Book vending machines

Wouldn’t it be great if book venting machines did exist?

Gladly, technology is ahead of its time for the book lovers out there.

Let’s see the history of them:

The Penguincubator

The very first book-dispensing vending machine was built in England in 1822 by Richard Carlile. He was a bookseller who wanted to sell seditious books, like Paine’s Age of Reason without being convicted. Thus he had to come up with an idea to do so and avoiding the trouble. His answer was a self-service machine which allowed customers to purchase a questionable book without ever coming into contact with Richard.

But how did this device worked?

The customer had to turn a dial on the device to the publication they wanted, deposited their money, and the material dropped down in front of him.

We still don’t know if this process was automated, but that didn’t stop England’s own automated process from putting one of Carlile’s employees to jail for selling “blasphemous material”

The next book-dispensing machine was the Penguincubator, which made its appearance in London in 1937. The idea was conceived by the founder of the Penguin Books, Allen Lane. The Penguincubator dispensed paperbacks of classic literature works for about the same price as a pack of cigarettes.

Lane was an iconoclastic figure in British publishing as he was credited with popularizing high quality, mass marketed paperbacks. By many he was viewed as a radical intent on unsettling the book industry. According to Penguin’s website, the Penguincubator’s origin story goes something like this:

*After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, Allen Lane found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London…. Appalled by the selection, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.*

Some reports suggest the Penguincubator was apocryphal, but it appears at least one was installed near Charing Cross Station in London much to the consternation of local booksellers.

Sir Allen may have succeeded in changing English reading habits, but the Penguincubator had little to do with it. Specifically, it was never manufactured in sufficient quantity to make an impact on the market, but that didn’t stop others from expanding upon the idea.

The Book-O-Mat, Readomatic, and A Novel Idea

In June 1947, Popular Science featured an early book vending machine called the Book-O-Mat (see photo below), which featured a selection of 50 books any one of which could be purchased for a quarter.

Two years later the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation introduced an upgraded version also named the Book-O-Mat. Rock-Ola, which is known for making slot machines and jukeboxes, decided at some point that books might also make a buck as demonstrated by their advertising for the device:

“Here for the first time is a coin operated automatic merchandiser which permits the operator to share in the profits of the multi-million dollar paperback book business”.

Today, at least half a dozen Chinese companies build and distribute book vending machines. Japan, where vending machines dispense a variety of items including beer and pornography, has had long-standing success distributing wallet-sized books and comics the size of a phone directory via these devices.

Western success with the technology has proven more elusive, however. An Irish company made an initial splash installing A Novel Idea at London’s Heathrow airport, but went bankrupt in 2010.

On the plus side, the New York Times sighted a paperback vending machine in a Barcelona subway station in 2008. Filled with Spanish translations of Nora Roberts and Victoria Holt novels similar machines have since been spotted in Madrid and appear to be on the rise.


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