For almost 10 years, Craig Small had steadfastly turned down requests to make another Biblio-Mat, the book vending machine at the Monkey’s Paw antiquarian shop in Toronto that has become something of a global sensation.
Small would tell anyone who asked that the Biblio-Mat was a one-off, a novelty item made from $500 worth of bits and pieces he had lying around his Toronto studio or bought from Canadian Tire. The machine was so slapdash that he didn’t even solder in most of the electrical components and every now and then he’d have to head to the store to pop them back into place. And while he’s been amazed at the device’s popularity and longevity – he has only ever replaced the coin acceptor – he just wasn’t in the vending machine business. Even entreaties from Margaret Atwood had failed to sway him.
Then he got an e-mail last year from someone connected to Jack White, the former White Stripes guitarist and frontman, who owns a record label called Third Man Records and adores all things vintage. White was making plans to open a Third Man store in London, the e-mail said, and he wanted a Biblio-Mat.
“They were convinced I’d say no,” Small recalled. “But I couldn’t say no to them.”
Small was not only a huge fan of White’s music; he knew the musician had the same interest in offbeat gizmos. “I share his appreciation of analog, minimalist art, retro technology and the way he presents himself by combining those worlds. We share the same approach and aesthetic,” Small said.
He quickly agreed to the project and spent the next few months working in his Toronto studio on a souped-up version of the Biblio-Mat called the Literarium. It has the same throwback look but includes more features, such as retro Nixie tubes that display three flashing numbers and a series of pinball-like chimes recorded by Don Kerr, the former drummer of the Rheostatics.
Inside, the motor that lifts the trays containing the books is more powerful than that of the Biblio-Mat, and the details on the outside take into account White’s love of the number three and the colour yellow. There are three question marks, three strips of trim and three notes that chime when a book is dropped. “I was overachieving,” Small said with a chuckle.
Small won’t put a price tag on the Literarium and he isn’t in this for the money. But he has turned down offers as high as $40,000 to build similar machines.
The London store opened last Saturday in Soho with great fanfare and a surprise street concert by White, who belted out five tunes, including Seven Nation Army, from the balcony of a nearby building owned by artist Damien Hirst. Fans waited up to six hours to cram inside the tiny store, which also includes a performance venue called the Blue Basement.
Fittingly, the outlet is White’s third – the others are in Nashville and Detroit – and it contains stacks of Third Man vinyl records, turntables, clothing and a token-operated “voice-o-graph” where patrons can record a song and watch it pop out as a 45 RPM vinyl single. The walls are lined with photographs of Pearl Jam, Billie Eilish and the Raconteurs, another of White’s bands. There’s also a bookshelf featuring everything from a children’s book written by White, based on his song We’re Going to Be Friends, to a biography of Iggy Pop.
The Literarium was tucked away in the basement, not far from a makeshift stage area where White’s guitars sat at the ready. On Saturday, Small stood near the wall watching as customers examined the machine and then gave it a try.
Finn Jain, 22, dropped in a token and then took a step back as the device whirred and chimed. Out popped a small paperback from a collection of Third Man poems and short stories. “It’s awesome,” he said. “When I saw it I was, like, I’ve never seen anything like this. It is a true lucky dip.”
Jason Dawson, 35, said he wanted to try out the machine after he’d heard White talk about the Literarium during a recent radio interview. “It’s those sort of little things that is so appealing about Third Man,” said Dawson, who joked that he was afraid he’d get a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
“You really understand the sort of magic and novelty of these machines,” said Chloe Cooper, Third Man’s business operations manager, who brought the Biblio-Mat to White’s attention after seeing it listed on Atlas Obscura, an online guidebook to unusual tourist attractions. “Everything now is so digital and instantaneous, and you know exactly what you’re getting. And so when there is something put together with nuts and bolts and it’s mechanical, I think it really blows people’s minds.”
Small, 52, says he might make additional Literariums, but he considers them more of an art installation than a serious commercial venture. His own background is primarily in advertising – his claim to fame was the Joe Canada ad for Molson Canadian – but he has also dabbled in filmmaking, computer games, animation and fiddling with almost anything mechanical. In his spare time, he plays competitive pinball with his autistic son.
He grew up in Strathroy, Ont., outside London, where his father worked in the auto parts industry. Small spent many weekends running around factory floors and figuring out how things worked. At home he devoted more time taking apart video games than studying and was told by one high school teacher that he was “on a pogo stick to hell.”
He briefly tried university and community college but ended up at the CBC in the early 1990s developing promotional videos for The Beachcombers, Mr. Dressup and other shows the network sold internationally. He eventually began doing freelance work on the side and soon left to create his own ad company, Juggernaut.
When Small and White met for the first time last week in London, the two quickly bonded. White grew up down the road from Strathroy in Detroit and, like Small, came from a devout Catholic family and served as an altar boy. The two also shared childhood memories of visiting Marvin’s Marvellous Mechanical Museum in Detroit, which housed a vast collection of old pinball machines and other curiosities such as the Mutoscope, an early motion picture contraption.
At one point Small showed White how the Literarium could be modified to dispense records. The musician jumped at the idea, and Small quickly said it was something he was already working on.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.