The Goods

Who Would Buy a Refurbished $660 Rotary Telephone?

A refurbished chrome vintage Western Electric 302 phone from Oldphoneworks.com
A refurbished chrome vintage Western Electric 302 phone from Oldphoneworks.com
Photo illustration by Slate.

Who Would Buy This Thing? is a series that spotlights particularly egregious commercial objects and tries to imagine who might indeed pay money to own them.

In an era of ever-increasing reliance on smart phones, the staying power of traditional landline phones might count as one of the wonders of the modern world. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans—95 percent according to the most recent numbers from PEW—own a cellphone, the proportion of Americans with a landline in the house hasn’t decreased at the same rate that cellphone usage has increased. According to a survey from the National Center of Health Statistics, about 46 percent of adults in America in 2016 still live in a home with a landline phone. It’s true that that number is down about 12 percent from 2013 when more than half of adults still hadn’t cut the cord, but considering the fact that we tend to upgrade our smartphones every two years, the amount of people still holding onto a technology most consider largely redundant is nothing short of exceptional.

So why won’t landlines die? In a recent Wall Street Journal piece on the cockroach-like tech, writer Paul Schrodt speculates that a sense of fond longing for simpler times might be fueling the reluctance to go wireless. “That nostalgia for the landline has sparked a niche industry,” he writes. “Oldphoneworks.com brings in nearly $40,000 a month refurbishing and selling vintage handsets to anyone looking for a throwback flourish (the set director who worked on Stranger Things is a regular customer).” Which brings us to the $450 refurbished chrome vintage Western Electric 302 phone.

Schrodt praises the model for its attention to detail, and it’s a pretty phone, no doubt. It comes in freshly plated chrome with a choice of a silver or copper finish that will not only “look great in your retro decorating scheme,” but also produce a “great RRRING that will be sure to get the attention of everyone in your household” according to the product details. And for a small additional sum of $130, buyers can add a rotary dial that produces “the highly sought after ‘clickity-clack’ sound” that more modern dials forego.

I’m sure the steep price tag largely comes from the laborious restoration process and “extensive testing” detailed on the website. But I’m also fairly sure that the enduring ubiquity of landlines isn’t borne out of a nostalgia strong enough to justify purchasing refurbished vintage phones worth hundreds of dollars—or in the case of this $2,500 “beautiful rare Original Brown Automatic Electric Type 34” phone, thousands of dollars.

I would wager that half of Americans haven’t cut the cord for a few reasons. The first is probably a combination of cheapness and pragmatism: Basic landline service can cost as little as $10 a month and in many cases, because of triple-play packages that bundle cable, internet, and phone services, your monthly bill can end up going up if you decide to go purely wireless. The telemarketer calls are worth it for the five or so dollars you end up saving per month. According to a 2014 Consumer Reports piece, 40 percent of their readers “who thought about switching telecom services kept the phone as part of a bundle because of the skimpy savings.” Landlines are also more reliable in rural areas, and since home phone numbers are connected to addresses, they’re more dependable in 911 emergencies than a cell phone’s GPS function. All that’s to say the same fervor for antiquity that drives people to buy typewriters or Edison bulbs might be why the landline will never go away. But at the moment, I feel comfortable saying that $450 rotary phones are not why the wireless gods haven’t yet made cordcutters of us all.

Price: $449.95 (all the bells and whistles, $659.85)

Who would buy this thing? An F. Scott Fitzgerald fanboy who didn’t understand the fundamental premise of The Great Gatsby.