It was, everyone involved concurs, a series of fortunate events. Random, even. Stephen Fowler, owner of the Monkey’s Paw, a seriously idiosyncratic second-hand bookshop in Toronto, needed a way to move unsellable stock. Fowler had a friend—Craig Small, co-owner of Juggernaut Productions, a design and animation studio—who not only felt his pain but, as Fowler says with some awe, “is a design guy who can also use power tools.” The Monkey’s Paw had a frequent passer-by—Vincent Lui, an editor for a bargain-hunting and coupons website—who decided one day to enter and discovered, to his joy, a machine that combines the two things he loves above all, “books and surprises.”
So was born the utterly charming Biblio-Mat: an office locker-housed, microprocessor-controlled “book randomizer,” made of pulleys, winches, skateboard bearings, switches, relays and a mechanical bell that delivers, in exchange for $2 and with a satisfying thunk, whatever aging tome is next destined to tumble out. Born, too, was Lui’s dogged determination—you try reading 12 pages on the left hindquarters of a rabbit (Practical Anatomy of the Rabbit, 1931)—to toss in a toonie a week over 2013 for a book and a surprise, and then craft 52 reviews to post on his blog therandombookmachine.com.
On the whole, Lui says, the Biblio-Mat was kind to him. “June was a terrible month”—Good Food for Bad Stomachs (1951) and Patterned Backgrounds for Needlepoint (1977) popped out—“and if the machine had given me those in January, this project would never have gotten off the ground.” (Even so, there’s always something to learn: “In the ’50s, people loved to pound their meat with mallets.”)
Instead, January kept Lui on track by providing the year’s single most interesting book, H.H.: or The Pathology of Princes, the overall opacity of which did little to hinder its entertainment value. Written in 1930 by Kanhayalal Gauba, a former chairman of the All-India Trade Union Congress, H.H.—300 pages detailing “how Indian royalty hoard wealth, starve citizens, rape women and corrupt governments”—came across to Lui as an eye-popping piece of British imperial propaganda.
In honour of the reviewer’s impressive grit (and in gratitude for his $104), the Monkey’s Paw threw a party for Lui in January, not long after the Biblio-Mat’s first birthday. The bookshop, naturally, served random cocktails, crafted at the barkeep’s whim.
Lui is not alone in his affection for the Biblio-Mat. “This! Is! Brilliant,” tweeted Margaret Atwood after the machine first appeared, while novelist Neil Gaiman chimed in with, “A random used-book vending machine—I think I am in love.” Newspapers called from around the world, Fowler says. Over the course of three days running, the Monkey’s Paw was visited by Torontonians who had heard of the randomizer via friends and family abroad—in Venezuela, South Africa and England. Aside from some grousing that Fowler had hit on an ingenious way of getting $2 a book for titles that would once have gone into a dollar bin, the book world seemed enraptured.
Which makes it all the more intriguing that few can articulate why the concept is so cool, and remains so, even after investing hope (and a toonie) and receiving Primary and Storage Batteries in exchange. Fowler, whose enthusiasm is not curbed by having the practical care of his baby, which devours books at no profit to him, thinks the secret lies in the perfect way the Biblio-Mat fits the times. “My idea for the shop was a bookstore on Mars, a place where you might not find what you were looking for, but would find books you didn’t even imagine existed. One customer told me the Monkey’s Paw is like the Internet, everything jumbled together without any order. And that’s the Biblio-Mat, too. ‘Random’ is the spirit of the age. People like to gamble, they like to be surprised and they love having a book from the Biblio-Mat.”
That last aspect—the book as prestigious cult object—points to another aspect of literary life in the digital age, when the survival of the physical text may rely more on its looks than its contents. His is a shop for “book fetishists,” notes Fowler. “Designers come here to buy books because of their design.”