toronto monkey's paw book vending machine

Wanna buy a book from the Biblio-mat?

For the past few years, The Monkey's Paw on Dundas West has garnered a reputation for doing things a little bit differently. From their notoriously eclectic and rare collection of books, to their unusual window displays, they've always upheld one of my personal mandates--that from strolling through musty bookcases, to being drawn in by particularly odd cover art, every book should feel like a surprise. Owner Stephen Fowler is now taking that a step further with the world's first and only book vending machine, the Biblio-mat. Fowler says that "it's an extension of the shop--people come here expecting to be startled."

The Biblio-mat came in a few weeks ago, and yes, it's an actual vending machine by Craig Small (of local animation studio The Juggernaut), but rather than dispensing diabetes-inducing treats, it drops down books (nourishment for the mind, dontcha know). The look follows from the "self-consciously antique vibe," of the shop, and references old vending machines and signage.

Unlike a vending machine, there's no choice involved, and for $2, you'll get a mystery used book out of the 100 or so titles that the machine holds. Due to the general bent of the store--"weird non-fiction"--you can expect books (both small and large, and mostly hardcover) in that vein.

Fowler puts me on speaker-phone with two customers who just used the machine, Martha and Naz, and they both love their books--an illustrated book of Spanish poetry about mothers, and something called Legend of Ghost Lagoon. They deem it "really fun and unique." But due to its crapshoot nature, it might be your next favourite, or maybe not, as with the occasional dissatisfied customer. Fowler gamely chalks it up to a fundamental abundance or lack of imagination. One customer was heard to loudly complain that "everyone else got something really good." His book? A guide to repairing antique dolls. Case in point.

Despite the seemingly random selection, Fowler hand-picks each title. "They're not $50 books," he tells me. "We end up with a lot of interesting and old books that don't quite meet the standard of our stock, but are too good to throw away." Ergo, cultural artifacts, like what popped out in an interview with NPR earlier today--Slavery and Slave Ships. The Biblio-mat, it seems, has a knack for comic timing.

It's a very clever take on the book-buying process in general. On paper (pun intended), a book might sound fantastic, but upon reading it, you might find it lacking. And if you're the romantic sort of reader who ascribes meaning to the books you haphazardly stumble across in bookstores, this is a surefire way to feel as though whatever pops out of the Biblio-mat was somehow meant for you. Even if it is something like Does God ever Speak Through Cats? or C Is for Chafing (and we can really only hope).

Photo by Stephen Fowler


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