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Book-Vending Machine Dispenses Suspense

Nov 18, 2012
Originally published on November 18, 2012 5:53 pm

Earlier this year, Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey's Paw used-book store in Toronto, had an idea.

He wanted a creative way to offload his more ill-favored books — "old and unusual" all, as the store's motto goes — that went further than a $1 bin by the register.

It came in a conversation with his wife: a vending machine.

"Originally, I thought maybe we would just have a refrigerator box and paint it to look like a vending machine," he tells NPR, "and put a skinny assistant of mine inside and have him drop books out when people put a coin in."

But then he was hanging out with a friend, Craig Small, who runs an animation studio in Toronto.

"I mentioned the idea to him, and he said, 'Forget it! Let's just build one!' "

So they did, and for the past few weeks that machine has been up and running. The "Biblio-Mat" is about the size of a refrigerator and painted vintage pistachio green with chrome accents. On the front, in old-style lettering, it reads: "Every book a surprise. No two alike. Collect all 112 million titles."

Though he's not making much money off the Biblio-Mat, Fowler says it's a great way to entertain customers — especially kids.

"One kid I can think of in particular — a very intense, physical little boy, not what you would necessarily consider the bookish type — he got a weird, local history book about Hamilton, Ontario," he says. "And apparently he's been carrying it around his house, you know, asking his mom, 'Did you see where I left my Hamilton book?'

"It's like it completely reinjects the mystery into these old printed artifacts."

Fowler says the machine reinforces something he's learned in the book trade: People are always looking for meaning.

"People have a deep need to think the thing is actually being picked for them," he says. "Yesterday a young woman got a book out of the machine — 12 Hardest Shots in Golf, or something like that — and she was not very impressed. But then she said, 'I know exactly who I'm giving this to for Christmas.' "

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So this past week, we called up. That's a used bookstore in Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

STEPHEN FOWLER: Monkey's Paw.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Well, we caught Stephen Fowler, the owner...

(LAUGHTER)

FOWLER: OK.

RAZ: ...right in the middle of his work day.

FOWLER: All right. Sorry.

RAZ: But he took a few minutes to tell us about a remarkable addition he recently made to his store, a vending machine for used books. It was an idea that hit him a few months back.

FOWLER: You know, originally, I thought maybe we would just have a refrigerator box and put a skinny assistant of mine inside and have him drop books out when people put a coin in. But...

RAZ: But then, he was hanging out with a friend.

FOWLER: A friend of mine, Craig Small.

RAZ: Craig runs an animation studio in town.

And I mentioned the idea to him, and he said: Well, forget it. Let's just build one, real, mechanical vending machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for the past few weeks, that machine has been up and running. Stephen Fowler calls it the "Biblio-Mat." It's coin operated, it's about the size of a refrigerator. It's painted vintage pistachio green with chrome accents. And on the front, written in old-style lettering...

FOWLER: Every book a surprise. No two alike. Collect all 112 million titles.

RAZ: Now, it's also an easy way for Stephen to offload books from his dollar bin. And he says imagine being a kid and walking up to this thing.

FOWLER: One kid I can think of in particular - very intense, physical little boy, not what you would necessarily consider the bookish type - he got a weird, local history, probably 1940s or 1950s local history book about Hamilton, Ontario. And apparently, he's been carrying it around his house, you know, asking his mom, oh, you know, did you see where I left my Hamilton book?

So, yeah, I don't know. It's like it completely reinjects the mystery into these old printed artifacts.

RAZ: That's Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey's Paw bookstore in Toronto. Of course, we couldn't let him go...

FOWLER: You want to hear it?

RAZ: ...without a demonstration.

FOWLER: Absolutely. I wonder if it would be best to put the phone on speaker. Oh, OK. Hold on just a second, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBLIO-MAT)

FOWLER: All right. There you go. Hold on just a second. Let me dig it out. OK. We have "The Shocking Truth About Water." I don't actually know what that is. I think it's some kind of a health book.

RAZ: And you can check out a video of Stephen Fowler's Biblio-Mat book vending machine on our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.