Nostalgia and profit created a market in old phone booths

ohRECENT NA On Sunday afternoon, Hampstead High Street put on a very British spectacle: an orderly queue outside a red phone booth that has not been used to make a call for many years. Danny Baker, a retiree turned barista, prepares flat whites on an espresso machine where the phone was located. The novelty of the kiosk attracts passers-by, some of whom have become regulars.

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Edward Ottewell, owner of the kiosk, seems to have found a way to keep it and others in Britain useful and profitable. He bought over 100 of them and rents them for a few thousand pounds a year. One, a few blocks from the one Mr. Baker rents, houses a cupcake machine. Another houses a QR code that offers discounts for an electric bike sharing program. Mr. Ottewell also sells kiosks on Bidx1, an online platform. The one Mr Baker is renting is on the market for £ 57,500 ($ 76,200).

Britain once had over 60,000 red telephone boxes. The original red box model, the K2, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect responsible for Battersea Power Station and Liverpool Cathedral. Most were K6s, an updated Scott design to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V. For BT, the former British telecoms monopoly, which owns them, they are depleting resources. He’s been trying to unload them since cell phones made them useless. Its official dealer offers uprooted people K6s online – £ 1,750 for a repairman; £ 2,900 for one with a lick of paint.

But about 200 K2 and 3200 KThe 6 have a historic designation, often Grade II, which means they cannot be moved or significantly changed without approval. So since 2008 BT has also started an ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme, where charities and councils can buy a box for £ 1 to turn it into something useful, such as a home for a defibrillator or a library. exchange of books – and, for BTTo the displeasure of, mini-cafes and coffee shops operate for profit.

Mr. Ottewell bought his K2s and K6s at that slashed price through a charity he co-founded. He seems to have sold them to a company, also co-founded by him, which rents and resells them. One in Ashford High Street in Kent cost £ 5,400 in March. He has since sold another 40, some at exorbitant prices. In November, a Hong Kong buyer paid £ 43,000 for one. Another, outside the British Museum, has awarded £ 32,000 to an artist who plans to use it as gallery space. Most have a heritage designation, which means buyers also get the square meter of land the kiosk sits on.

So far, so standard for the “law of rent”, according to which the person who owns a scarce resource reaps the profit when that resource is put to profit. But now BT threat of legal action. In May, he sent a legal letter to Mr Ottewell’s company and charity, claiming they were “not fulfilling their contractual obligations” and challenging either of the rights to sell the kiosks. (Mr. Ottewell did not respond to requests for comment.)

Any case can light up if BT can prove that Mr. Ottewell always intended to use the boxes for profit rather than charity, says Rob Bratby of Bratby Law, a telecommunications company. The standard contract says BT can recover boxes from a buyer who loses charitable status, but does not prohibit resale. So unless a specific clause is included, buying boxes for charity and then changing your mind would probably be fine, Mr Bratby thinks.

Yes BT has succeeded in proving a false statement, he may be able to demand the return of the kiosks that Mr Ottewell still owns, but not those he has already sold. This would mean even less available to private buyers and – by another iron law of economics, that of supply and demand – even higher prices.

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Bigger inside”

About Anne Wurtsbach

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