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London vending machine offers literary snacks for Tube riders

SHARE London vending machine offers literary snacks for Tube riders

LONDON — On the teeming platform at South Kensington Underground station, vending machines offer a choice of a chocolate bar, a pack of gum — or classic love poems.

The slim poetry volume, which sells for about $1.50, is the work of Travelman, a publisher determined to bring quality literature to London's subway system.

The only problem is finding a working machine.

Three machines were installed at South Kensington station, in the heart of the city's museum district, in December. Now one is jammed and another cannot be found. The third machine dutifully swallows a pound coin and dispenses a mini-anthology of verses by Sappho, Shakespeare and many authors in between.

The poetry collection went on sale for Valentine's Day, but Travelman's staple is short fiction. Company founder Alexander Waugh, grandson of satirist Evelyn Waugh, dreamed of producing individual stories on a single folding sheet for space-strapped commuters.

Over the past three years, Waugh and his collaborators, marketing director William Mollett and Ned Guinness, Earl of Iveagh and heir to the Guinness brewery fortune, have published 42 titles.

Drawing on Waugh's literary connections — his late father Auberon Waugh edited the Literary Review and wrote for the satirical magazine Private Eye — Travelman has assembled a heavyweight editorial panel that includes the writers Martin Amis, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark.

The imprint's crisply printed leaflets, color-coded into series that include romance, crime and adventure, focus on classy and classic authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene and, naturally, Evelyn Waugh.

"We're unashamedly setting out to make people feel reading these stories will be an improving experience," said Waugh.

The stories were sold initially at bookstore checkout counters and railway station newsstands. Realizing the dream of literature from a machine has been a struggle, and so far about 1,000 volumes have been sold that way.

Commercial vending machines were developed in the 19th century to sell chewing gum; now they market everything from cigarettes to live bait. In Tokyo — the world's automated-vending capital — machines sell everything from beer to CDs to packets of rice.

But Travelman's book-vending machine presents special problems. Adapted from a Post Office stamp-vending machine, it's slim, about 4 feet tall and painted a discreet green and cream that is overshadowed by garish chocolate machines nearby. And it can only display a single title at a time.

"You need to have three titles so people can make a choice," Mollett concedes. "I've never come across a vending machine that didn't give you a choice — unless it's selling stamps."

On South Kensington's busy platform, few commuters and tourists notice the machine displaying a purple pamphlet with a pink heart.

"I think the idea of short stories is a good one," said Linda Salmon, visiting London from Devon in southwest England. "But that heart doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. It makes it look like a condom machine."

Undaunted, Travelman has applied to install machines at 30 more sites on the Underground, and hopes to have 50 in place by year's end.


On the Net: Travelman: www.travelman.co.uk/