What makes architect and musician Sebastian Handley laugh, is that he spent 20 years of his life recording albums as a semi-professional musician with zero recognition, and it’s a phone box that he’ll be remembered for.
Handley, was wandering down Lewisham Way one summer evening in 2013 when he discovered a note plastered on a rundown phone box.
Brockley Society, a community charity who were considering leasing the telephone box, made loose plans to turn it into a book exchange. It peaked Handley’s interest. Little did he know, this was the beginning of a journey that would transform this disused kiosk into a local landmark, gaining international press coverage and winning him the prestigious Point of Light awardgranted to community volunteers with innovative ideas.
The award from the UK Government, was handed to 46-year-old Handley on World Book Day, March 5, for converting the disused telephone box on the corner of Lewisham Way and Tyrwhitt Road into the Lewisham Micro-Library, London’s smallest library.
“It wasn’t really my achievement, all I really did was set it up,” said Handley. “I’ve got an awful lot of credit considering all I really did was put up eight shelves and paint the phone box red.”
Handley had to leave the project in April last year, after moving to Brighton with his family, but handed it over to Dijana and Danijel Pavlic, who he has high praise for. “They deserve a lot of credit because without them it would have just fallen apart, they’ve done the hard work of getting it established.”
Handley started the library after the Brockley Society, bought the lease for a nominal fee of £1 from BT telecommunications services under their ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme.
“The first morning I walked up the hill with the ladder I wondered what I had let myself in for,” said Handley. The kiosk took approximately a month to renovate and Handley funded the transformation with £500 of his own money. “There was talk about doing a fundraiser, but I thought I might as well just pay for it myself and get on with it,” said Handley.
A plank of wood for the shelves was stolen once while Handley was setting the library up. “I thought oh-no this is never going to work, if people steal bits of wood that I’ve just left on the pavement.” But Handley said he’s been very lucky. “I think people will by and large have treated it with respect, because it’s obvious that no one is doing it for their own benefit.”
He was keen to stress that the phone box was for the community, and not a means for anyone’s personal gain. “One person asked me if it’s ok if they take the books, sell them and use that money to buy more books, and I said no because it already operates in a currency called books.” The entire concept of the Lewisham Micro-Library is based on pragmatism Handley stressed. There is no right or left wing economic model to it.
As for winning the Point of Light Award, Handley was of course, grateful for the recognition. However, he said that the “biggest buzz” was just seeing people use his library. “I’d just stand on the other side of the street and watch someone go in there, put in a book and walk away and that was much more emotional.”
Initially, Handley was worried about getting an award from the government because he didn’t want Lewisham Micro-Library to become politicised. Handley was especially worried that people would use it to campaign around election time. “My worry is that if it is seen to be associated with any left wing or right wing philosophy it could destroy the good will, without which the project would not work,” he said.
He couldn’t believe how much attention it’s got, and explained how the telephone box gained global recognition. “A friend of mine was in a cab in Moscow, and they were discussing people in London turning phone boxes into libraries on the radio. I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper in Japan, Holland, Mexico. The list was endless. I never dreamt it would be like this.”
“Just about everything I do is a failure – I’m a failed musician, I’m a failed architect, you name it, I’ll fail at it … I’ve been in architecture for 25 years and I’ve never designed a building.”
But Handley’s biggest pride is that Lewisham Micro-Library made all sorts of people happy on a completely pro-bono basis. “One person once asked me if I was selling books – it’s so ingrained in our consciousness that everything has a price, people get phased when they come across something that functions purely on the basis of trust and generosity.”