But a sense of whimsy is as important as the essentials, says Nick Schieber, one of the three partners who’ve revitalized Brightwood landmark Jackie Lee’s, which has had its own vending machine since Day One. “I always liked buying things from vending machines as a kid, and I think that when we as adults get a couple drinks in us, sometimes our inner child has a tendency to come out,” he says. “Something about pushing buttons and watching the spiral turn and your candy bar or switchblade comb or whatever drop out is really satisfying.”
The stock in each vending machine is as varied as its location, but there are always items that make you look twice. Here are the stories behind some of our favorites.
What you’re buying: Original art, $5.
In 1997, North Carolina artist Clark Whittington filled an old cigarette machine with black-and-white photos mounted on wooden blocks the size of a cigarette box. Customers dropped a buck in the machine as usual, but when they pulled a knob, they received an original piece of art. There are now more than 100 of these Art-o-mat machines from coast-to-coast, including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But the biggest local supporter of the Art-o-mat movement is District Taco, which has machines at eight of its locations in the Washington area. They contain a wide variety of art: woodblocks, watercolors, dolls and wearable fabric hair flowers, all for a flat price of $5. You don’t see the actual item until you pull it from the space at the bottom, but if you don’t like the color or design, well, another one is only $5.
Jackie Lee’s, 116 Kennedy St. NW.
What you’re buying: Paraid Pregnancy Test, $10. Or maybe just a koozie ($1).
The well-stocked machine at this Brightwood hangout, located between the bar and the bathrooms, has the snacks customers crave, such as Cheez-Its and Takis Fuego, but adds five-packs of dice ($1), which come in handy for deciding who’s buying the next round, and Jackie Lee’s logo koozies ($1), an essential accessory in a bar where most beers come in cans.
Stocked in the machine’s A1 slot is its most controversial item: pregnancy tests ($10). “It’s a novelty, but sometimes it’s not,” Schieber says. “We have probably only sold two or three of them. They get a lot of laughs. From a practical standpoint, someone might be embarrassed to purchase one at a store. The vending machine provides anonymity.”
Maketto, 1351 H St. NE.
What you’re buying: One of everything, maybe, from Kidrobot vinyl figures ($10) to Korean aloe face masks ($2).
Most vending machines primarily stock items you need now, like snacks or painkillers. The one at Maketto, on the other hand, is a shopping destination in its own right. You might visit because you want to pick up a boxed “Bob’s Burgers” three-inch vinyl figure by Kidrobot ($10); Furrybones toys ($10); Panasonic earbuds ($15); or Hello Kitty merchandise ($5-$10). Impulse purchases? For less than $6, there are manga stickers and magnets; panda toothpicks; Japanese Mnemosyne notebooks and Uni-Ball pens; and Korean aloe face masks. Everything is affordable enough to be a small treat for yourself, or a gift for a friend or co-worker. Once you visit, you’ll never be able to drop into Maketto’s impressive happy hour without wanting to pop out to the vending machine, located on the back deck, and see if something catches your eye.
Galyen, of Guerilla Vending, says that the machine is restocked every week or every other week and that new items are added seasonally. His favorite long-gone treasure: Maneki-neko statues hand-painted by local artist Kelly Towles.
Midlands Beer Garden, 3333 Georgia Ave. NW.
What you’re buying: HotHands Hand Warmers ($1) and/or a box of 24 birthday candles ($1.50).
When the Midlands opened, its vending machine was stocked by an outside company. But a year and a half ago, explains co-owner Trent Allen, “we made the decision to purchase our own and stock it ourselves, so we could have more freedom and fun in what options we gave our customers.” This has meant the growth of options beyond crab-seasoned chips and candy bars, though those are still available. The best-selling non-snacks are cellphone chargers and tampons, but more intriguing options include hand warmers ($1), perfect for fighting the chill on the all-weather patio, and boxes of two-dozen birthday candles ($1.50). “We have a lot of birthday celebrations at the Midlands, and we get asked a lot if we have birthday candles,” Allen says. “It seems to be the most forgotten item when celebrating a birthday.”
Because the patio welcomes four-legged guests, there are also dog treats in the machine, “which is one of our favorite items, and one we get the most joy out of,” Allen says.
The Pug, 1234 H St. NE.
What you’re buying: DIY Tarot reading, $5.
Hidden among the vegan pork rinds and energy drinks in the Pug’s vending machine is a guide to your future. Well, maybe. A slim envelope holds three modern, minimalist tarot cards from the Dark Exact, an artsy deck created by Portland, Ore., designer Coleman Stevenson. She began making these cards by hand several years ago and has sent hundreds of packages to vending machines across the country. “When you encounter the tarot in this very innocuous way, in a vending machine in a bar, I think it helps it feel more accessible,” says Stevenson, who’s a reader as well as a card designer. The tarot buyer has to shuffle the cards face down and perform their own reading, guided by a small instruction manual, though there’s nothing wrong with texting a woo-informed friend and asking, “Is the Tower in my future bad?”
Stevenson says she receives messages on Instagram from “the folks who are having an awesome time at the bar and just wanted the reading for a laugh, and those people who never interacted with tarot before, but had a really profound experience and got the information that they really needed to hear.” Pug regulars probably won’t go back for tarot cards as often as salty snacks — a necessity, since the bar doesn’t serve food — but it’s a fun way to fill a slow evening over a few drinks.