Francis Ford Coppola—writer, director, producer, Brando-wrangler—is a raving fan of the short story. In 1997 (for instance) he launched the much-garlanded literary and art vehicle Zoetrope: All-Story. So it was that when Coppola learned of a nutty Roald-Dahl-like gizmo whose minimalist three buttons promised a new approach to literature, his famous auteur beard broke into a grin and he dove in with brio. “He’d found us through his daughter in Paris and was our first client in the US,” says Kristan Leroy, export director for French publisher Short Édition. “The first installation in the U.S. was at his café Zoetrope in San Francisco.”
“It took us a year,” says Jana Brody, Program Manager of the Squire Foundation—Santa Barbara’s art-radiating power station in the foothills, and recent broker of dispensed littérature. ”But we were able to buy the machine outright thanks to a very generous grant from the Carroll Simpson Fund. We just had to figure out where to put it.” What Jana is talking about is a machine [yes] that dispenses short stories like gumballs (sort of). It is presently standing demurely in a corner of the Santa Barbara Public Market awaiting your order(s), just inside the Market’s Victoria St. entrance.
It’s called the Short Édition Short Story Dispenser (SESSD from here out); “Short Édition” for the embraceable French publishing group that invented this lex-maddened robot, and “Short Story Dispenser” because…well. This unlikely Knight of the Short Attention Span Epoch is a vending machine for our Age. The Short Story Dispenser—a recent SB arriviste but already a ubiquitous presence in the cafes, airports and gathering spots of an enraptured Europe—is the metalloid brainchild of a publishing concern whose mission, unsurprisingly, is writer-centric, and whose challenge has been to tailor the sacrosanct reading experience to our ‘flight of the caffeinated bumblebee’ world. They believe they may have hit on something, as they curate original fiction, purvey public domain classics, and even pay out residuals to authors whose original short works they publish and whose stories are dispensed around the globe via the charming magic of the SESSD.
Many of these artists are previously unknown. Some may soon hail from Santa Barbara. “We are first and foremost a platform for writers around the world to showcase and share their work,” says Short Édition’s Kristan Leroy. “We are not vending machine sellers but the creators of ‘button fiction’, wherein we offer passersby a quick chance to read, discover, and have a bit of take-away on their daily journey. We attempt to build a more poetic world. Thanks to our clients like the Squire Foundation, we offer an art form for free.” The Short Story Dispenser may just be Short Édition’s penultimate realization of its lit-minus-the-sit model.
It works like this: you push a button and a short work of fiction emerges from the grimacing yap of what seconds before had seemed a cold, if attractively appointed, machine. Okay? No money is transacted. This is the Free Art part. The Squire Foundation got word of the Short Story Dispenser when one of its number read a NYT article about it, in 2018. Gears started turning, Squire’s generous and art-besotted Grantor fronted the resources, and a ball got rolling. Once having acquired the actual machine (yeah, it’s as odd and thrilling an idea as it sounds), Squire, in the person of the indefatigable, all-doing, and just shy of omnipresent Jana Brody, sought a home for the Dispenser in Santa Barbara. Ideally that would be a place whose patrons typically spend time waiting for something to arrive; a food order, a train, Cutty one rock, your reluctant date.
I think it was Sarah York Rubin of the Arts Commission who suggested ‘..why don’t you try Marge (Cafarelli)”? Jana says. “‘She owns the Santa Barbara Public Market, she’s big in the arts community’…” Jana pitched to Marge. “And she loved it!” Jana and her Squire colleagues were stoked at The Public Market’s perfect fit, what with its diverse patrons gabbing and gesturing and hanging around waiting for their cauliflower tacos and other delectable whatnot. As the Short Édition content writers state on their site ‘The Short Story Dispenser offers intellectual breaks to enchant readers, while enabling businesses with lengthy wait times to improve upon their customer experience.’ All of which is inarguable.
Jana had a thought about how best to spread these riches around the American Riviera. “My initial vision, since I’m the public outreach manager for Squire, had been to outreach it. You know, let someplace have it for two months and then move it around.” But Marge of the Public Market had her own vision and pounced, asking if her uptown foodie bazaar could host SESSD for a solid year, which in the event began with the April 2 ribbon-cutting. “We said okay!”, Jana exults, laughing. “We also knew having it stay in one place that long meant we could do the research, see the peak hours, see how the one minute story fared versus the three and five minute stories…” A huge database in France contains an even one gazillion stories and poems, and the genre and type of dispensed literature may be tailored by Squire at this end to best accommodate the venue. No Henry Miller will emerge from your Public Market button-pushing, for example.
We know what you’re thinking. “What does it look like, and might it join the cold-hearted but warlike robot army now gathering strength to our common doom?” The Short Édition Short Story Dispenser (SESSD) is a gorgeous, graduated cylinder standing about four feet tall and topped by a canted control panel whose childishly simple user interface consists of three big illuminated buttons.
They are labeled “1 min”, “3 min”, and “5 min”—delineating and announcing the duration of the read about to be dispensed, in the manner of much digital content consumed these days by a reading public reluctant to partake of an Immersion In Living Language® without the promise of a proximal exit. Beneath the ergonomically canted button panel is a stylized horizontal slot like a stern, lipsticked mouth. When you look at the dispenser head-on what you see is a three-eyed, even-tempered clown. Select your preferred story duration, press the appropriate button and voila! (as they say); out comes a short work of fiction on a scroll of eco-friendly, certified FSC and BPA-free paper that uses no ink and no cartridge. As for the Robot Army concern, this ‘bot is one of us – a squishy emotional wreck (I imagine).
Morris B. Squire—painter, sculptor, and pioneering psychologist—retired from a wildly successful professional life with liquidity-o-plenty and one modest remaining ambition: to foster individual and cultural creativity as a means of bettering the world. In 2009 he created Santa Barbara’s Morris B. Squire Foundation (SqF), a non-profit fueled in part by the fruits of his success. SqF’s Artist in Residence program, public art shows, poetry readings, pottery classes – SqF wants to save the world through our collectively empowered right brain. Since this is the 21st century, it seems only natural that SqF should pivot to a machine with a bookworm’s heart. The issue now is getting everyone else to make the same pivot. Squire Foundation’s Jana Brody is seeing to it.
“One day—before a show I was seeing at the Vic—I sat at the Market, watching,” she says with a furtive grin. “And I thought ‘gee, there’s so many people walking by and not pushing the button!’ But the people who were pushing it were really smiling as they walked off. So I’m like ‘okay’. When I got up to walk across the street to the theater, I purposely let my printout hang down. I wanted to see if people would say ‘Hey! What’s that?’ Some people did, and I said ‘Oh…what, this? You should check out what they have across the street at the Public Market!”
Kristan Leroy had a similar moment, wandering confusedly up State St. with a Samsonite millstone, having just flown in from—you know—France? “As I walked up with my luggage this guy asked if I was lost, and I told him I was on my way to the SB Public Market. He directed me, then said ‘..don’t forget to look for the coolest idea I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a short story machine. I printed 10 and read them aloud to my friends in the bar tonight.”
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