The Albion Beatnik Bookstore website (or how to change a light bulb in a tight space on a ladder)

The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore, based once in Oxford, then Sibiu, always neo-bankrupt, now closed for business: atavistic and very analogue, its musings and misspells on books and stuff.

Books v. Cigarettes

Sibiu railway station waiting room: a vending machine of books, wholesome literary fare at bargain price. It includes Schopenhauer, Theodore Dreiser’s overlong An American Tragedy (here in 3 vols, it’s a six hour journey to Bucharest after all), and, surprisingly, Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning — to help send you to sleep presumably. This can’t be a commercial venture and it seems worthy of the communist ideal: literary social engineering as aspirational as it is hopeless. (So this might be EU funded?)

I researched book vending machines and note the first one in England was 1822: a contrarian but timid bookseller, Richard Carlile, sold conspiracy theory (in this case Thomas Paine, an evil democrat, never to be read by Alastair Campbell, clearly), to be dispensed by automation as a sort of legal contraception to avoid direct contact with the customer. There are no design details and it is doubtful that it could have been truly automatic: the first patent for an automatic sale device was registered only in 1857. The legal ruse didn’t work either, but it was one of his employees who took the rap for selling “blasphemous material.” Noel Pemberton Billing, crackpot MP and attention seeker, had invented a book vending machine reputedly before the Second World War, and had toured America on a sales expedition.

Not surprised to read of book evangelist Allen Lane’s 1937 Penguincubator. Lane, the founder of Penguin books, was a man who liked to be seen riding a virtuous horse though his spurs were as sharp as an abacus: money was his game and he chanced to sell his new Penguin range in tobacconists alongside newspapers and boiled sweets, also a few placed as concessions in branches of F. W. Woolworth’s. One Penguincubator was commissioned at Charing Cross Station, placed next to a machine vending cigarettes. (6d the price of a packet of fags, 6d the price of the first Penguins, though am not sure if Lane had thought through how you were supposed to keep the books alight without a filter.) Booksellers in the Charing Cross locality objected to the Penguincubator and it was removed. It would seem that they were never successful in any case.

The vending machine as a concept is suited probably more to a middle European mindset. Germany has always been the biggest manufacturer of vending machines after America, and it was the German publisher Reclam who in fact introduced the first book vending machines in 1912. Reclam is renowned still for the “little yellow books” of its Universal-Bibliothek (“universal library”), simple paperback editions of literary classics for schools and universities. The machines employed were designed by Peter Behrens, the modernist designer and architect who gave early employment to Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. They were a great success initially, sited particularly at railway stations but also aboard ships, at army barracks and in hospitals, wherever there was footfall. The excessive repair costs of these machines as they aged meant that they were decommissioned in the early 1930s, but in their heyday over 2,000 of them littered German cities and towns. Today in the Altes Schauspielhaus in Stuttgart one of these old machines survives; it has been reclaimed and sells contemporary Reclam editions.

In the 1970s, Roth-Händle, the German tobacco merchant, started to sell volumes of short stories using the same vending machines that were used to sell their cigarettes. Today in Berlin, SuKuLTuR sell their books through street machines: its Schöner Lesen series, highly polished in its marketing, has sold over 100,000 books this way since 2003. Another modern German publisher, Hamburger Automatenverlag, has taken to recycling old cigarette vending machines since 2010, reportedly with great success.

