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Book Vending Machines Are the Best Vending Machines

Emily Stochl

Staff Writer

Emily is a proud Midwesterner, living in Iowa. Reading literary fiction has always been her favorite. She also enjoys yoga and tending to her hundreds of houseplants -- you might say Emily is a bit “crunchy granola." She is the producer and host of a podcast about vintage and second-hand style, called Pre-Loved Podcast. She’s really into sustainability, and old things! IG: @emilymstochl

Book vending machines are the best vending machines, and we won’t be taking further questions on the matter! 

Book vending machines are what they sound like: a vending machine, but instead of dispensing junk food, it dispenses books! The concept of the “book vending machine” has been around quite a while, actually, though they’ve changed a lot since their origin. 

The first known book-dispensing vending machine was actually created by an English bookseller, Richard Carlile, in 1822. Carlile wanted to sell provocative and banned books without being punished for stocking “blasphemous material.” He started the book vending machine in order to sell copies of Paine’s Age of Reason, which at the time could have resulted in the bookseller being jailed. Basically, the idea of the vending machine was that it allowed the customer to purchase the book without ever interacting with Carlile. 

Reading that this vending mechanism was in use back in 1822 really surprised me! It’s unclear if Carlile’s vending machine was automated, but it’s true that there were coin-operated vending machines back in the 17th century. The first vending machines were often used to sell tobacco. At the turn of the 20th century, coin-operated vending machines became a common device for selling postcards, envelopes, and stamps, and they could often be found in post offices and train stations. In 1907, the first gumball machine was invented, and it seems this is the first iteration of a vending machine dispensing candy, as we know them today. Coca-Cola was the first to vend bottled drinks, beginning in 1937.

That same year, it’s said that Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, conceived the idea for the Penguincubator, which dispensed mass-market paperbacks. According to Penguin’s website, Lane thought up the idea when he was stuck on a train platform without a book to read. He is known for pushing the concept of mass-market books into the publishing mainstream, and he believed “quality, contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price.” The Penguincubator fit right into this belief, though Penguin’s book vending machines weren’t widespread — it seems only one was installed in Charing Cross Station in London. 

The next big moment for book vending machines came in 1947, when Popular Science created the Book-O-Mat, which “featured 50 different books that could be purchased for a quarter.” Vending machines, in general, became very popular in the 1950s, and since then it’s become common to see vending machines for all kinds of materials. Vending machines tend to stock low-cost items and are located in convenient places where someone might need to purchase something on-the-go. 

While some mass-market book vending machines still exist, these days, the majority of the book vending machines in the United States are actually for the purpose of providing free or low-cost books for children. Many schools and nonprofits operated book vending machines in order to combat the children’s lack of access to books. Though the United States is considered a wealthy nation, 16 million children in this country live in poverty and lack access to books. Lack of book access is extremely exacerbated by poverty, and a child’s access to books is directly correlated to their family’s income level. 

To counteract this, many of the book vending machine projects aimed at children provide the books for free. In 2015, Jet Blue funded Soar with Reading to place vending machines across Washington, D.C., with free books geared at children ages 0–14. The program has since expanded to Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco, and mostly recently they’ve installed book vending machines stocking 100,000 books to all five boroughs in New York City.

Schools have even started to install their own free book vending machines. Arthur O. Eve School School 61 installed a free book vending machine that students can access with a special token. The tokens are given out to student’s “no questions asked” — they are not based on educational performance or any other limiting criteria. Unlike books from the school’s library, which also of course provide free books to students, these books are the child’s to take home and keep forever, an experience which is too uncommon for some students. 

If you’re interested in starting a book vending machine, the Arthur O. Eve School says their Community Action Organization spent $3,000 on starting the project: $2,000 purchased the vending machine, and $1,000 was spent on books. The vending machines will be continuously restocked by the Teacher’s Desk, a nonprofit school supply store, and direct donations from author’s and publishers. 

Book vending machines projects have changed a lot since their illicit origins two hundred years ago, but they remain the coolest vending machines!