Glen Ellyn library has a little kiosk that spits out short stories, and patrons love the surprises
Mim Eichmann approaches the kiosk in the lobby of the Glen Ellyn Public Library, presses a button and waits for the machine to spit out the surprise.
The anticipation is brief, but delightful: From the slit of the dispenser, Eichmann grabs a scroll of paper, pulling and pulling until she unfurls a strip as wide as a receipt and nearly as long as Mary Poppins' practically perfect tape measure.
Then Eichmann, with a mysterious voice, begins to read aloud a story she's never heard before.
"The moment he entered the bar, I knew that Mister J. wasn't your usual guest," she says.
Eichmann recites the first passage of "The Hidden Letter," a story written by Patrick Ferrer and printed on her strip of paper, a souvenir of her trip to the library.
As intuitive as a vending machine or an ATM, the kiosk has become an object of fascination, a depository for a free literary keepsake that can be tucked away in a pocket or purse and shared with someone else. Since its arrival about two weeks ago, more than 780 stories or poems have been printed.
The dispensers are relatively new, introduced by French publishing house Short Édition in 2016. The kiosks have popped up in the unlikeliest of places.
The Washington Post featured a dispenser at a Maryland DMV. The New York Times noted "The Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola is such a fan he placed one in his San Francisco cafe.
But the Glen Ellyn library is the first in Illinois to house a Short Édition dispenser. The library also has programmed the machine so every 10th story printed is one written by Eichmann.
"There it is in the flesh," Eichmann said of the kiosk she had only seen in pictures. "How cool!"
The Wheaton folk musician and novelist won a first-place award in a Public Library Association Short Fiction Contest with her story "Slomp," a tale about a 9-year-old boy and his act of courage. Her winning entry is now published through Short Édition's dispensers.
Library Director Dawn Bussey first encountered the machine at a convention in San Diego. She brought back one of the stories she printed, a suspense tale called "A View of the Terrace," to keep on her desk.
"And I share it with almost everyone who comes in my office," Bussey said. "It's a suspense story, and its probably three minutes long and you have no idea what the end is until you get to it. It's amazing."
Typically, the dispensers have a choice of three buttons corresponding to the length of time it takes to read the stories: 1-minute, 3-minute or 5-minute.
But Bussey wanted the device to include a "Spanish" button for Spanish readers and Glen Ellyn students who take foreign language classes in schools. Readers also can press either a "Children" button or "General Public" (the adult selection) to access Short Édition's vast catalog.
"Because it's connecting to the Short Édition's cloud, it's really unlimited," Bussey said. "It's a matter of how many stories they have in their database, and they continue to run contests and judge the stories that come in and then add content to their cloud database."
The element of surprise? You can't choose the story, the genre, author or era.
"There's sort of this little surprise feeling like, 'Oh my goodness. This is a story that I'm getting out of this machine,'" said Library Foundation President Kelley Kalinich.
The library foundation paid for the portable device. The kiosk itself, including the back panel with the library logo and the shipping, costs just more than $10,000.
"The library will pay going forward a subscription to have access to the stories that are in the Short Édition database, much like we pay subscriptions for the other online databases that we have," Bussey said.
She hopes to take the machine -- it only needs an outlet -- on the road to schools, the train station, the YMCA and Reserve 22, the restaurant at the Village Links golf course. She also wants the library to host its own short story contest for children to add winning content to the dispenser's selection of literature.
"One of the ideas of having it in other locations, of course, is that so many of us take those few minutes we might have in between meetings or while we're waiting, and we scroll through our phone, especially social media," she said. "Well, if they can just print out quickly a short story or a poem and spend their couple minutes that way instead, then we're encouraging reading."