other night while watching ‘Magnum P.I.’ There was a comment that there are still phone booths in Hawaii.”

That had me checking with the new boss: no dice on the IR’s request for the paper to subsidize a Hawaii trip to check out this key lead. Rats.

So then the IR started thinking about places where there might have been a phone booth although we were long past the point at which we seriously thought we might find an operational one.

How about a bowling center? You can drop off the kids to go bowling and then they can call home when they are ready to leave. Or you can call in illegal sports bets from the bar!

No dice. Roger Nyquist, the Linn County commissioner who runs Lakeshore Lanes in Albany in his free time, said there hasn’t been a pay phone in the place since at least 2000.

Nyquist did, however, offer a youthful take on potential uses of a phone box. He and his pals during his middle school years used to spend tons of time at the Venetian movie house on First Street. And when the movie was boring, Nyquist would go into the lobby and use the pay phone to call his friends.

Did he ever use the phone to call home to get a ride?

“No,” he said. “I didn’t want to be picked up.”

Nyquist and his pals also learned that once you know the phone number of a pay phone, your pals can call you there … and you never need to put in any money.

What about a courthouse? Where do criminal suspects go to make that one allowed phone call? How about when a key trial ends, and all of the reporters rush into a bank of phone booths to call in their stories to a waiting world?

Didn’t happen that way, says Steve Druckenmiller, the longtime Linn County clerk.

“This telephone booth is a great story for us old folks,” Druckenmiller said, “but you realize a lot of the younger ones are going to think we are making this up. I do not recall when the phone was removed, but you would think I would not have forgotten that because it was such a nuisance.

"In the vague recesses of my mind, I believe we had a real phone booth in the hall when I started working for the county in 1979, and it was then removed and replaced with just a wall unit. The one phone was enough except on election nights, when multiple news media needed to make calls. So the clerk’s office would make a couple of phones available, but that really jammed us up from taking our calls.

“So, I had general services set up a couple of temporary phones at a table in the hall, but that ended up not being enough, and they ended up still using our phones too. That was the only time we had a bank of phones at any time. Thankfully, cellphones came along, and then as fate would have it the media stopped coming to the courthouse as we began putting results online.”

Another vital American cultural tradition, destroyed by the internet. Double rats!

Contact the IR, reporter James Day at jim.day@lee.net or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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