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August 28th, 2013 RICHARD GRUNERT | Culture Features
 

Automatic for the People

Portland has vending machines with Neil Young singles, guitar strings, pregnancy tests and lap-dance coupons.

cultfeat_3943PHOTOS: Bethlayne Hansen
Smitty’s Vending is where vending machines go when they die. At this metal graveyard on busy Southeast Main Street, Pepsi logos fade gently on a bed of broken glass behind barbed wire and a locked fence. The machines do get fixed and sold, but Smitty’s repairs only go so far. Most people, the technicians say, just want a machine for dispensing beer in their basement. There are those, however, who have taken things a little further. Whether filled with 7-inch records or tickets for free lap dances, these machines have been truly reborn, and make the ones at Smitty’s look like little more than shambling zombies.


Venderia

In a machine tucked deep in the back corner of broken-in cafe and bar Beulahland (118 NE 28th Ave., 235-2794, beulahlandpdx.com), you will find your spirit animal. (Mine was a shark.) Venderia is the brainchild of Taylor Valdes, a bartender at Lucky Labrador and occasional licensed tax preparer, who says she “initially set out to build a strange laundromat, but when my dreams came crashing down I had to do something with the machine I bought.” Valdes picked Beulahland as the location for her vending machine because it was “funky.” Venderia sells out its stock of 7-inch Neil Young singles, pregnancy tests and H.G. Wells paperbacks so quickly that Valdes has to restock the machine three times a week. Strangest of all are the spirit animals, which are a bit like a $2 fortune cookie you can’t eat; they fulfill Valdes’ lifelong dream of selling small, plastic creatures. But she sometimes worries about how people will react. “Some of [the fortunes] are quite mean,” she says. “They don’t always suit the person.”


Flintstones Egg Machine

It may not be from the Stone Age, but the Flintstones-themed vending machine at heavy-metal hut Tonic Lounge (3100 NE Sandy Blvd., 238-0543) sure feels like an artifact from another time. Jedediah Aaker, a bartender at Tonic and Portlandia regular, restored a machine from the 1980s and filled it with some truly strange plastic eggs. You never know what’s inside the egg; each one emerges from its slot with a loud “Yabba dabba doo!” from a spinning Fred. Aaker stocks the eggs with whatever he likes, from cheap jewelry and fortune-telling fish to coupons for free lap dances from local strip clubs Lucky Devil and Union Jack’s. The machine was broken when Aaker bought it, and he learned how to fix it through trial and error. “I find ’em on eBay, Craigslist and shit, from all over the country,” he says. He’s got three other machines—at the Wurst bar, the Matador and My Father’s Place—and two of them substitute mannequin heads for Fred. Creepy.


Mr. Vacuum Cigarette Machine

Possibly the most novel way to get your smokes in town is at Tanker Bar (4825 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 445-4635, tankerbar.com), a laid-back dive with soccer on TV and plastic arcade shotguns on the walls. One day, owner Philip Ragaway decided it was time for something new. “Well, we wanted to have a cig vending machine, but didn’t want a big ’80s monster in the room.” It’s a bit like one of those claw machines you used to play with as a kid, except it costs $6 a game and might give you cancer. Instead of a mechanical arm, the Tanker’s machine uses a suction system that was originally designed to dispense iPod accessories. Thankfully, it’s play-till-you-win, so there’s no chance of coming away empty-handed, although you might end up with the wrong brand of cigarettes. “If I could, I’d put PBR in it,” Ragaway says. “But that might cause some problems.”


Goldy Box

Not all the cool vending machines are 21-and-over. Alex DeSpain’s Goldy Box is in the lobby of Portland State University’s art building. DeSpain, a PSU graphic arts student, found a broken vending machine lying in the hall and decided to take it home and repair it. After fixing all the locks, he got it spray-painted metallic gold and filled it with everything an art student could want: blank journals, art supplies and sometimes even condoms. The Goldy Box’s fixed price of $1 per item makes it tough to turn a profit, however. “I guess I’m just sort of rolling with it,” DeSpain says. He hopes to find another student worthy of being the Goldy Box’s steward, and will pass the key to a new generation when he graduates.


Music Accessories Vending Machine

This vending machine may be at Slabtown (1033 NW 16th Ave., 971-229-1455, slabtownbar.net), but the true mind behind it is Jason Snell, co-owner of Centaur Guitar (2833 NE Sandy Blvd., 236-8711, centaurguitar.com). Three years ago, while on tour with his band in Japan, Snell was inspired by that country’s vending-machine culture. “Tokyo has vending machines for everything,” he says. If a machine could hold liquor, condoms and sex pillows, why not guitar strings? When he got home, he contacted the owners of Slabtown, who liked the idea. Now bands from all over Portland know and use the machine when they need to replace something. It’s got more than just strings. You’ll find drumsticks, picks and even pingpong balls from time to time. 

 
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