Calling It Quits

Greg Dawson has a dinosaur that keeps showing up on his doorstep—the phone book.

Christmas morning we were gathered ’round the tree opening gifts when the blissful serenity was jolted by the sound of footsteps and a resounding THUD on the porch.

I sprang from the couch to see what was the matter. I opened the front door—and what to my wondering eyes did appear but…three new phone books, updated versions of the ones we didn’t use last year.

Really, Santa? Didn’t the elves tell you that we look up numbers online now? That except for some ’kerchief-wearing grandmas, no one has a landline anymore? I’ll bet even Mrs. Claus has an iPhone.

Companies such as Dex and YP (Yellow Pages) stopped distributing residential white pages years ago because they carry no ads and produce no profit. But the ad-packed business directories keep coming like lemmings. In our house they go straight from the porch to the garage, next to the pile of VHS tapes.

For years we just rolled our eyes and silently warehoused the unwanted directories. But the holiday delivery jumped the shark.

Cradling the DOA directories in my arms—1,576 pages—I leaned out the door and cried, “We’re all filled up with phone books, and we can’t take any more!” Or wish I had.

Why do YP and Dex keep delivering directories no one is using? Actually, I used to know someone who did use them—me—but his wife, Miss 21st Century with her fancy iPhone, mocked him so mercilessly for being a Luddite that he stopped.

Wesley Young is spokesman for Local Search Association, a national trade association for marketers and advertisers. “I think people would be surprised to hear that between 50 to 60 percent of people still use the Yellow Pages,” he told me.

I’m very surprised because the percentage in my neighborhood is zero. I did a survey and half the homes (nine) in our little circle community answered. No one reported using a phone book—except Philip, who uses the pages to wrap Christmas ornaments for storage.

Everyone else throws the books in the trash or recycling bin. (YP and Dex both offer the option to stop delivery of directories. Residential white pages are available free upon request, Grandma.)

I found that for anyone under 20, landlines and phone books aren’t just relics, they’re alien life forms. Molly, a high school senior, said she’s only touched a phone book once—in elementary school. 

Christian, a thirty-something dad, said Max, 6, was mystified by the shrink-wrapped object on their doorstep.

“I had to explain what it was to Max. He heard me say ‘dial tone’ and asked what that was. I tried my best to explain, but he just couldn’t fathom what I was talking about.”

You have to wonder how much longer Yellow Pages et al will be able to persuade advertisers that 50-60 percent of Americans really are using phone books.

“Right now there’s no reason not to deliver them,” Young said. “But things are definitely moving toward digital.”

I haven’t just seen that movie before, I’ve been in that movie, called “The Rise and Fall of the Print Newspaper.”

So where are all these people who supposedly still use phone books? I headed for the Telephone Museum in Maitland, where I hoped to find antique people looking at antique phones. Welcome (back) to the last millennium: There are crank phones mounted on the wall, rotary-dial phones, a switchboard, and a Winter Park white pages from 1965, when the area code was 305.

The few visitors appeared to be in my target demographic for phone book holdouts—old enough to remember when the Princess phone was cool.

“I remember party lines,” said Mary Beth Welch, 65. She and her husband, Chuck, 60, keep two phone books in their home but rarely use them. 

“The last time was a couple of years ago,” Chuck said. “I think I looked up a pizza place. Yeah—why do we still get them?”

Closely scrutinizing the displays was Robert Smith, 68. Smith said in 1968 he was hired as the first black installer for Southern Bell in West Palm Beach. He’s fiercely loyal to the paper books. 

“When they stopped delivering them, I called and asked for one,” Smith said. “I keep it in the office.”

So he’s that rare frequent user I was searching for?

“Nope,” he said. “My wife gets on me. She says, ‘All you have to do is Google it!’ I do it on my Smartphone.”

I’ve been in that movie, too. Right, honey? 

 

Email Greg at feedback@orlandomagazine.com

Categories: Column