|Dana Clarke designed the Green Reads used-book vending machine to meet two key criteria: it must have a donation box and it must be 100 per cent mechanical. Photo courtesy Dana Clarke, Green Reads Incorporated
The Barrie, Ont., entrepreneur is rolling out a sustainable used-book vending machine through her company Green Reads Incorporated that allows readers to get a second-hand book for $2, and, if they wish, donate a book for the next reader.
As someone who commuted to Toronto for 12 years, and as a mother of two who spent plenty of time waiting in hospitals, she knows what it’s like to be bookless.
“I’ve always been into books and this was solving a problem. When I needed a book was generally when things were closed or where I was in a place that didn’t have any.”
Books have a high carbon footprint and they are hard to get rid of, she says. A lot of used bookstores will take only the most recent formats; for example, they will take only the paperback version if that’s the most recent.
“You end up having a lot of books you can’t get rid of.”
It became a matter of keeping things green and of saving her own house, which is always chock full of books, she says with a laugh.
In January 2012, Clarke set out to find a vending machine that met two non-negotiable criteria: it must have a donation box and it must be 100 per cent mechanical.
“Initially, I was intending to buy vending machines and operate them at the GO stations, but I quickly found out that the kind I wanted just weren’t out there.”
So she did what any enterprising person would do: she designed a machine herself. After creating drawings, Clarke, who had previously worked in new product development, sought a company to make a prototype.
SlimLine Vending International of Abbotsford, B.C., a company that has built custom machines for medical companies and for tobacco products internationally, took on the project. “They were willing to play with me on this one,” she says.
Paramount Components, also of Abbotsford, was hired to custom-build and stamp most of the machines’ parts.
She designed the machines, which require no electricity, to be managed locally. They can be placed inside or outside and adapted to fit a wide range of adult book sizes –from paperbacks to hardcovers (no children’s books yet). What’s more, they meet Canadian and U.S. accessibility design standards.
The apple-green machines will hold 150 to 200 books and accept donated books.
“We’ve integrated the donation box,” she says. “Buy a book, leave a book.” Users drop a book through a book slot and it goes into a donation box in the bottom of the machine.
Green Reads finished testing the prototype in April at the Barrie bus station to ensure the machine functioned outside without damaging the books or the machine itself.
“We did have to make a number of changes to improve the function and hardiness of the machine – it was a fantastic winter for testing an exterior machine, if nothing else!” says Clarke. “We improved the dispensing shelf mechanisms, reducing friction and changing all connections from adhesives to hardware. We improved the waterproofing of the donation box, coin mechanism and dispensing slot. We increased the capacity of each shelf and improved the shelf-dispensing hardware to a hardier material.”
Two machines will launch in September as a pilot project at both Barrie GO Transit stations. One hundred per cent of the revenue generated will benefit the Barrie Public Library.
As a partner in Green Reads’ testing, Newmarket Public Library also will test a machine in the town’s River Walk park.
Libraries are a huge resource for the public, but their funding has steadily dropped, says Clarke. She offers machines to libraries at a discount.
“My focus is on giving libraries a revenue stream and allowing them to extend their reach beyond their library walls into places in the community. I’d love to see them throughout the Toronto subway system with the Toronto Public Library branches,” she says. She is working with GO Transit, with a goal of rolling out to all stations in a year if the September pilot is successful.
Here’s how the model works: Companies and organizations buy the machines outright, maintain their inventories and keep the profits.
Machines can be used inside or outside, “They are completely mechanical, so they don’t require electricity, plug-ins, hook-ups or anything.”
Libraries are concerned about the machine’s operating costs and curious about sales figures, she says. That’s why she’s doing the testing. Quite a few libraries have vending machines as lending tools. Green Reads is different because it’s not just an operational cost, but is also a revenue stream, she adds.
Clarke put up the money for the venture herself, so she could not afford traditional marketing. Ever inventive, she used an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to gain visibility. “Ed Begley tweeted the campaign, which I thought was cool, since he’s a big eco guy,” she says. Green Reads gave all the money raised for the Newmarket machine to the town as a discount.
The price for retail companies is $5,000, and the price for non-profits is $4,500.
Giving back is important to Clarke, who is committed to operating the business responsibly. “If a machine is sold to a retail, I donate 10 per cent to a literacy charity; if it’s sold to a non-profit, I give them that 10 per cent instead of me choosing a charity.”
Green Reads is working with Project Ashia, an organization that builds schools and literacy centres in Cameroon. The business also is a member of 1% for the Planet, she says, so one per cent of sales is donated to Tree Canada in recognition of the resource that is used the most for books.
“We’re committed to reducing our costs rather than increasing the sale price so that it stays in the realm of affordability for the people who need it,” she says. This also promotes impulse buying, and makes community centres, transit stations, airports and hospitals viable locations – places where people have time and need something quiet to do.
What is her target market? Readers, of course, and also people who commute. “The people who are doing that are usually eco-friendly already. They have made choices that way, so it’s a good blend of markets,” she says.
Eventually, Clarke hopes to take her venture beyond Canada’s borders. She is working with SlimLine and Paramount on a U.S. model. Together they have built machines with different payment method options. Payment acceptors require electricity, she says, so they are considering solar power. “It’s easily expandable and we are already working on versions for the U.S. and Australian markets that we’ve had interest from.”
The machines are easily adaptable for any currency where $2 would be an appropriate amount, she adds. “If they have the coinage, we can do it easily. Counting requires electricity. You can switch out the mechanism so that it works for any size of coin, as long as it’s a single coin. The concept of the coin keeps it simple and keeps it green.”
Early indications are the concept is working. The bibliophilic entrepreneur, whose favourite reads include books by Rowling, Tolkein and other British authors, says “the original books from the machines are being recycled.”