Snack Food for the Mind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As guests at the Culver City Sheraton Four Points exit the elevators in the hotel lobby, they are greeted with a vending machine. Not so unusual on the face of it. It's a plastic contraption resembling a standard vending machine, but this one carries no candy, chips or even Cokes.

On one side, the machine stocks an array of items often forgotten by travelers: Disposable cameras, socks, nasal spray and other sundries line up behind black wire coils. The other side, a blue and gray case, houses a digital touch screen and 15 to 25 paperback and hardback books.

A few of the books are visible behind the glass front, but can travelers really judge a book by its cover? They won't have to.

To peruse a book, buyers first must touch buttons labeled either "fiction" or "nonfiction" for a list of titles. Another finger tap on a book's title shows its cover image and story summary on the interactive screen.

The books, changed on a monthly basis, range from "The Bonesetter's Daughter," by Amy Tan, at $25.95 for hardback, to "The Brethren," a John Grisham paperback for $7.99. All books sell at the suggested retail value plus tax.

When a customer swipes a credit or debit card, the machine issues a receipt--along with information on how to return an unwanted purchase--and drops the book into a receiving bin below. A series of prompts guides buyers through the entire process. If they get stumped, a 15-second countdown accompanies a blinking message: "Do you need more time?"

Well, maybe.

"I've never seen anyone buying a book out of a vending machine," said Vince Amy, 26, a hotel guest. "Usually you have a chance to flip through the books and see what you're buying."

Maybe that's why the machines disappeared the first time around. In the 1930s, it was a revolutionary concept: Sell paperback books, themselves a revolutionary invention, on the streets of New York and Philadelphia using sidewalk vending machines. Readers were willing to plunk a quarter into a "book-o-mat" to grab the latest bestseller. But in time, the machines fell from favor.

Now, travel retailer WHSmith has introduced its version of book-selling machines in hotels and major airports around the country. The machines, designed to allow customers to buy books and other items 24 hours a day, have already appeared in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Orlando and New York.

"This is a test, and part of the challenge is for people to understand exactly what the offer is," said John Cugasi, brand manager for WHSmith. The hotel machines have already undergone some modification. Fewer books, the addition of magazines and all-glass fronts are being tested in some locations. Company executives can access data on sales and inventory via an Internet link.

Is it a success? Hard to say.

Cugasi anticipates feedback soon from the hotel machines, installed in the Monrovia and Culver City Sheraton Four Points hotels in February. He declined to comment on the performance of the airport book machines, but Cugasi did say those machines will not dramatically increase sales. Company officials hope the unique offering will distinguish them from other airport booksellers.

Executives at WHSmith expect the hotel machines, with the wider variety of products, to draw more business than the airport book machines. Still, the company plans to launch the book kiosks at most of its 40 airport locations in the U.S., including Los Angeles International Airport, over the next two years.

"We are one of the first ones on the scene," said Tom Drews, vice president of sales at Zoom Systems, the company that designed the machines in conjunction with WHSmith. "This is going to be one of the ways that people shop in the future."

Of course, vending machine manufacturers of years past made the same pronouncement. Machine vending, they said, would change the way merchants sold just about everything, from eggs and milk to women's hats. Eventually, book machines popped up in bus and train stations and even along the street.

In 1938, Pocketbooks, one of the first companies to issue softbound novels, simply rented candy vending machines, slapped their logos across the top and filled them with books, said Lance Casebeer, a book collector from Portland, Ore.

All 16 windows of the machines displayed copies of "The Good Earth," by Pearl S. Buck, he said. Readers snatched up copies so quickly that the company added 12 other titles and plunked more machines in cities around the East Coast, Casebeer said. But the business-savvy booksellers soon realized that the cost of renting the machines outweighed the revenue earned.

Casebeer, who owns 800,000 paperback novels published in the U.S. between 1938 to 1969, has been hunting for one of the old book machines, but without success. The 3,500 members of his collectors club also failed. "None of us has ever found one," he said.

As for modern-day independent booksellers, who have been long aggravated by the selling practices of large chains, the new book machines pose no threat, they say.

"We play a lot of different roles other than just getting bestsellers into the hands of buyers," said Neal Coonerty, owner of the Bookshop in Santa Cruz and president of the American Booksellers Assn.

Because these bookstores offer thousands of titles, knowledgeable salespeople and community-based events, Coonerty said he doubts the machines will change the way people shop for books. "I think the last five years of high-tech has shown us that the hype almost always outstrips reality."

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