A Vending Machine That Delivers Literature
Nic Esposito, Founder of Head & the Hand Press
In a trendy coffee shop called Elixr, on a side street off of Philadelphia’s toney Rittenhouse Square, there is funky décor, loud music, strong coffee, and, by the door, a small vending machine. From this machine, for two dollars, one can purchase not cigarettes or candy or any of those other typically unhealthy vending machine wares, but, instead, a short story.
Nic Esposito, founder of The Head & The Hand Press, was chatting at a wedding last summer with a cousin, Dan Navara, who works in the vending machine business. Navara was bemoaning declining sales, given the above-mentioned frowned-upon contents of his machines. The two cousins were comparing notes about the similarities between their two industries when Esposito tossed off a comment: “We should sell books in vending machines.” By wedding’s end, the idea had solidified. Navara’s parting message to Esposito: if you can get the books, you can have a vending machine.
Back at the office, Esposito immediately put the idea into motion, working with his small staff to figure out content and format. For stories, he, editorial director Linda Gallant, and assistant Mike Baccam leaned on The Head & the Hand’s community-based publishing model, and put out a call for online submissions to attendees of the regular workshops they hold in their non-profit co-working space. One story they ultimately chose was written entirely in one of their workshops; three others came from workshop members. Eight stories were chosen overall.
As for format, the team, including creative manager Claire Margheim, had very specific parameters, having been told by Navara that the books had to be “as big as a bag of chips.” Working with local printer Fireball Printing, the group developed a format of 30 page books with a 4 x 6 trim size. Esposito was careful to check that the size worked. “I made sure the book fit as a prototype,” he says, “and we used an existing countertop model machine my cousin had in his shop. His crew did paint it, which is nice.”
Through friend Will Darwall, who worked at Elixr, an arrangement was made to install and test the prototype there, and the vending machine opened for business with a launch party in early December. Esposito says: “There was certainly that hold your breath moment the night of the event as the first book was vended. But it worked!” The endeavor received good press, with stories on local radio station KYW, philly.com and a mention of the concept (albeit uncredited) in Time.
Store manager Josh Croston says he thought the machine was a natural fit for their store. “The Head & The Hand is about trying to create a writing community and support artists. Here at Elixr we also try to create community and provide a place for people to come together. So hopefully sparks would fly and it would drive new customers to our store, and we could create a new community for their writers.”
Sales so far are around175 copies from print runs of 20-25 of the original 8 stories, and they have already been reprinted. Esposito thinks his short story chapbooks are the perfect complement to a cup of coffee: “Instead of staring at your iPhone, get a chapbook!” Croston is pleased with the results thus far. “We’re really, really happy with the sales. Our customers are really interested. It’s new and different and something they’ve never seen before.” Elixr customers, says Croston, are surprised at first to see a vending machine in the shop, and then intrigued once they realize it contains books. At $2 per book, they’re happy to give it try and support a local business at the same time.
Future plans include new locations for the vending machine. Commuters are a potential target, so train stations are under consideration, and the Esposito is also in discussion with some schools. More stories will be added. Esposito is excited about getting literature into more hands in more ways and places. He is also working to continue to grow his community-based publishing model. “It’s a beautiful place where you can be creative and have integrity in your art and also be good at business.”