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This Vintage-Looking Vending Machine Dispenses Rare Books For Just $2

Installed at the Monkey’s Paw bookstore in Toronto, the Biblio-Mat offers book lovers a little randomness for their next read.

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A Toronto bookstore has come up with a creative way to add value to old, discount books that otherwise may clutter its storage: an antique-seeming "book dispenser" that randomly spits out old books for $2 a pop.

The Biblio-Mat combines the charm of a gumball machine with the surprise element of a raffle. The machine jumps to life once money’s inserted. With a bit of overt drama—cranking and whirring and ringing that invoke old machinery—the dispenser then releases a used title from its stock, dropping it into a slot for a happy reader to walk away with.

The machine’s vintage vibe is a perfect fit for its home, The Monkey’s Paw, a shop specializing in unusual books which caters "to customers who are looking to be surprised, and to savor the experience of discovering interesting old printed artifacts," the owner Stephen Fowler wrote in an email. "I actually hand-pick all the books that go into the machine. They’re all at least 25 years old, sometimes as much as 100 years old." The titles skew toward obscure non-fiction in hardcover.

Fowler envisioned something extremely low-tech—like a cardboard box with an assistant hiding inside, passing out books—when he floated the idea to friend Craig Small, who helps run the Toronto-based animation studio Juggernaut. But Small’s vision was grander. "I wanted to make this a destination piece for the store and was hoping it would resonate with three types of people: book lovers, appreciators of design, and makers," he says. Taking inspiration from Monkey’s Paw aesthetic, 1950s refrigerators, an old Campbell’s Soup vending machine, and vintage diner milkshake blenders, he says the resulting piece is somewhere between a vending machine and a "kinetic sculpture."

Since its installation in late October, visitors have queued up in a line out the door to feed the machine coins. Tourists have added Toronto to their travel itineraries to pay the machine a visit. And writers like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman have emailed their support.

The one downside of the machine’s popularity, according to Fowler, is it’s becoming harder to find rare books he’s willing to part with for just $2, the very books he was once eager to get rid of. "The slogan of The Monkey’s Paw—actually printed on the front door of the shop—is 'Careful what you wish for,'" says Fowler. "Given the unexpected success of the Biblio-Mat, I’m finding new meaning in that phrase."