Looking for a story to read your kid before bed? Don’t want to look at your device over your coffee break? Need a read for the commute?
Near the foot of Bay Street and Queens Quay, just outside the food court, near the pedestrian overpass to Union Station, you’ll notice a machine. It was installed just about two months ago by a forward-looking team from Oxford Properties, which runs the building, led by general manager Beverly Tay.
“Our team was brainstorming around how to create a sense of community and what that might mean,” says Tay. “What is a community made of? A community generally has a hospital and a police station and a theatre and a library.”
First came a physical library on the lower concourse near the food court, with bookshelves and books. Tay conducted a book drive among tenants and now people come for meetings, and seniors from nearby retirement condos come in and do their afternoon crosswords.
The short story dispenser was a natural addition. It was set up Sept. 27 and, by the time we spoke in mid-November, it had already printed out about 4,000 stories.
Customers choose stories not by words but by minutes they’ll take to read: one, three or five. The dispenser — “a simple microprocessor with a small thermal printer and the paper is recyclable” — spits out a long strip of paper about the width of an ATM receipt. And it’s free.
The dispenser doesn’t simply pump out stories to entertain or engage; it’s a gateway to a larger community of storytellers around the world.
If you like what you’ve read there’s a companion website that will allow you to take the experience even further: like your favourite writers; search their other stories; submit a story yourself.
In fact, the website is where it all started, says Kristan Leroy, international sales director for Shortédition. The company began in France, with four co-founders — Isabelle Pleplé, Sylvia Tempesta, Quentin Pleplé and Christophe Sibieude — who liked the idea of promoting short literature. They started by building the website and, says Leroy, over seven years “built a community of readers and writers.”
An editorial team reads the stories and chooses which to publish, with an eye on keeping quality high.
While the founders’ backgrounds were in business and IT, “their passion was in literature and they wanted to create a genre for the people,” says Leroy.
Then the founders wondered how they could make literature available in unexpected places. The dispenser idea came as a result of brainstorming and then working with an industrial designer to come up with a free-standing kiosk.
“They are very serious about the idea that art should be, is meant to be, free,” says Leroy.
Now there are more than 300 short story dispensers around the world: in India, France, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and, now, Toronto.
The WaterPark Place kiosk marks the seventh in Canada. Each kiosk costs about $10,000 and then there’s a subscription fee of $200 a month.
The selections are curated by category, something Amy Rogul, the assistant property manager at WaterPark Place, gets to choose: children’s (both modern and classic), modern literature for adults, moderate (stories where there’s emotion, they might make you laugh or cry a little bit). But the printing is random, so you’ll never know what you get.
One of the stories I received from the machine was actually a poem titled “A Hearty Rejoice” by Tony Nicholas Clark. It was in the Rush of Joy category. I also got a romance titled “Two Old Men on a Bench” by Ernest Fourachault.
At Halloween, I received a story from the Classic Literature for Children category, “The Strange Visitor” by Joseph Jacobs, who lived between 1854 and 1916, the title information helpfully informs.
Some of those stories are in the public domain. But writers of original stories get paid for them, then also get royalties.
If you submit a story and the editorial team decides they like it, “we enter into a publishing contract with you and literally your story would come out in Hong Kong, Paris, London. Across all the dispensers we have about 300 by now in English,” says Leroy.
One of the dispensers is in the Edmonton International Airport. Local writing groups, says Leroy, “put pressure to buy a dispenser for the airport. So 50 per cent of what comes out of their dispenser is written by local Canadians.”
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Communities are popping up around the world. Many of the dispensers are at universities, providing synergies between English departments and getting published. The machine at Carnegie Mellon, for example, publishes English faculty work, and will soon publish student work, besides other stories.
“It’s not just about the consumption of literature but could be about the creation of literature,” says Tay.
While her team doesn’t yet have a plan, “it’s certainly an option that we can look at and say, ‘Hey, budding writers … here’s a platform for you.’”