I’ve had a long-held interest in Penguin’s infamous Penguincubator, and bookshops more generally, and saw an opportunity to combine both for a couple of conference papers this year. And then – on the 24th March, my inbox and social media feeds started to light up. A new Penguin books vending machine had been installed at Exeter railway station, and people were extremely excited. And I mean, extremely excited. Suddenly, I was trying to process all the pictures being posted, comments logged, and articles written: I wanted to use the research to highlight some of the challenges of pursuing bookselling histories, but I hadn’t anticipated this would become such a timely tie-in with what Penguin were doing.
So, what follows is an attempt to show how Penguin has been a continually innovative seller of its books since its arrival in the 1930s; it is also an exploration of why people might feel the sort of intense reaction to this new vending machine it has evoked, in a time when we are so immersed in digital technology that such an object should, more logically, land without much notice, or, if with anything at all, some indulgent eye-rolling. To do so, I will use the work of Jessica Pressman to help analyse our attachment to bookish things – in this case, specifically, the new incarnation of the Penguin book vending machine, and in a wider sense, the Penguin brand.
In July 1937, still only a couple of years since the launch of Penguin books by Allen Lane, a Penguin Books coin-in-the-slot bookselling machine was situated outside of Collet’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Sixpence would get you a Penguin paperback, and it was such an innovation in bookselling in this country that it made the front page of The Bookseller.
Image Description: A black-and-white picture shows a man pulling a book from a vending machine. The caption reads: Automatic Bookselling — The first coin-in-the-slot bookselling machine to be seen in London is now working outside Collet’s bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The purchaser in this picture is Mr. Allen Lane. (From The Bookseller, July 21st, 1937, Front page)
(It’s worth noting, however, that other kinds of book vending machines had already been tried in countries like Germany, where over 2000 of the Reclam-Bucher versions existed between 1912 and the 1930s: Reclam was a brand of similar standing there to Penguin in the UK, so this is most likely where Lane got his idea from.)
An article in The Times, under a headline of “The Battle of the Books: New Selling for New Readers” hails the arrival of what it calls “an unfamiliar contraption of metal and glass” as a clear sign that “the cheap book . . . seems well on its way to being regarded as a staple commodity of home life.” In 1938, Margaret Cole commented in The Listener that Penguins were doing so well because the books themselves were “produced in such a way as both to be easy to handle and to look nice” – calling them “the milk bars of the publishing world”. She emphasises their price – the same as a packet of cigarettes – and notes that Penguins “can already be bought from slot machines”, underlining their accessibility.
Indeed, the idea of the Penguin book vending machine seemed perfectly placed to bring books to the masses: Allen Lane knew that this was a real challenge for the book trade, and that a fear of bookshops was exactly why his Penguins were going to reach readers: Penguins might have never have taken off at all, as is widely known, had Woolworth’s not put in an order for 63500 copies of the first ten titles. Getting Penguins into the hands of readers had, therefore, right from the very beginning of the brand’s history, been about utilising outlets which Lane saw as more accessible than bookshops:
The great majority of the public, which must include many potential bookbuyers, are scared of walking through our doors [ie those of bookshops]. . . They feel at home in a tuppeny library or at Woolworths, where they get the same amount of attention if they spend 5s or if they go out with nothing at all; but the idea of braving an empty bookshop with two or three assistants lying in wait behind the shelves is too much for them. Penguin books are designed primarily to reach these people, where they congregate on railway stations and in chain stores, with the hope that when they see these books are available in the regular bookshops, they will overcome their temerity and come in.
Woolworths and stations might have been successful vehicles for the selling of Penguins, but the book selling machine was not. John Prime, who ran Collet’s bookshops from the early 1950s to early 1960s, recounts that
it had to be wheeled out and locked at the front of the shop every night, then brought in every morning. And every morning, apparently, there were letters of complaint shoved under the door: ‘We put a shilling in this machine and no book came out of it.’ It was a complete failure.
