Why won't phone books die?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 21 2008 12:53 PM

The Book of the Undead

Why won't phone books die?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The old story goes that if you interleave two phone directories side-by-side, they're impossible to pull apart. Watch this YouTube video of two Dutch students using tow ropes, a Land Rover, and a vintage Thunderbird to test that theory, and you might well wonder whether the T-Bird's about to lose its bumper. More likely, though, you'll think: Students? With phone books?

"Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero—or near zero—over the next five years," Bill Gates predicted in a Microsoft address last spring, and unless by "usage" you mean yanking them apart with cars, it's not hard to see his point. Left to pulp out in the rain and abandoned in mountainous mailroom piles, phone books don't get much respect anymore. They're having the most absurdly drawn-out death throes of any advertising medium ever known—and yet remain so poorly understood as social history that when they really are gone, we'll scarcely understand what we've lost.

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We're a long way from 1878, when New Haven phone subscribers received a single-sided sheet with all of 11 residences and 39 businesses on it. From there, directories went viral: The print run for the Manhattan directory alone passed the million mark in 1921. Within five years, it rose sixfold again and required a corps of 500 deliverymen, more than 500 rail-car loads of paper, and 100 tons of binding glue. And that's just in one city. The humble phone book spent the 20th century as the prince of print jobs. When AT&T gave all 2,400 local editions the same bicentennial-commemorative cover, the resulting run of 187 million copies probably became the most-reproduced book cover of all time. (Stanley Meltzoff's illustration of American archetypes playing "telephone" will induce the shock of long-forgotten memory in anyone over 35.) But, above all, phone books were the sine qua non of small-business advertising and such an unstoppable gusher of profit that by the time industry pioneer Reuben Donnelly died in 1929, he'd already built up a $10 million personal estate.

The phone book is the one book guaranteed to be present in every household, no matter how little else the occupants read. Even in a vacant apartment, you'll still find old phone books in the kitchen cabinet. Yet the phone book's ubiquity has given it an invisibility. Sure, you can find 1960 Oklahoma City directories getting bid up to $65 on eBay or kill time in digitized old London directories looking up the numbers for Bram Stoker (Victoria-1436) or P.G. Wodehouse (Kensington-4150). But despite being the most popular printed work ever, there's never been a single scholarly monograph on the phone book.

There should be one: Its omnipresence has made it a barometer of societal change. In 1906, Jews in Trenton threatened to boycott Bell over a resort listing's promise, "Free From Hebrews and Tuberculosis Patients." Temperance groups in the North agitated to ban brewery ads from directories, while some Southern directories segregated into separate sections for "white" and "colored" numbers. Women's directory struggles are still within living memory: New York Telephone's first listings for birth-control counseling only appeared in 1967, while Bell fought well into the late 1970s to deny women equal billing alongside their husbands in household listings, claiming it required too much extra paper and ink. *

The phone book's familiarity also lent it to whimsical uses. The diminutive jazzman Errol Garner toured with one to toss on his piano bench. (You can glimpse it in the first seconds of this 1962 Amsterdam performance.) The Chiquiri Land Company once ordered two tons of used Manhattan directories for its armored payroll cars in Panama; they slipped perfectly between the studs of the armor for a handy extra layer of protection. Householders filed away money and love letters and pressed their ties inside phone books. Even after one Boston jeweler famously spent days flipping through 75,000 discarded directories to find $1,500 that he'd stashed away, so many others continued losing belongings on collection day that in 1951 Bell started asking customers to doodle distinctively on their directories, the better to unearth them later.

Anyone stashing their bankroll today faces dire odds of recovery: We're awash in fat and unloved volumes. After AT&T's 1984 breakup, regional Bells raided each other's directory territories, and private tomes proliferated at double-digit rates of annual revenue growth. Some California households found themselves with 10 volumes apiece. "It is a shopping mall in print," an ad exec enthused to the New York Times in 1987, apparently unaware that not everybody loves shopping malls. Last year, according to the industry group the Yellow Pages Association, approximately 615 million directories were printed in the United States alone, generating revenues of $13.9 billion. Some quick math tells me that's more than $22 in revenue per copy. And, what's more, those revenue figures are growing.

Ask anyone under 30 about phone books, though, and you might as well inquire about Victrola needles. The Yellow Pages Association claims that even young households use them when the occasion—a wedding, for instance—demands reliable listings. But printed phone books are a maturing industry, with only about six in 10 businesses and individuals still regularly relying on them. Yet even as directories hemorrhage content to the Web and to unlisted cell numbers, enough oldsters—those, say, who still recall physically dialing numbers in a rotary motion—continue using them enough to keep profits rolling in. In other words, you remaining four in 10 recipients can expect a lot more doorstops and spider-smashers in your future.

Help may be on the way. Over the past year, state legislatures in North Carolina, Minnesota, Maine, and New York have considered demanding opt-outs. The Yellow Pages Association fought off the North Carolina bill, but, as phone directory analyst Charles Laughlin points out, Norway adopted opt-outs without a major dip in business. While consumers may claim to like such options, less than 7 percent of Norwegians actually got around to signing up. Opt-outs give directory publishers near-total coverage and yet plausible deniability over the paper waste generated.

That waste is a truly weighty issue. In Portland, Ore., alone this year, the Dex directories tipped the scales at 10.5 pounds per pair, consumed the equivalent of 49,779 trees, and could be stacked nearly 12 miles high into the stratosphere. And that's just one of several directories that Portlanders receive. On a national level, the figures become mind-boggling. If we assign the not-terribly-scientific figure of just more than three pounds to the average directory, then the 615 million volumes produced last year come out to 1 million tons of phone books. Still, the Yellow Pages Association claims that phone books produce only 0.3 percent of the household waste stream—while "newspapers, in comparison, represent 4.9%." Alas, customers ask for newspapers, and they do offer an opt-out—it's called canceling your subscription.

It doesn't help that the phone book industry's history of recycling has been … well, nothing to call home about. New York Telephone, for instance, once worked with wastepaper merchants to recover about half of all directories but gave up in 1959, with the onset of throwaway consumerism. * After New York's attorney general inquired about recycling plans in 1971, New York Telephone responded that it was looking into the matter. * They must have looked very hard, since they didn't start again for another 19 years. Even today, phone books, with their bindings and low-grade paper, make a tough sell for recycling plants, and many areas lack substantive recycling options.

And from that desperation comes … inspiration.

The phone book's most fervent users these days are the cult of young YouTubers who, left with piles of directories that only their parents and professors could want, demonstrate the old parlor trick of ripping a phone book in half. (It's harder than tearing an apple but probably easier than rolling up frying pans.) A fat Yellow Book is also perfect for punking dorm mates—this video by Tufts students has achieved phone-book infamy—or just for pummeling them. But it's a throwaway comment in the Tufts prank that deals the most punishing blow of all: "They must not have gotten the memo about phone books not being useful anymore."

For printed phone books, it seems, the writing is already on the dorm-room wall.

* Correction, March 25, 2008: These sentences originally and incorrectly referred to New York Telephone as NYNEX in pre-1984 references. In that year, New York Telephone became a wholly owned subsidiary of NYNEX; in 1994 it simply became NYNEX; in 1997 it was bought by Bell Atlantic, which in turn became Verizon with the GTE acquisition of 2000. (Return to the first corrected sentence.)

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.

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