Rusty and covered with stickers, they recall childhood dreams. Many of us had our first purchasing experiences with the bubble gum machine. Even now, 10 cents will buy a colorful, thumb-sized ball that turns into a sweet, sticky mess in the mouth. Plastic jewelry costs 20 cents; 30 or 50 cents can even buy an encapsulated toy. But as pleasing as it may be to gaze at a red-painted mechanical vendor and imagine nothing has changed, their heyday has long passed.
Thirty years ago, the machines still supplied their operators with valuable cash. “Today things are different,” says Paul Brühl, who heads the professional association of vending machine operators, Verband der Automaten-Fachaufsteller (VAFA), based in Langenfeld in the Rhineland. Mr. Brühl says vendors struggle to survive. “Many think, granddad sold bubble gum, father too – so I’ll do the same,” he says. But things have changed. Wholesalers have flooded the market with candy. To stay in the business, you must be creative and offer customers something new.
Lars Kaiser fills vending machines not with gumballs, but works of art. Starting at €2, or $2.16, his dispensers offer tiny images, objects, drawings, made of various materials. Each comes with an insert providing a brief insight into the life and work of its creator. “The aim is to bring people into contact with artists,” Mr. Kaiser says. “A vending machine on the corner offers the possibility of integrating art into daily urban living.”