These days, with modern technology providing such easy access to all kinds of digital content, it’s tempting to think that reading something on paper is a thing of the past.
Yet even when it seems like “all we do is read from our phones or from our laptops and our computers,” there’s still something special about the “memorable feeling of good old paper in your hands,” said Luis Rodriguez, co-owner of The Station coffee shop on Beacon Hill. “I think that reading from a book is very important.”
Rodriguez is doing his part to get more stories on paper out into the world. At The Station, there is a blue machine near the entrance labeled “Short Story Dispenser.” With a simple wave of the hand, readers can select a one-minute, three-minute or five-minute-long story to print out and read while waiting to order.
Created by French publishing house Short Édition and installed by Seattle Public Library in December, the dispenser has already printed out about 900 stories, from works by local writers like Cathy Tenzo and David Drury to classics from African American writers like Alice Dunbar Nelson and Langston Hughes. (The stories can also be found online at the SPL website.)
“We saw the Short Édition short-story dispenser at a conference and thought it would fit right in here,” said Andrew Harbison, SPL’s assistant director of collection and access services. “We were thrilled that [the Seattle Public Library] Foundation was able to fund these purchases as an innovative way to connect people with reading, stories and the library in an unpredictable and unique way.”
Each machine costs about $12,000; there are also regular fees for things like paper and a subscription to an online service that generates the stories. Everything, from the initial costs to the fees, is paid for by the SPL Foundation.
There are more than 300 story dispensers throughout the world, located anywhere from train stations to museums. In the U.S., there are about 100 machines; the dispenser at The Station is the first in Washington state. Given that Seattle is a UNESCO City of Literature, this city was an obvious candidate for one. The Station, an art-focused and community-driven cafe, was the chosen location.
“The Station is a community hub on Beacon Hill that values art and looks to empower people of color, which aligns with the library’s values of literacy and equity,” Harbison said.
The dispenser is located inside the coffee shop, near the entrance. People go in, get the story while they wait to order and typically finish reading it while they’re waiting for their food to arrive. (At the time of this writing in late January, before Gov. Jay Inslee eased pandemic restrictions on indoor dining, the orders were all to-go.)
To get a story, it’s as simple as this: Stand in front of the dispenser, wave your hand over the button indicating the length of time you want to spend reading the story, and the story comes out printed on eco-friendly paper, at no charge. The process is fast and contactless; it only takes a few seconds for a story to be printed out. Most pick up their stories before ordering and finish them before their coffee arrives.
“In the mornings, when we have a line out the door, people will press that button and the story will come,” Rodriguez said. “The time goes a lot easier for them, so we appreciate it ourselves, because we don’t feel rushed by people. They’re all entertained with these great stories.”
The stories come from international writers published with Short Édition, as well as from local writers from the community the dispenser is located in. This means works from international writers can be read at The Station, and writers from Seattle will have their stories available around the world.
“We can configure the stories for different audiences and events, like holidays, but right now we are focusing on general fiction, classics and African American writers,” Harbison said.
Public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, Rodriguez said. “For some of us, it’s part of our culture to read the literature. And for some of us, it’s a great way to start reading.”
Short Édition also takes submissions for the dispensers (details can be found at Short Edition’s website). Every published work at Short Édition goes into a portion of the dispensers.
While there are no other locations in Washington at present, Seattle Public Library has the funding to add another machine. There are also plans to rotate the dispenser to different locations throughout the city and to cycle through different genres and authors.
“In general,” Harbison said, “we’re looking for places where people are hanging out or waiting and might have a few minutes to spare to enjoy a quick story.”