A woman chooses a book from a vending machine

An (Exhaustive) Beginner’s Guide to Book Vending Machines

Books are hardly the strangest thing human beings have ever put into a vending machine. Aside from our love of stories in all forms, that’s one thing all people generally have in common: we’re honestly pretty weird. One woman’s pregnancy cravings led to the invention of the cupcake vending machine, providing Mississippi, USA with twenty-four-hour cupcake access and making the rest of us wonder why you’d need to be pregnant to want junk food at four in the morning. China and Japan both offer live crab vending machines, complete with vinegar and ginger tea for an optimal on-the-go-meal. (Being from a country where live crabs aren’t commonly eaten, I DID initially wonder whether or not you could use the live crabs to exact revenge on any rude pedestrians or public transit passengers.) Then there’s the infamous used schoolgirl underwear vending machine—though Japan technically made these illegal in 1993, some continue to exist.

And what are we supposed to gather from this? That the world is a stranger place than even we, as strange people, can imagine? Sure, but also this—books may not be the strangest thing we’ve ever sold via self-service kiosk in a public place, but they’re definitely the coolest. Let’s delve into the many iterations of the book vending machine.

1. Historic Book Vending Machines

Some inventions are pretty bad—consider the pet-petter, an allegedly-convenient invention that condemns you to a reality in which you’ll “never touch your pets again!” Others, though, are pretty badass. Back in 1822, members of the public usually were forbidden from buying seditious books (and probably plenty of other things, like women wearing pants or enjoying being alive). English bookseller Richard Carlile didn’t want to be thrown in jail for distributing banned books, but there was one major problem: he really, really wanted to distribute banned books. His plan? Deposit censored material into self-service machines and give the people what they want. Of course, Carlile got exactly the opposite of what he wanted—a criminal conviction.


'Penguincubator' book vending machine

Image Via Mental Floss


In 1937, a more effective but less exciting book vending machine became accessible in the UK: the Penguincubator. The brainchild of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, the Penguincubator came into being when Lane couldn’t find a book he wanted to purchase while waiting in a train station. While it’s possible that only one machine ever actually existed, it’s certain that most of us would have been first in line. Alas, book vending machines are still relatively uncommon—but so are people who take their socks off on airplanes, and yet, they’re still f*cking everywhere.



Let’s agree that books are healthier and more enjoyable than king-sized sodas. What pleasure the latter provides tend to be short-lived—which is what anxious parents suspect their kids might be if they have even hypothetical access to a Pepsi. Of course, healthy living is important even when it isn’t fun for the hyperactive, slightly rabid kiddos riding the wave of their first sugar highs. But reading is fun, and what could be healthier than kids finding that out for themselves—before their college lit classes make them read Moby Dick?


One elementary school's book vending machine



One Utah elementary school has recently opened the state’s first book vending machine, among the first handful of these machines. Yes, handful. There are currently fewer than five of these schoolyard machines: Umatilla Elementary School in Umatilla, FL and Arthur O. Eve School 61 in Buffalo, NY were the first two. Granger Elementary in West Valley City, UT has decided to encourage even healthier behavior (no, the vending machine doesn’t also dish out spinach and lectures on the value of hand-washing to these tiny human booger-farms). Instead of money, the machine will accept tokens that teachers can give to students for their work and conduct in the classroom. By collecting enough of these, students can receive the greatest gift of all—the early understanding that a book is a reward, not a punishment.


3. Repurposed Cigarette Machines

The most common vending machines dispense food and drink; cigarette vending machines, while once common, are now illegal in many countries due to changing attitudes around public health. Those that still exist either use age verification technology or are only present in establishments like bars or clubs, which bar underage people from entry. Many of these machines are now defunct, but they’re still there—and that’s led many to look for different uses. North Carolina based artist Clark Whittington began the Art-o-Mat project in 1997, replacing cigarettes with small art pieces.



Repurposed cigarette vending machine

Image Via Treehugger.com


German publishing company Hamburger Automatenverlag has repurposed some cigarette vending machines to sell books instead of tobacco products. For just €4—less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes—you could make a different decision and change your story. Will it make you feel better? In the long run, probably. But we all know books are more than capable of causing short-term emotional despair.


Some readers may recognize this concept because of Barnes & Noble (while others may be familiar because of awkward romantic encounters). Certain Barnes & Noble locations wrap novels in paper and identify them only with a brief description—genre, setting, time period, and any other notable traits. Picture these ‘notable traits’ as highly-specific Netflix categories, like ‘steamy independent movies based on books’ or ‘stunts & general mayhem.’ Though these books are generally cheaper, you take a risk when purchasing one of these books. Maybe you’ll hate it. The opposite is equally plausible: maybe you’ve even read it before! But you risk disappointment when purchasing any book, especially if you’re like me (read: insanely picky, willing to shout about poorly-realized character arcs at all times). It’s just that the reward of a life-altering story is worth so much more than the money spent.


The Monkey's Paw bookstore (Toronto, ON) features randomized book vending machine

Image Via NPR


The Monkey’s Paw bookstore in Toronto is the proud home of the first randomized book vending machine. Stephen Fowler, the store’s owner, originally thought that a store employee might stand inside the machine and physically drop the book down to the customer. The bookstore employee, presumably, thought about quitting on the spot. With a little common sense, Fowler saw the line between ‘stroke of genius’ and ‘stroking out.’ Now, the machine is made out of a metal locker to suit the store’s vintage aesthetic. Notice how lockers aren’t transparent? For $2, customers get the pleasure of a complete surprise.

The front of the machine reads: “collect all 112 million titles.” It could be a joke—but it could be a challenge.


Featured Image Via Art4d.com