“The cell died!” Pete Blanshard exclaims. “I’m no good with them.”
Blanshard is explaining why a phone interview just ended abruptly—and making it clear that the vintage phones he restores weren’t at fault. Although he has a cell, he finds them vexing and short-lived. A typical cell phone lasts only a few years before the battery weakens and it starts to fall apart. In contrast, he points out, the 1926 “candlestick” phone that hangs in his home still works perfectly.
After years as a sales rep for various phone companies, Blanshard, sixty-one, now repairs and restores “vintage” telephones—those manufactured between 1890 and 1950. He recently changed his little business’s name from “Timeless Telephones” to “Crank Call Antique Telephones.” He’s a little worried people might not get the pun in “crank”—early phones used a hand-cranked generator to start a call—but the whimsical part of this serious-seeming man took hold.
”He’s the only one I know of in southeastern Michigan” who can repair old phones, says Karl Lagler, owner of Antelope Antiques. “He probably does ten or twelve phones a year for me and my customers.” Most of his buyers, says Lagler, “are young professionals. They like the look.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many young, retro-minded shoppers with landlines. And Blanshard’s original clientele—people who remember early phones nostalgically from their own childhoods—has dwindled in recent years. “Prices started to go way down” about five years ago, he says, prompting him to sell off about 100 “candlestick” phones—most of his inventory. He says that today the collection would be worth just half of what it was then.
Though most of his business now is in repair and restoration, he still does some sales. “Candlesticks,” so called because of the long-stemmed microphone stalk that holds a separate earpiece, remain popular; Lagler sells them starting at about $100. But Blanshard has seen them all, from the perky, pastel “Princess” phones that were a rage in the 1950s to a rare 1885 phone-in-a-desk that he’s currently repairing. He expects that one to sell for at least $3,000.
Blanshard has enough of a beard to give him that craftsman air, heightened when he reaches into his pocket to extract his 1884 gold pocket watch (a smaller part of his business is vintage watch repair). Appropriately enough, he lives in a Sears kit home with his wife, Vicki, on the west side of town. (Their three children are grown and gone.) Framed pictures suggest eclectic tastes: a Degas ballet print, a 1920s abstract with Art Deco touches, a psychedelic Peter Max poster.
Raised in Philadelphia, Blanshard came to Ann Arbor in 1974, at age twenty-five, to visit his sister, who was then in graduate school. He says he knew quickly Ann Arbor was for him; he liked small, but he also liked a lively arts scene. Blanshard took some classes at Washtenaw Community College, but schooling just didn’t interest him. He had a talent for computers, knew how to sell, and found lucrative work at various companies around metro Detroit, specializing in selling Internet access through high-speed phone lines. He was working for an answering service company in Southfield when he spotted and purchased his first vintage phone. About five years ago, he turned what had been a hobby into a second career.
Dressed in jeans and a cranberry-colored shirt, Blanshard is reticent about his own life but quite willing to expound about his fascination with old phones. He admires the sturdy technology that went into the early instruments, which he buys and sells on eBay and at antique malls. Less frequently, he also gets them from individuals wanting to unload Grandma’s old set. Doing his best to restore beat-up instruments to their original handsomeness, he paints, cleans, and rewires—the trickiest part, since he insists on using correct, period wires even inside the housing, where no one but another repairperson will see. “I’m a purist,” he explains. “I want my phones to be as original as possible.”
Though the market for vintage phones may be past its peak, he has no plans to retire a second time. “I will do this forever,” he says, “because it interests me.” And every once in a great while, he gets a glamour job—most notably when he re-created the vintage phones and switchboard for Detroit’s Motown Museum in 1995.
“They asked me how much it would cost,” Blanshard remembers. “I told them, I just want to go to the gala”—the grand reopening party, where donors could wine and dine with former Motown royalty. Always attentive to detail, he’d enlisted help from the Detroit library to track down the company’s original telephone number, which he’d placed on the dial of every phone. His reward came when Motown founder Berry Gordy walked in the door of the museum, glanced at the receptionist’s desk, and exclaimed, “There’s our old phone number!”