Book-Vending Machine Dispenses Suspense

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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.' "

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