Looking at the Call Me Ishmael phone, which features a rotary dial, you might assume it belongs in your grandmother's house. Despite its old-timey appearance, the device is very much of the 21st century. And the inventors of the phone, which contains a web app that allows users to dial a number and hear stories about a specific book, are hoping it becomes a fixture in bookstores and libraries.
The device grew out of the Call Me Ishmael program launched last year by Logan Smalley, the director of educational programs for Ted Talks, and Stephanie Kent, a writer and multimedia producer in New York City. Callers to a specific number--774-325-0503--can leave an anonymous voicemail about a favorite book, along with a personal tale. The most compelling messages, as determined by CMI's six-member team, are recorded and transcribed on an antique typewriter. Videos are then created and posted, on a weekly basis, featuring an image of the book while the audio of the featured call plays.
So far, the group, which works with 60 volunteers around the world, has collected more than 2,000 messages. It is estimated that over one million people have viewed and listened to the CMI recordings. While interest in, and interaction with, CMI varies day-to-day, the program is getting noticed. After bestselling author John Green raved about CMI on social media a few months ago, the service experienced multiple days where hundreds of calls were received.
Smalley and Kent envision the CMI device being used largely in bookstores and libraries. With its ability to hold up to 12 different stories at a time that can be changed daily, they feel booksellers and librarians would be ideal curators. The phone also has the ability to ring, allowing customers and patrons to answer the device and hear a story.
That the company pulls its name from the beginning of Moby Dick is not a lark, either. Smalley said the idea for CMI was hatched, in part, because he and Kent "are avid readers who have an appreciation for opening lines in books." After using the Internet to try and get readers to share feelings about their favorite books, Smalley said he found it frustrating that the stories could only be shared online. That's when the pair hit upon the idea of creating a device that would allow the stories to be brought into bookstores and libraries.
Janet Geddis, the owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., which is Smalley’s hometown, will receive one of the first of the CMI phones. The bookstores was also the first to test the phone in its beta format, using it for several days this past summer. Geddis estimated that, during the test-run, the phone was used by seven booksellers and over 20 customers.
For Geddis, the CMI phone is an extension of her store's core mission: "to connect people to books that will be meaningful for them" and "to create a sense of community." And, seemingly, the CMI phone did its job; she said that her "customers love the concept.”
To raise funds to scale up production of the CMI phone, a Kickstarter campaign was launched earlier this month. As of press time, it had raised more than $15,000. The CMI team is hoping to bring in enough money to be able to send the phone to interested bookstores and libraries for a free, two-week trial. The cost of the device ranges between $500-$1,000; leasing it after the two-week free trial will cost between $30-$60 per month. Smalley also envisions collaborating with participating bookstores and libraries to include the stories of their own customers and patrons on their devices.
“It’s a service,” Smalley said. “It’s not like we’ll give them the phone and walk away. We want to tell stories together.”