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’There really is a story for everyone‘

November 4, 2016
man sitting outdoors typingBiochemistry and biophysics Ph.D. candidate Karl Smith writes a story on his 1926 Underwood typewriter at the Rochester Public Market. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The Memorial Art Gallery’s “Hidden Passions: Inspiring Conversations about Hyphenated Lives” is in its third season of celebrating the creative lives and private hobbies of Rochesterians.

“Hidden Passions puts our friends and neighbors center-stage so that we can marvel at the extraordinary creative adventures happening all around us … and perhaps find inspiration for our own,” says Jonathan Binstock, the Mary W. and Donald R. Clark Director of the Memorial Art Gallery.

Here, we highlight one member of the University community who is being featured this season.

It’s windy and cold at the Rochester Public Market, and the black box that houses Karl Smith’s 1926 Underwood typewriter keeps falling to the pavement.

As Smith picks it up, he spots a couple walking past crates of apples, pumpkins, and gourds. They’re among the few customers shopping on this blustery Tuesday morning.

“Would you like a story?” Smith asks with a smile. “Just 10 cents a story.”

The couple looks unsure.

“Or,” he says, “I’ll do it for free.”

Learn more

Karl Smith is one of two featured speakers at the Memorial Art Gallery’s Hidden Passions event at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 10. He’ll be joined by Eastman School of Music professor Melissa Matson, who will discuss her love for hand-dyeing fabric.

Sitting on a folding chair, tapping away on his 90-year-old typewriter, Smith creates stories on demand, for a mere dime. Since September 2013, the 27-year-old has set up shop at the public market, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Strong Museum of Play, a cocktail lounge in Rochester, and even in Manhattan this past summer while serving as a mass media fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“I can’t describe what I feel when I’m writing,” Smith says. “It does something to me. It’s like I was put here to do this. I want to make the world a stranger, more whimsical place.”

A PhD candidate in biophysics, Smith studies glass filters 10,000 times thinner than a human hair as part of the Nanomembranes Research Group. It’s because of his rigorous academic schedule that he began the 10-cent project.

“I wanted something to keep me sane at the end of the day when I left the lab,” he says.

The Pittsburgh native has written more than 900 stories, each roughly 500 words, on half sheets of paper. Strangers give him a prompt, and he pecks away. He’s crafted stories about lost loves, lost dogs, sea lions, flying princesses, and frogs who jump over the moon. Stories about babies, treehouses, aardvarks, and dancing polar bears. Stories about murder.

close-up of hands typing on old typewriter

Smith began his 10 Cent Stories project– in which strangers pay him 10 cents to write a story on his portable typewriter while they wait– about three years ago and has since written more than 900 stories. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

“It’s dizzying the stories I’ve been told,” he says. There was the woman who asked him to write about being unable to tell a man she loved him. The reason? “I’m married,” she told Smith.

There was the man who wanted a story recounting the time he punched a girl in high school science class because her pencil shavings landed on his papers.

“I had to take a shower after that one,” Smith says.

He says “writer’s block is not an option.” And neither is Liquid Paper. If he makes a typo, he backspaces and types over the word with capital Xs.

Smith has long been fascinated by typewriters and began collecting them while studying physics and English at Allegheny College. He found his current one on Craigslist for $30.

“I use a typewriter because it’s impossible to ignore,” he says. “The tapping and the ring of the bell is a draw. And when I’m done, I have a one-and-only physical object.”

He catalogues each story by taking a photo of the finished product on his phone. He posts several each week at and, where he also lists his upcoming appearances.

Why 10 cents?

“When my dad was in second grade, his brother told him that he needed to collect dimes,” Smith says. “ ‘Pennies are worthless, nickels are too heavy. Dimes have the best value-to-weight ratio,’ And my dad took it to heart. When he asked my mom to marry him, he paid for the engagement ring with dimes.”

“There really is a story for everyone,” he says. “I don’t know what my future holds, but I know I want to keep doing this. I feel it’s a calling.”

The princess and the baseball star

I was freezing. Karl Smith was freezing. So, on this bone-chilling morning at the near-empty Rochester Public Market, I popped the question.

“Would you ever write stories for my kids?” I asked. “I’ll pay you.”

Smith laughed, thinking about the 20 cents he soon would pocket.

He asked me about my children. Sophie is 6 and loves princesses, I told him. Her dream is to enter Cinderella’s castle at DisneyWorld. Matty is 10 and wants to someday replace his idol, Dustin Pedroia, as second baseman for the Boston Red Sox.

Karl took it from there. Here is the finished product. The princess and the baseball hero are both very happy with it.

— Jim Mandelaro

example of a typewritten story titled HOW SOPHIE SAVED CINDERELLA'S CASTLE

example of type-written story titled PEDROIA'S SWING

(University photos / J. Adam Fenster)

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