Stewart’s expects payphones to go in 2023

A Verizon payphone is seen in Philadelphia, Monday, April 30, 2007.
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A Verizon payphone is seen in Philadelphia, Monday, April 30, 2007.

CAPITAL REGION – Robinhood Motel innkeeper Jason Carey has directed scores of guests across state Route 50 to a convenience store — one in a vast network of payphone-bearing Stewart’s Shops.

Using the old machine at the busy Stewart’s between Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs are off-the-grid vagrants, track tourists seeking inexpensive international calls and other lodgers having lost their mobile devices during drunk escapades, Carey said.

“Payphones are one of those things that should be everywhere,” he said.

But soon, the old technology will become even more scarce in upstate New York.

“The smartphone has taken over the role of the payphone,” said Chad Kiesow, vice president of facilities at Stewart’s.

Locations likely won’t have payphones beyond 2023, Kiesow reported. Nearly all of the chain’s locations have already phased out payphones as of this past spring ⁠— a figure expected to increase 15% by year’s end. With further remodeling and new construction ahead, Stewart’s expects to install more register area landlines in its place for staff use.

More: All NewsEverything Schenectady

In addition to these payphones being available to the public, Stewart’s payphones have also been used by store employees for decades as a network between retail locations and corporate offices, and a mainline for service orders. Typically located by a store’s front entrance, taking calls has been a hassle for employees trying to multitask behind the sales counter, Kiesow maintained.

“If you wanted to call my shop to talk to the manager, you’d have to call the payphone,” said Sabina Gonelly, a Stewart’s employee from 2012 to 2017. “It would be weird because customers would just pick up the phone [ringing] like, ‘hello.'”

Gonelly added that payphones were helpful for elderly regulars and out-of-towners visiting the Guilderland Avenue location in Rotterdam. Herkimer County customer Robert Drumm said that the service was helpful after his cell phone died on a college trip.

“I remember as a kid using the payphone to call my parents,” said Stewart’s spokesperson Erica Komoroske.

Kiesow described the convenience chain as a long-time “communications center” for communities with limited telecommunications access.

“The payphone service became as iconic as Free Air,” Kiesow said. “These are a few of the items that customers just came to rely on and expect from Stewarts.”

Stewart’s began phasing out payphones in 2017. The company began struggling to find replacement parts late last decade as the service vanished, ultimately prompting officials to reconsider the system altogether.

Public pay phones once numbered 2.6 million in the mid-1990s. As cell phones grew more popular, providers started dropping the coin-operated service.

The shift had a negative impact on homeless populations, many of whom relied on the mounted system for communication, said Mike Saccocio, City Mission of Schenectady’s executive director. Still, Saccocio doesn’t blame Stewart’s plans.

“As often with any form of change, there’s some people that get left behind with it,” Saccocio said. “That doesn’t mean that the change was wrong or misguided.”

“It just means [sic] how do we address that there are people in our community that can’t make a phone call,” the director added.

The Schenectady shelter removed its payphone last decade.

It’s unclear how many working payphones remain in upstate New York. Aging fragments of the old system remain across the Greater Capital Region.

In downtown Troy, the hot dog joint Famous Lunch still has a working payphone behind the seating area. At some highway rest stops long stripped of access, some signs boasting the service have yet to be taken down. One intact payphone at El Caribe Market ⁠— out of service, an employee reported ⁠— still clings to the side of the Amsterdam convenience store.

The state Office of General Services began decommissioning and removing coin-operated phones from Empire State Plaza before 2010. Most were removed by 2019, but some remain due to pandemic-induced project obstructions.

Don’t expect any payphone artifacts at Stewart’s.

“Once we make the switch, the payphone is removed from the front wall and the internal organs are donated,” Kiesow said.

While the new system is intended for store use only, Komoroske said, staff would probably be willing to let customers use it in an emergency.

More: All NewsEverything Schenectady

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