By Beth Kephart
At Capilona University, in Vancouver, Canada, a clown-headed machine has been dispensing round capsules, into which have been tucked incidents of poetry and art, for years.
In Montreal, Distroboto machines (once home to the cigarette) convey art — music, film, tiny books, you name it — collected from those who dare to create and submit it.
Then there’s the Biblio-Mat, which advertises itself as “a coin-operated vending machine that dispenses randomly-selected old books.”
Dispensing literature from vending machines may seem a rare phenomenon, but it has history on its side, according to John Geoghegan, who notes, in “A Brief History of Book Vending Machines,” that the tradition dates all the way back to 1822.
This tradition will take yet another intriguing turn this September, when a chapbook vending machine anchors in beside the Lit Lab of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy.
A high school run in partnership with the Franklin Institute, the Science Leadership Academy describes itself as an “inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st-century learning.” When I arrived earlier this week to read from a new young adult novel about the Berlin Wall — to talk about walls and their legacies — I found only open doors and freedom spaces. Students lying in empty spaces they call “ballrooms,” their backpacks as their pillows. Students crowded into a sunny cove. Students hanging around the big, open eye they call the “pool” and jamming in the library — electric guitars and drums. They plan their own futures at Science Leadership Academy, the students will tell you. They opt for collaborative learning over tests. They decide how they’ll make a difference, and what kind of legacy they’ll leave.
Anna and Leo, two sophomores (pictured above), want to leave a legacy of literature behind. They are, for example, at work on a new literary magazine that they’re calling “The 4th Floor.” But they’re also collaborating with a Philadelphia craft publishing company called The Head & The Hand Press and they are, they say, just months away from unveiling their school’s first chapbook vending machine.
The Head & The Hand Press, which specializes in artisanal books and the wonderfully unusual, has already gained experience with a roving chapbook vending machine — setting it down in Philadelphia coffee shops and health-conscious restaurants, filling it with its own craft publications, and seeing what will happen. Nic Esposito, who founded the press, had always hoped for a partnership with a city school. When the door opened at Science Leadership Academy, he and the press happily stepped in.
By the fall, Nic says, the 4th Floor Chapbook Series Vending machine will be elevatored to the top floor of the Science Leadership Academy and open for business. It will offer young adult fiction and poetry from writers all across the country (submissions are still being accepted; more on that here) as well as work from the Science Leadership Academy’s own students. It may be the start of a new trend, or just something organically cool.
What matters, right now to the legacy-leaving kids, is that it feels entirely brand new to them, and that it is actually happening.
Beth Kephart’s new young adult novel, Going Over (Chronicle Books) about the Berlin Wall, has received three starred reviews, is a Junior Library Guild selection, and was recently named a Booklist Top Ten Historical Novel for Youth. She blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.