Saying Goodbye to the Pay Phone – Once, a Salesperson’s Best Friend

Last week, the City of New York removed its last public payphone. It was the long overdue but sad end of an era that began in 1889 when a guy named William Gray needed access to a payphone, only to discover that it had not yet been invented. His creation  went on to be a 20th-century communications mainstay.

Those of a certain age, particularly salespeople, recall when knowing where the payphones were was part of the art of being an effective sales professional. This was particularly true of Toy Fair. In the days before cell phones and Javits, the payphones in the Toy Building lobby were vital to getting the sign-off on deals, communicating competitor intelligence, asking for permission, and occasionally pleading for forgiveness.

Complicating the use of payphones was the inevitable line to use them. At an event like Toy Fair, the demand for payphones was intense. You cannot imagine, or perhaps you can, the anxiety of waiting to make that critical call—standing in line, straining to hear the guy in front of you making his phone call, silently begging him just to shut up and get off the phone.

A true sales professional, therefore, not only knew where the payphones were but, more importantly, knew a secret payphone location unknown to competitors. I cannot adequately describe the feelings of smugness and self-satisfaction that came over you as you passed the cue for the phone lines, slipped around the corner, down an alcove, and picked up a phone about which only you and a few others knew.

Those days are gone and move on we must. Still, a lot of history was made using a piece of technology that, like so many others, has gone the way of the telegraph, telegram, and fax machine.

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