Driving down South Grand through Dutchtown, you may have noticed the long-dormant pay phone stand in front of the hulking house at 4018 South Grand, just south of Merb’s Candies. With pay phones having gone nearly extinct, it certainly catches the eye of anyone who still remembers what a pay phone was.

Dutchtown Volunteers Benjamin Thomas and Terri Zeman prepare the old pay phone stand for conversion to a free little library.

Dutchtown resident Ben Cohen saw an opportunity to repurpose the nostalgic nook into something that preserves the relic while also providing value to the community. Cohen set out to turn the old pay phone enclosure into a free little library. Benjamin Thomas and a handful of other neighborhood volunteers teamed up with Cohen on a recent Friday evening to rehabilitate the phone stand and give it a new lease on life.

Thomas salvaged wood and acquired a clear plastic colander and old telephone handset from Goodwill to create a windowed door for the enclosure. The team assembled the door and added a fresh coat of paint.

An anonymous landscaper arrived later to clear the weeds and other overgrowth around the phone and the front of the house, which has been vacant since at least 2015. City records indicate that building and electrical permits have been recently issued at 4018 South Grand, so hopefully more than just the pay phone will see a makeover at this address.

The free little library pay phone stand at 4018 South Grand Boulevard in Dutchtown, St. Louis, MO.

For now, the little library is stocked with books free for the taking. Cohen also hopes to stock the box with non-perishable snacks and other items for neighbors in need and attach a weather-proof resource guide to help people find services. There is even talk of installing a table, chairs, and a wi-fi hot spot to provide connectivity for those with limited access.

The free little library pay phone stand at 4018 South Grand Boulevard in Dutchtown, St. Louis, MO.

More Free Little Libraries

This isn’t the first free little library in Dutchtown. Thomas, a Dutchtown resident of about four years, has also worked on three other libraries in the neighborhood: one at the south end of Laclede Park, one at the intersection of Chippewa, Broadway and Jefferson near South Broadway Art Project, and one near the southbound bus stop at Grand and Bates Street. “I’m just trying to make the neighborhood a little better,” says Thomas, who regularly restocks the libraries with books for kids and adults, as well as coloring books, crayons, and other art supplies.

The free little library at Minnie Wood Memorial Square, along South Broadway near Gasconade Street in Dutchtown, St. Louis, MO.

Additionally, there are libraries at Minnie Wood Memorial Square at Broadway and Meramec, and also at the VAL Garden on Virginia Avenue. The VAL Garden also features a “free little pantry” where neighbors can share food and other items free for the taking.

Thomas wants to see more of the pantries pop up, and he’s hoping to help build one next to the pay phone library. With some additional interest and regular donations, he would like to see the pantry regularly stocked with personal care items for those who need them.

Cohen and Thomas are hoping to expand the utility of the little libraries by growing a network of volunteers to keep them stocked and maintained. “Several people who maintain libraries have indicated that they have difficult time keeping them stocked,” says Cohen, “and I think that fostering a volunteer network in this way could help ease that burden and augment existing mutual aid supports.” If you’re interested in donating time or resources, contact us so we can connect you with Cohen, Thomas, and other volunteers.

Part of a Broader Mission: FreeSource

Cohen’s has plenty of other experience providing accessible resources for his neighbors. He is the founder of FreeSource, a non-profit with a mission to empower people with low or no incomes to connect with vocational and community resource opportunities. FreeSource also offers a variety of programs to increase access to technology for those in need.

Tech Support Café

FreeSource brings Tech Support Café to Thomas Dunn Learning Center on a regular basis. Tech Support Café holds open hours in which people can get help troubleshooting technical problems, learn more about how to use their devices, and gain knowledge about inclusive and responsible technology use. The program is intended to provide peer-to-peer support, but you’ll also likely find Cohen there sharing his vast technical support expertise.

Project Applecart

Project Applecart is another FreeSource venture that aims to provide internet access and other mobile services to unhoused neighbors. As part of FreeSource’s mission to meet people where they are at—physically, technologically, and circumstantially—Project Applecart will repurpose carts to include a wi-fi hot spot, charging station, and other supplies and resources that can be brought to where people in need congregate.

Cohen hopes to bring the carts to free little library locations such as the pay phone stand on South Grand. “Passersby could sit and charge their phones and just read a book,” suggests Cohen, “and people from disparate walks of life could have an opportunity to get to know one another.” If you’re interested in participating from either a technical or outreach standpoint, join the Project Applecart Facebook group.

Support FreeSource

If you’d like to support the work of Cohen and FreeSource, you can make a donation here, whether it be monetary or in the form of new or used technology. With more projects in the works, your time, money, and supplies can help further FreeSource’s mission of bringing technology and resources to our neighbors with limited access.