This may explain why, at least to date, I can find very little mention of the machine after this initial news coverage. There was, however, this gem the following week under the heading of “The Robot Bookseller”:
It seems that Collet’s machine acted in far too open-handed a manner in the first day or two. According to one report, you only had to bang enough for a cascade of Penguins to tumble out one after another. A neighbour of Collet’s did so bang it and received about a third of its contents. He exhibited his reward for great strength to the manager . . .who (naturally enough, we think) gave his incontinent robot a terrific thrashing. As a result of this all the rest of the Penguins promptly fell out. 
In a later piece, in 1947, tying in with the appearance of another book vending machine in the United States, and a letter from a subscriber predicting this “constitutes the end of bookselling” The Bookseller reminds their readers of the Penguin version, and notes that only two of these had actually been made (the second one was in Bristol). But, it says, there had been intentions “to set up new machines, in the shape of glittering chromium-plated penguins, in 1939, and the first of them were completed just before war was declared.” However, the article concludes, “they have not so far been put into use.” So far, sadly, I have not been able to find out any more about these machines, but will keep pursuing them!
So, a machine which either dispensed no books at all, or more than it should, was obviously not an object which had a long future ahead of it; what it does illustrate, however, was the innovative spirit of Lane, who is described by J. M Morpurgo as “always most contented when pioneering and most restless when novelty became routine.” His drive to connect more to the readers resulted in the inclusion of pre-paid business reply cards in books so that they could sign up to a mailing list – by August 1937 the list had 60,000 names on it. Not only this, but as booksellers (and it didn’t take them long!) figured out the advantages of stocking Penguins, Lane began to woo them by sending advance notices of new titles and promotional materials to use in their shops. Both these initiatives may seem far from radical to us today, but back in the 1930s, almost no other publisher was putting effort like this into marketing their titles beyond the trade press.
Penguin has continued to experiment with different ways to sell directly to its readers – across the world, pop-up shops, book carts, and book trucks have appeared in the past decade or so, and in Australia, last year, a collaboration between Penguin and a design studio resulted in a Penguin-shaped bookshelf, which is proving to be a huge hit with readers – and a very social media-friendly asset, as you can see from these three images pulled from Instagram:
Image description: Three photos of a bookshelf shaped like the penguin logo of Penguin Publishers. In one of the photos the penguin is wearing a sun hat. https://www.id8studio.com/penguin-book-display/
I wanted to link this last bookselling aid to the final (and most recent) Penguin bookselling innovation, because this shelf is, in effect, close to the idea of the Penguin book vending machine, curating and containing selected Penguin titles, which also takes us back to where we started, with the 1937 Penguincubator. Despite decades of technological change since that made its appearance, this bookshelf proves that the Penguin brand operates happily in a wide range of contexts, because there is something essentially ‘bookish’ associated with it. It’s a democratising device, that Penguin. “Flippant but dignified” is the phrase used by the company who designed the shelves: the Penguin brand transcends authors and titles, and enables a reader to feel comfortably “bookish” just by standing next to a shelf made in the image of the logo. In today’s social media-obsessed age, this kind of brand power is priceless.
Jessica Pressman’s work on “bookishness” explores this: “bookishness”, she says, describes “creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital culture, in modes that may be sentimental, fetishistic, radical.” It is also a particularly twenty-first century phenomenon, but, I’d argue, there are early anticipations of it in things like the Penguincubator (sentimental, and radical, certainly!)
So, there I was, back in March, researching some of these other Penguin bookselling endeavours, when friends and colleagues sent texts, tweets, and emails asking me if I’d seen the new Penguin Vending Machine at Exeter Railway Station. Launched via Penguin’s social media accounts to the world on March 24th, the official launch happened on April 21st. With speeches from Claire and Michael Morpurgo, daughter and son-in-law of Allen Lane. And a ribbon cutting. And a huge Penguin themed cake.
Image description: a photo of several people at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a Penguin Books display in front of a Starbucks.
Image description: A couple dressed in winter gear poses for a photo in front of a book-shaped cake with the Penguin logo. Sources of photographs: https://www.exetercityofliterature.com/current-projects/penguin-books-vending-machine
Press coverage of the collaboration between Exeter City of Literature, Penguin, and Great Western Railway was wide, not just in local news (print and tv) but in national outlets like The Guardian. As of 20 June, Penguin Books’ Twitter post had received 3.3million views, 28.2k likes, and 598 comments! Fetishisation? It’s a vending machine. It looks like any other food or drink vending machine (and indeed, Graddon’s, the company who made it, are primarily a food and drink based vending machine operation). The difference – the Penguin branding.
