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Q&A: The Monkey’s Paw introduces the Biblio-mat book-vending machine

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.

Quillblog spoke with Fowler about his invention.

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.





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As one used bookstore opens in Halifax, another closes in Kitchener

Morgan Dambergs has had her finger in a few publishing pies. The Haligonian has worked as a reviewer, an editor, an intern at a publishing house, and can now add bookstore owner to her resumé.

This summer, Dambergs opened Orphan Books, a second-hand bookshop, in Halifax’s north end. In an interview that aired earlier this week, Dambergs told CBC News she’s aiming to keep selection small and to cater to younger readers as much as possible. She’s focusing on stocking her store with YA in all genres, plus horror, paranormal, and queer lit.

The CBC piece also features John Townsend, owner of Schooner Books in Halifax. Townsend is eager to welcome younger people into the bookselling fold, especially because there’s not much room for business-as-usual in the used-book racket these days. “The traditional [used] book business, in my opinion is over,” he says. Gone are the days of large shops filled to bursting with books in all categories and price ranges, adds the 35-year book business veteran.

Townsend might have a point. While Dambergs is jumping into used bookselling with both feet, Mark Pettigrew, proprietor of Casablanca Bookshop in Kitchener, Ontario, is scrambling to get out.

Pettigrew opened shop in 1986, but now finds it difficult to compete with online sellers some 26 years later. With the lease up on his King Street store, the time is right for a career change, the 51-year-old told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

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Ottawa bibliophile helps tourists book their travel

Nigel Beale is an Ottawa resident, broadcaster, and inveterate book lover. He is also the owner and publisher of a new website, Literary Tourist, intended to assist bibliophilic travellers wishing to locate and explore interesting literary sites around the world. Literary Tourist’s searchable database lists used and new bookstores, independent bookstores, as well as literary landmarks, writers’ festivals, and rare libraries.

According to the site, the database “represents one of the world’s most comprehensive continuously updated directories of used bookstores and literary destinations” and “contains valuable, detailed information and reviews designed to help traveling bibliophiles determine how best to spend their time.”

From the Ottawa Citizen:

The idea, says Beale, was to create a travel resource for people who love books.

He says he’s concerned about used bookstores closing down, and hopes that by stimulating tourism, he can keep some stores in business.

Beale started his venture by buying Book Hunter Press, a small publishing firm that put out a guide to used bookstores in North America.

According to the Citizen, the website has signed on as a partner “to help promote independent bookstores.”

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Rimma Burashko with author Eva Stachniak

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Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Lesley Strutt, Dean Steadman, Amanda Earl, Alastair Larwill and Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle, Dean Steadman, Lesley Strutt and Alastair Larwill

Amanda Earl

Jewel of the Thames launch

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