The story of automated book sales in America is one of sporadic success at best, but mostly failure in freefall. The first book vending machine for which I can find reference in the United States is as late as 1939. E. Haldeman-Julius of Girard, Kansas, used Little Blue Book Vendors to sell his Blue Books Series: 18 book titles in each machine were retailed at 10¢ each. The publisher boasted that success was “sensational.” Haldeman-Julius had a remarkable busines career and was somewhat of a contradiction — a pioneer American socialist who had stumbled into entrepreneurship in 1919 when he bought not just the union newspaper he and his wife worked for but also its printing press. The newspaper was retired and the press was used to print books. Initially it reprinted left wing literature; its content expanded greatly and much new writing was commissioned, the series was promoted as a ‘University in Print’. (In fact its format and content management made it a useful forerunner and model for The Reader’s Digest.) By 1949 over 1,800 booklets were in print and many more than that number had lapsed, and by then certainly 300 million copies, possibly many more, had been sold. Thereafter Little Blue Book sales declined, largely because the FBI stalked the company and branded it as a fellow traveller, its stockists and customers were inhibited as a result. But throughout its history its marketing was not as lofty as its ideal: “At last! Books are cheaper than hamburgers!” was one advertising slogan, clearly designed for a non-bookish customer. It is worth noting that the company was not in the slightest bit book trade reliant: the greater part of its business was mail order.

Pocket Books introduced a book vending machine in a New York subway arcade as a commercial response to the burgeoning laundromat/laundrette industry, which had only begun to take popular root in the United States as the second World War finished. Its first model was 18 inches wide and it held only 16 titles. The concept had failed by 1950. Avon Publications, Pocket Books’ great rival, sought to distribute its paperback and comic books via vending machines also. Its market segment was always the vox pop: ghost stories, love romps (some overtly sexual) and fantasy were its staple diet. The Avon book production had evolved quickly into magazine format and were priced typically at 25¢ to 50¢, but their overall annual sales by the early 1950s was in excess of 20 million units. By early 1952 it reported that it had 210 vending machines operational, mostly in New York but in some other cities continent wide. Many of these machines were franchised to participating stores at no cost; the stock was held on consignment and the store was invoiced for only what it had sold. Sales averaged between only 75 and 100 books each week per machine, and not surprisingly it proved more profitable in sites that had not just a dense, but also a transient, footfall. Airports were ideal with its constant churn of people, but supermarkets offered declining repeat sales with its stable clientele. The Reader’s Digest had two prototype vending models that contained up to 75 booklets in early 1951; this was expanded to over 100 machines within the year; other magazine publishers followed. But with only weekly issues rather than a daily addiction like nicotine or chocolate to trade, their market was nowhere near as lucrative as, say, cigarettes or Mars bars. A few small publishers tested the water with automated sales but none appeared to be successful and each experiment ended quickly.

There was an American renaissance in the early 1960s. The Vend-A-Book was launched by the Bookshelf of America in 1962, although concentrated in New York. Its stock was mass market, 40 titles displayed in each machine, the only machine I can see that was not promoted by a publisher. Its rival, launched at the same time, was the Read-O-Mat, similarly with 40 titles but commercially far more pliant. Neither performed consistently or for very long.

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Hero of Alexandria sketched in Pneumatika, AD62, the first vending machine: a coin-operated device that vents sacrificial water in Egyptian temples. The impulse that elides the vulgar retail with the eternal met scant regard from one religious leader who swept the retailer from the temple. The vending machine is similarly problematic in the book world. There is something rather necessary, mundane, even unworthy about automated sales; temporal product is associated with them — the throwaway (coffee), the disapproved and repetitive (cigarettes and chewing gum), the self-indulgent (chocolate). Moreover a machine that ‘dispenses’ rather than ‘sells’ is devoid of emotional commitment or product knowledge, and is suited best to the lowbrow, the uniform and didactic, or the book whose value is outside the mainstream book trade. A book offers poor stock turn (it lasts longer than a cigarette), and its marketing focuses on residual experience and value. We treasure our personal libraries because they are the museums of our aspiration and desire, even if these may change over time.

The difference between a physical book and a download (today’s vending machine in the cloud) might resemble the difference between a book ‘sold’ and a book ‘dispensed’. The difference between Orwell’s book buying and his smoking habit, as detailed in his essay Books v. Cigarettes. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why digital sales are now in retreat and physical book sales are recovering.

News on the street has it that Xinhua, China’s largest book retailer, is to open twenty stores that will remain open day and night, to be staffed by robots: the Penguincubator of the future.

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