Feeding every craving

August 25, 2005

PARISIANS WHO NEED the fix only a good book can give need never spend another sleepless night. Should they find themselves needing their own copy of Alice in Wonderland, The Odyssey, Les Fleurs du Mal or the ever-practical The Wok Cookbook, they simply slip over to one of five new book-vending machines in Metro stops or next to a bookstore that's so old-fashioned it's closed at night and on Sundays.

Evidently, marketers in the City of Light have determined that books-in-boxes are a profitable undertaking. And why not? Citoyens are also scooping up merchandise from mini-supermarket vending machines, which sell some 200 items including toilet paper, cat food and razors - even flowers.

That's nothing compared with Japan, of course, whose 24/7 culture and need to make use of every little bit of high-priced real estate have spawned a vending army. More than 5 million machines offer hot rice meals, cool beer, fresh eggs, e-books and software downloads.

Why are Americans so behind the curve on this, especially since we've had vending machines since 1888, when the first Tutti-Frutti gum dispensers were installed in New York railroad stations? Only now are mechanized sundry and grocery stores joining the usual sugar drinks and chips at BWI and other transit hubs. Blame the all-night corner convenience store.

But some merchants are finding niches. Kiosks that vend movie DVDs have popped up at McDonald's joints in Baltimore County and nationwide. That's one solution for those deeply in need of a dinner-and-a-movie fix.

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