Short Edition story dispensers give BART riders the joy of reading


Short Edition story dispensers give BART riders the joy of reading

A customer at Café Zoetrope uses a Short Story Dispenser; image by Olivier Alexandre - Short Edition

A customer at Café Zoetrope uses a Short Story Dispenser; image by Olivier Alexandre/Short Edition

Story dispensers are located at: Fruitvale, Richmond, Pleasant Hill and Balboa Park.

BART Senior Web Producer

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

That six-word sentence, often mistakenly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, has been hailed as one of the most powerful examples of bite-sized storytelling, sometimes called micro or flash fiction.

BART riders can use touchless Short Story Dispensers to get 1-, 3- or 5-minute reads in a partnership with Short Edition, the company that makes the dispensers and curates the stories. Once the pilot is fully up and running, BART will create opportunities for local writers to be featured.

The kiosks are like vending machines for creative writing, dispensing stories on eco-friendly recyclable, receipt-like paper. They’re touchless; you just hover your finger over the button to get your story. (Feel free to collect and share the stories. They are indeed recyclable.)

A 3-minute read is about 500 words – roughly the length of this article -- but those words can pack an outsized punch. Notable writers who’ve created flash fiction include Franz Kafka (“Give It Up!”, about 100 words) and Joyce Carol Oates, whose 4-word story “Widow’s First Year,” is just one word longer than its title (In its entirety: “I kept myself alive.” ) Local Afrosurrealist author Rochelle Spencer edited an entire book, “All about Skin,” featuring short fiction by women of color, and the Bay Area has a thriving flash fiction scene.

Legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is a fan of the dispensers; the first one in the United States was at his Café Zoetrope in San Francisco’s North Beach.  The director first learned of the company in The New Yorker and reached out; now he’s an investor.

“I read about it and thought it was a wonderful idea,” Coppola told BART. “Art dispensed by machine, and for free!”

He described the reaction of café customers: “They are fascinated, trying to figure out how, and why, something can exist to give them a gift, a literary gift, without depositing a coin.”

With 2020 in the rear-view mirror, Coppola said he hopes the Short Story Dispensers in BART stations can have a similar impact.  “Anything that brings people together, that joins them as friends, which art can do, is clearly desirable,” he said. “During these difficult times, I don’t hear people speak so much about money, and what they’re worth so much. I hear more how their family and friends, people they love, are doing.”

The gift of reading “offers a little bit of happiness so freely,” he said. His bit of advice for anyone submitting their stories is, “make it personal. Have a theme or point you need to express, and enjoy writing it.”

Short Story Dispensers are installed at Richmond, Fruitvale, Pleasant Hill and Balboa Park staions. The installation coincides with National Reading Month, which encourages literacy. Stories in the dispensers are suitable for all ages. The one-year pilot is sponsored by BART’s Communications Department and its Art Program.

“The arts create memorable places and experiences,” said Art Program Manager Jennifer Easton.  “The opportunity to bring micro fiction into BART, providing creative moments as part of the transit experience, is even more compelling as the Bay Area emerges from the pandemic.”