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Photo essay: Payphones – A thing of the past …almost

Once upon a time, you could find a payphone on nearly every street corner. Since the advent of the cellphone, however, payphones have gone the way of the dinosaur – but the evidence of a once-abundant service remains in the graffiti-laden shells of former phone booths scattered throughout the city.

Payphone at Clunie Pool in McKinley Park

Sacramento is no stranger to abandoned, vandalized or otherwise dysfunctional payphones, which raised the question – who maintains the city’s payphones and is the number dwindling? The Sacramento Press sought to answer that question with a bit of history and photos from around the city.

Payphone near 5000 block of Stockton Boulevard at abandoned car wash

Historically, payphones were owned and maintained largely by telephone service provider companies, such as AT&T or Western Telecom.


As cellphone use increased over the years, phone companies started taking payphones out of service because they were not as profitable.

Payphone at 5005 Stockton Blvd.

Now, the majority of payphones are owned by independent vendors who contract with service providers for the phone service and then pass the cost – along with a profit margin – along to business owners who want to provide payphones as a service to customers.

According to Maurice Chaney, Economic Development Department spokesman, the city of Sacramento does not own or maintain any public payphones.

Payphone at corner of Stockton Boulevard and Third Avenue

Terrie Prosper, spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission, said Thursday there is no legal requirement in the state for a city to own or maintain payphones for its residents.

Since there is no ownership reporting requirement either, Prosper said, short of physically counting each one – it is nearly impossible to estimate the number of payphones in Sacramento today.

Payphone at corner of 34th and Broadway

The total cost of installing a phone and booth is approximately $1,000 each, according to Interstate Telecommunication owner Sandy Clay.

Payphone at Sacramento Valley Station

Clay said Thursday that her company spends roughly 5 percent of monthly revenue on repair and maintenance costs of the 60 or so phones her company owns in Sacramento.

“The vandalism is the worst,” Clay said. “Well, that and stealing the whole phone. And it happens all the time.”

Payphone at corner of Third and Broadway

Payphones are typically placed at mini-marts or gas stations and at “mom-and-pop businesses” in areas where low-income residents don’t have home phone service or can’t afford cellphones, she added.

“A good (earning) payphone in a good location will bring about $200 a month from the coin box,” Clay said, “and maybe $50 a month from our portion of long distance charges.”

Payphone at Sacramento Amtrak station

Revenue from payphones comes from the coin box on the phone itself and from surcharges on long-distance and 1-800 phone calls, Clay said.

Vendors seek out business sites that will get a lot of foot traffic and pay the business owner a percentage of their revenue as commission for installing a payphone on their property.

Payphone behind Sacramento Chinese Community Services building at 400 I St.

The vendor is responsible for installing the phone booth or stand, Clay explained, and for maintaining or repairing the phones and equipment.

If a payphone isn’t making enough money, or if the business owner no longer wants the phone on the property, the vendor is responsible for removing the phone and equipment.

Payphone at 4411 Stockton Blvd.

Clay said that the payphone industry was booming a few years ago – then, along came cellphones, and everything changed.

“It was not a surprise,” Clay said. “We could see the writing on the wall when cellphones started becoming more popular.”

Payphone at the corner of Second and 33rd

Clay said that, initially, cellphones were not much competition for payphones because cellphones were expensive, and not many people could afford them.

Over the last few decades, however, as cellphones gained in popularity and became less expensive to own, the need for payphones declined dramatically.

Payphone at corner of Fourth and Broadway

“We expected business to slow down,” Clay said, “but the technology really took off. We didn’t expect business to slow so fast.”

Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The SacramentoPress. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.

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