Buying books is great fun. Perhaps too much fun, as my overflowing library attests. I try to go for a browse in a bookshop in every place I visit. I’ve bought books online, through the mail, and on the street. I’ve bought random lots of books not having a clue what they contained. But until recently I’d never bought books from a vending machine.
When one of the gals in my book club mentioned it for the first time, buying books from a vending machine didn’t sound all that appealing. The best part of visiting a library or a book store is the sensory onslaught of looking at all of the interesting covers, touching all the smooth covers and running my fingertips over the textures of the embossed or cloth-covered volumes, the sound of the pages as they turn and the faint creak the spine makes. Don’t get me started about New Book Smell. When the new library opened in my neighbourhood I was there almost every day just soaking it up. I’ve managed to restrain myself from licking any books thus far, but the thought has crossed my mind. So the notion of books encased in a machine seemed cold and sterile to me, almost cruel.
In my mind’s eye I imagined a glass-fronted vending machine with the latest popular fiction, teen supernatural romance (that’s a genre apparently, according to Barnes & Noble), and flavour-of-the-month business and self-help books inside. Perhaps I’d seen such an unappealing thing in an airport somewhere in my travels.
What I could not have conceived of in a million years was the BIBLIO-MAT. My book club gang eventually did organize a field trip to investigate this novel contraption we’d heard about. I set aside my initial misgivings once I saw this cool video:
The BIBLIO-MAT lives at The Monkey’s Paw, which is an antiquarian bookstore on Dundas Street West in Toronto. You insert two dollars worth of coins and it makes some delightful whirrings, clunkety-clunks, and a loud BRRRRRINGGG as a bell rings when the book is released, before the emphatic thud that punctuates the book’s arrival at the bottom of the chute.
The book you get is completely random. The BIBLIO-MAT is a lucky dip into old and unusual books. The four of us arrived with pocketfuls of toonies, so we gave it a good road test. Madeleine was the first to give the BIBLIO-MAT a whirl. As the photos convey, it was an exciting experience. On her first go she got a weird old book on heredity.
I went next and received a book called Six Months In Italy for my trouble.
Madeleine had another go and got a book on oriental rugs.
Shelley’s turn yielded Carburetors, Volume 1 which is bound to be a cliffhanger.
Tracy had a go and got a book on lacquerware that she seemed rather pleased with.
I had another turn and was rewarded with Modern Marvels Encyclopedia, which is both fascinating and bewildering.
Madeleine went again and received Engines from the same series as the carburetor book. Luckily engines only require one volume apparently, so she won’t be left wondering at the end.
Shelley doubled down after her automotive disappointment and got a book on the Red River that was more to her liking.
As awesome and entertaining as the BIBLIO-MAT is, the setting enhances the experience. The Monkey’s Paw is a fun shop to explore and it definitely satisfied my sensory inclinations. They sell an extremely eclectic and carefully curated assortment of old books. The vast majority of books were non-fiction and the proprietor seems to value specificity more than anything. There were very few general books, but oodles of titles on highly specific and esoteric subjects. For instance, I was drawn to a book on the history of the word “decadence.” On one wall there is a whole series of of tiny booklets on topics like How to Cane and Upholster Chairs, Prostitution in the Medieval World, and The Spirit of Brazilian Literature.
The whole store has a pleasant retro vibe, from the beautiful old wood bookcases, to the vintage desks like my granddad used to have, and the cool and surprisingly useful magnifying glass at the front desk. There’s a whole display of vintage maps that undoubtedly stir the wanderlust in anyone. The only new items for sale in the entire store are biological specimens encased in Lucite that are engrossing to examine.
So, I’m glad I tried buying books from a vending machine. I can’t say that it will become my go-to method of biblioacquisition, but it was certainly an entertaining and memorable experience. If you’re visiting Toronto and looking for something nerdiliciously offbeat to do, I’d recommend stopping by and taking the BIBLIO-MAT for a spin.