by Marti McKenna
Beacon Hill’s The Station coffee shop has long been a hub of community activity and advocacy, hosting everything from meetings to artwork to a free pantry. Now it’s home to Washington State’s first Short Story Dispenser, courtesy of the Seattle Public Library (SPL) and French publisher Short Édition.
Today when you stop by for your daily coffee, you can sip it while reading stories of varying lengths dispensed from a kiosk installed by SPL. The menu includes short stories classified as “1-minute,” “3-minute,” and “5-minute” reads. Ordering is contactless, meaning you simply wave your hand in front of the buttons to make your choices and the kiosk prints a short story on sustainable BPA-free paper using an ink-free process, all at no cost to you.
SPL’s Assistant Director of Collections and Access, Andrew Harbison, hopes that the new kiosk will bring some “surprise and delight” into Seattle residents’ lives during pandemic times and remind them of the value of the library system.
“As a beloved community space in the heart of Beacon Hill, The Station is the perfect location to test-drive this new way of connecting people to literature,” Harbison said in a press release from SPL.
“We are excited to share stories with our community,” Luis Rodriguez, co-owner of The Station, said in the SPL press release. “Every human has a story, my community is my book and every day is a new chapter. We are all a poem in the making.”
Carlos Nieto, a staff member at The Station, told the Emerald that the kiosk has been up for about a week and the response has been positive
“It’s been really great. People have been coming in and being curious about what it is, going up to it and printing out a story … I would say at least 10 times a day. Sometimes people print multiple stories,” Nieto said, adding that people from all walks of life seem to be using the kiosk.
“All different types of ages, ethnicities, all different types of people take the story — people on the go, people with their families, people who are just on their way home, people who’ve got to catch the bus.” And the feedback is good, Nieto said. “People like it.”
Short Édition, the French publishing company that developed the Short Story Dispenser in 2016, has so far built more than 300 kiosks, which have been installed in locations around the world. The Seattle kiosk dispenses contemporary and classic adult fiction, and writers can submit stories for possible inclusion in the project. SPL may choose to switch things up in the future, changing or adding genres based on the kiosk’s location, to celebrate a particular season, or as part of specific library programs.
Seattle’s participation in the Short Story Dispenser program is underwritten by The Seattle Public Library Foundation (SPLF). Foundation CEO Jonna Ward says SPLF was happy to support such a program. “At a time when we are more isolated, finding stories and creative expression in unexpected places can help connect us,” she said.
When I visited The Station, I was surprised at how small and spare the kiosk is. I ordered up three stories (one from each reading-time category) and the machine expelled what almost looked like cash register tape out of a slot in the front. The 5-minute story printed at about thirty inches long. The stories I received varied from contemporary Romance (“Two Old Men on a Bench” by Ernest Fourachault) to some classic T.S. Eliot (“Gerontion”) to love poetry (“Ice Age” by Irene Wright).
The type size is about 12 points and the font is a lightweight sans-serif, which may impact readability for some. According to some studies, serif fonts are easier to read in print, and I’m left to wonder whether variations in font and type size might make the stories more accessible to more readers. Additionally, the print quality was a bit iffy — a choppy line down the right-hand side of each story showed where the print process was not quite taking to the paper, and a note at the bottom regarding the sustainability of the print process was a little hard to read.
However, overall I found the experience to be a positive one from beginning to end.
As we know, reading times vary from person to person. Staff at The Station mentioned that the stated reading times seemed to elicit a bit of a self-conscious reaction from customers, who felt they needed to read the stories within the stated time “limits.” I wanted to get an idea of how long it might actually take for a reader of average reading speed (me) to read a “1-minute” vs. a “5-minute” story. I enlisted my daughter Jessie, a self-described “slow reader,” to read the stories as well, and I timed us as we read.
Both of us felt that the fact of being timed made us read a bit faster than we might normally, avoiding going back over passages for clarity or reading in a more leisurely way, as we might if we were sitting somewhere with a cup of coffee. The stories themselves varied greatly in style. I found myself a bit lost when it came to the Eliot piece. If it had gripped me more and I’d not had a timer running, I believe I would either have skipped it entirely in favor of a different one or taken a lot more time with it, but for the purpose of this experiment, I simply read it straight through.
The takeaway is that the reading times are only a guideline to give you an idea of what you’re getting into — what you’re committing to if you decide to read a story. Think of them as ballpark estimates rather than a challenge to beat the clock. It’s not a race or a competition, so take your time and enjoy your story or stories, and don’t worry too much about how long it takes to read one.
If all this piques your interest, be sure to visit The Station and experience the Short Story Dispenser for yourself, but don’t wait too long — after an undetermined period of time, the kiosk will move to another location in Seattle, and SPL will continue to move it around the city periodically to allow as many people as possible to participate in this unique experience.
Follow the Short Story Dispenser’s location over time and other updates here.
Marti McKenna is a writer/editor living and working in Beacon Hill. She has been a fiction editor and publisher, a games writer, a country/pop singer, and a pizza-slinger, among other things. She’s proud to be a contributor and editor for the South Seattle Emerald.
Featured image: Short Story Dispenser kiosk at The Station. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)