The comments flooding social media give ample evidence of people’s excitement over this machine, too. There are frequent suggestions for other places these would be appreciated (hospitals, airports, schools) and a whole thread of bookish angst about the possibility of damage to the books. Above all other kind of comment, however, are those coveting a similar machine somewhere close to them, or simply showering the idea with love. Arguably this is both sentimental AND fetishistic: Pressman explains that “fetish is about animating the inanimate by projecting human desire onto the nonhuman,” and that is certainly what is going on here. It’s also about connecting – connecting other people with the news, as friends and colleagues did for me, noted earlier, and as the evidence from social media in terms of tagging and sharing the posts from Penguin and from other users who had seen the book machine shows.
Penguin were quick to capitalise on this rush of affection and interest: a competition was launched in March so that people could nominate a second station they’d like to see a book machine appear at. I can’t see any results posted as of June 20th, though – so watch this space!
All of these different ways of getting Penguin books into readers’ hands shows the brand’s power – as a publishing company, beyond what any other publisher has accomplished in establishing itself and its flippant but dignified logo as a universally accessible bookish device. As this paper proves, people enjoy being associated with all things Penguin. As Pressman says,
in the end, loving books is about attachment. . . In our neoliberal times, in which digital corporations invade our private space and reading time, claiming a bookish identity can constitute an act of rebellion, self-construction, and hope. . .
It is ironic (and hopeful) then, that 86 years after the Penguincubator appeared in this country, Penguin should return to this idea again, using the newer digital technologies to make the book vending machine more efficient than its older sibling, but essentially recognising that “we need to walk down that platform with Allen Lane again, take a long look at where and how people are reading, and help them to find a good book.” James Bridle wrote that in 2010, along with his judgement of the Penguincubator that it brought together several of Lane’s ambitions: “affordable books, non-traditional distribution, awareness of context, and a quiet radicalism.” Clare Morpurgo, in her speech at the official launch of the new Penguin vending machine, drew comparisons to larger, political world events, saying:
There could be no better place than Exeter St Davids station to reflect how Penguin Books emerged in a dark time. What is so striking, from our perspective, about people like Allen Lane who made it happen, is how firm was his belief in the future, his trust in the power of literary imagination, in-spite of everything. Authoritarianism threatens Europe again as it did then. We have darkness enough of our own. But the installation of the book vending machine at Exeter St Davids is a sign that the belief in the future, and trust in human reason, which inspired Allen Lane, is still alive.
The bookishness of Penguin’s brand impact demonstrates what theorist Sara Ahmed calls “stickiness”, a powerful but ambiguous affective force that draws us to objects and the hidden ‘histories of contact’ they possess. The Penguin Book Vending Machine, and the strong emotional responses it has already evoked, proves this: this relatively modest object, reincarnated eighty-six years after the original, is more than just, if the pun can be excused, a novel idea.
 The Times, Sept 28th, 1937, p. 15.
 Margaret Cole, ‘Books for the Multitude II’, The Listener, vol. 18, no. 468, 29 Dec. 1937, pp. 1436+.
The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GM2500078353/LSNR?
u=ucl_ttda&sid=bookmark-LSNR. Accessed 5 May 2023.
 Allen Lane, The Bookseller, 22nd May 1935.
 John Prime, in The British Book Trade: An Oral History, ed. by Sue Bradley (British Library, 2008) p. 153.
 The Bookseller, July 28th 1937, p. 112.
 The Bookseller, December 13th 1947, front page.
 J. M. Morpurgo, Allen Lane: King Penguin (London: Hutchinson, 1979) p. 128.
 Fifty Penguin Years, pp.23-24.
 Jessica Pressman, Bookishness (University of Colombia Press, 2020) p.1.
 Pressman, p.63.
 Pressman, p. 24.
 James Bridle, ‘What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness’, Publishing Perspectives, April 2010. https://publishingperspectives.com/2010/04/what-publishers-today-can-learn-from-allen-lane-fearlessness/
 From Pressman, p. 156.