Walk into a bookstore, order a title, and in less than 10 minutes you can have a freshly printed and bound copy.
You can imagine it in an episode of "The Jetsons," as one of that show's famous sight gags, or as the main prop if someone were to make a Willy Wonka movie for bookworms. Or maybe you can picture Jules Verne or H.G. Wells a century ago enthralling some Victorian-era audience of amateur futurists speculating on its arrival sometime in the distant 21st century.
Either way, the Espresso Book Machine, manufactured by the New York company On Demand Books, invites a sense of marvel. After all, how do you get your head around exactly what this thing can do?
The bizarre reality is you can now walk into a bookstore -- the closest to the Twin Cities is in Fargo, according to On Demand -- think of some hard-to-find book you'd like to own, or a book that in fact doesn't even exist, and in less than 10 minutes you can have that book in your hands, still warm from its printing.
The machine is designed to print a book -- largely indistinguishable from any book you'd find on a shelf -- from any of 8 million titles it has in its database. And, yes, amateur writers, it can also create a genuine book from that novel or memoir you've been sitting on for years.
"If you walk in and want a book," said Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, "and if we don't have it on the shelf, we'll print it out right there."
Simple as that.
Protti said the machine has three primary uses. First, it can print books unavailable otherwise. There are limits, however, to what it can create. Titles under copyright may or may not available, depending on the publisher; you'll still have to get "The Hunger Games" the old-fashioned way. But just about anything in the public domain is available.
Also, those interested in self-publishing can use the machine to create one copy of their magnum opus, or 100 copies. You can come in armed with a fully designed book on PDF on a thumb drive, or Bookshop will offer a number of services to help you design the book. A third use is for those who want to create special editions for limited audiences, such as a family history to give for the holidays, or a collection of essays for a teacher in the classroom.
Protti said the cost of a machine-printed book -- full-color cover but only black and white on the inside pages, in many different sizes and formats -- is comparable to a new trade paperback, depending on the number of pages. There is a $5 base price, plus 4.5 cents per page, with volume discounts.
If publishers were to allow more copyrighted titles to become available, the machine could represent the future of the bookselling business, as an alternative to Amazon and the other online retailers, which are currently posing an existential threat to bookstores. The machine could make inventory, what used to be a big retail advantage -- think of Portland's behemoth Powell's Books -- into a disadvantage. It's also the industry's answer to the growing popularity of e-books.
"Every conversation around the machine takes about an hour," said Protti. "People are fascinated and want to know how it works. And when you watch someone watching a book being made and it comes out, warm to the touch -- it just shows you that the book is not dead. The idea that people don't want physical books anymore is just ridiculous."