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The Biblio-Mat in place at the Monkey's Paw bookstore.

Craig Small

Three weeks ago, Stephen Fowler, owner of Toronto's the Monkey's Paw used and antiquarian bookstore, wheeled a green, fridge-sized vending machine into his west-end shop.

Soda pop for perusing patrons? Nope. Fowler's Biblio-Mat actually vends books. An exercise in literary serendipity, the machine offers no menu to choose from. You simply drop your toonie into the slot et voilà – the non-fiction title emerges. Like life and boxes of chocolates, you never know what you'll get, though Fowler guarantees you'll get something worth more than $2.

Book-belching vending machines aren't new, of course. They're parked in train stations and airports in Europe and Asia, and widely used in public libraries in America. But this is likely the first version to invoke the randomness factor.

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The Biblio-Mat took Fowler's friend, film animator Craig Small, four months to assemble from off-the-shelf materials. He hasn't yet calculated the cost, but says it's probably about $1,000 – about 20 times less than the price of a used, conventional vending machine. For Fowler, the hulking beast in the back room is more conversation item than profit centre. But he's not complaining. In a fiercely competitive business, he's already reaped a publicity bonanza far in excess of his cost. And given the sorry state of the bookselling industry, a deserved round of applause for innovation.

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