Rare-Book Vending Machine Delights Readers

The Biblio-Mat provides food ... so long as you consider books food for the mind. Craig Small/Vimeo

Bookworms love few things more than stumbling upon a rare edition or an unusual-looking cover, something that promises some sort of odd delight.

The Monkey's Paw, a Toronto bookstore that specializes in lesser-appreciated books on a variety of topics from the 20th century, knows just how to scratch that itch: the Biblio-Mat, a vending machine that randomly distributes an "old and unusual" book of some sort for a couple of bucks.

It's the pleasure of finding something random that is, in fact, sort of random.

Book vendor

The Biblio-Mat was conceived as kind of an alternative to that used bookstore standby of the $1 bin, often put on the sidewalk outside the store.

Originally, owner Stephen Fowler visualized the Biblio-Mat "as a painted refrigerator box with one of my assistants inside; people would put in a coin and he would drop a book out," he explained to Quill & Quire.

Luckily for Money Paw's assistants, that version of the Biblio-Mat never made it past the conceptualization stage. Instead, Craig Small, the head of an animation studio in Toronto and a friend of Fowler's, suggested they just build one instead.

"It's a simple idea, but the execution was a little more challenging," Small told the National Post.

Small worked on the machine from July until October of 2012, figuring out the best way to keep the machine supplied with books while distributing them in a way that made sense. As the video below shows, the solution is a series of winches and gravity.

Books sit on three raised sections. When someone drops in $2 Canadian dollars ($1.50), a microprocessor and a small computer go to work, pulling up a section so a book falls into the slot. A laser tripwire lets the machine know when a book has been distributed while limit switches tells the computer when a section is empty.

"I looked at condom dispensers, tissue dispensers — it's kind of like a Pez dispenser, but instead of spring-loaded from the bottom it pulls from the top," Small explained.

The machine's pistachio-green-and-chrome appearance recalls a nostalgic past, and the old-fashioned telephone bell that shrills when a book is delivered completes the experience.

When the machine was first installed, Fowler originally stocked it with books that just weren't selling at all, but eventually had to start buying books specifically for the Biblio-Mat.

"It's a loss-leader," he said to the National Post.

Still, customers love it, and Fowler thinks of the Biblo-Mat as just another embodiment of the used bookstore experience.

"It's just an extension of the store," Fowler said to the National Post. "You come here to find the book you never knew existed. It's all about serendipity."