For nearly seven years, Stephen Fowler has owned The Monkey’s Paw, the curious antiquarian bookstore on Toronto’s Dundas Street West, offering bibliophiles a diverse selection of printed artifacts.
Self-dubbed “Toronto’s most idiosyncratic second-hand bookshop,” the store is more than a place to buy books: it is also an art stunt, with a collection of insect taxonomies on display and crafted window presentations aimed to startle unassuming pedestrians. For his latest venture, Fowler has revealed the Biblio-mat, a vending machine that dispenses random books for two dollars apiece.
What is the story behind the Biblio-mat? I went fishing this past summer with Craig Small, co-founder of The Juggernaut, an animation studio in Toronto. I had this idea that I would love to have a vending machine that gave out random books. I pictured it as a painted refrigerator box with one of my assistants inside; people would put in a coin and he would drop a book out. But Craig is more pragmatic and visionary then I am. He said, “You need to have an actual mechanical vending machine.” That was beyond my wildest imaginings, but not Craig’s, so he just built it for me.
What did you envision for the machine’s appearance? We were very careful with the style of the thing. We are attentive to the whole presentation of the shop, its look and vibe, and we wanted something that would go with it. It is a new device but has a very intentionally vintage look. The cabinet is actually an old metal locker; the front of the locker is in the back.
What books are stocked in the Biblio-mat? The books in the machine are two dollars each – that’s not enough to make any profit, but the nature of the second-hand book business is that I end up with a lot of books that are interesting and worth keeping and disseminating, but have no practical retail value. Historically in the used books trade there has always been the dollar cart in front of the store. This is just a spin on that.
What has been the response from customers? The machine is still in the beta stage, so it doesn’t always work perfectly. The response is sometimes based on that. Of the people who have used the thing so far, almost every person has been pleasantly surprised and completely amused. I can think of two people who were dissatisfied with the book they got, but I can only assume they were people lacking in imagination and enthusiasm. In fact, this is something I’ve observed in the used-book trade: people are always looking for meaning. They’ll get a book and feel as though it was psychically selected for them.
How do you acquire your books? I buy estates, or from people who are moving or downsizing. I buy books over the counter, at library sales, and from charities. I travel all around and buy books every kind of way you can imagine. Except I don’t buy books online, nor do I sell books online.
This really isn’t a store for readers. The traditional purpose of a bookstore is as a place to buy a piece of printed culture. We sell printed artifacts that contain text – not that you can’t read these books – but people don’t come here to buy books to read, they come here to buy books to own.
This interview has been edited and condensed.