In 2013, Portlander Taylor Valdes set out on a mission to make vending machines fun. What started as a single machine at Beulahland has evolved into The Venderia, now found in several bars throughout Portland. Valdes thrifts, crafts and collaborates with artists to stock her vending machines with assorted off-the-wall items, ranging from vintage Troll Dolls and packs of tarot cards to paperback copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
“I try to make products that are interactive,” says Valdes. “It creates a weird experience that’s very tactile and in the present.”
Inspiration Behind Venderias
The Venderias were inspired by Valdes’ three-year stint in Daejeon, South Korea, where she came across vending machines that sold non-edible items like books. At the time, she was teaching English and saving money to open a laundromat in the United States. She liked the idea of having her shop feature a book vending machine. Back in Portland, Valdes bought a vending machine from a laundromat that was going out of business — then reassessed her business plan.
“I took it as a sign that the laundromat business wasn’t good,” she says. “Then I had to figure out what to do with the vending machine.”
What’s in a Venderia?
The first Venderia was stocked with mostly utilitarian items, such as tampons, condoms and rolling papers. But Valdes, who had once run a piñata business, had a vast collection of plastic animal figurines. She began handwriting individual fortunes to pair with them, and the Venderia’s best-selling item — now called the “Find Your Inner Animal” mystery bag — was born.
“I couldn’t keep the machines full,” says Valdes. “So I thought, ‘We need to add other mystery items.’”
Today, an oracle theme runs through several Venderia products. Customers can purchase “misfortune cookies” (Valdes writes the fortunes and the cookie-making company she works with inserts them), a “personal lucky number generator,” and Valdes’ handmade version of the grade-school “MASH” game.
Also popular are tarot packs created by The Dark Exact founder Coleman Stevenson, a Portland-based writer, artist and educator. Each pack includes a selection of beautifully illustrated tarot cards and instructions on how to give yourself a reading.
“People are drawn to [the tarot packs] because they are unexpected and fun, but also because people are often in search of advice,” says Stevenson. “They are hanging out at the bar alone in thought or with friends in conversation, seeking answers for life’s questions. A tarot reading spotted in the Venderia machine in that moment might be a welcome addition to their reflections.”
The Venderia machines consistently showcase the work of artists — some for one-time collaborations and others whose work becomes a fixture. Artist Matt Stanger paints the machines and makes coloring books for them (sold with crayons), while printmaker Erin Martinez provides “Bummerzines” — eight-page graphic books that Valdes says “break your heart in the most succinct and perfect way.”
If you like mixing politics with drinking beer (what could go wrong?), the Venderia offers stamped postcards pre-addressed to President Trump. (They’re left blank for your personal message.) Valdes says that while it’s hard not to be inspired by the news — in the fall of 2018, she stocked the machines with voter registration cards — her top priority is that the Venderia experience is fun. “They should be accessible,” she says. “They’re more a political statement about getting off your phone and interacting with a thing in person.”
It’s this interaction that makes the Venderia a welcome part of Portland bar culture. Sepal Meacham, owner of Paymaster Lounge and an early adopter of the machine, says, “It was right in line with the adult playground thing we’ve got going on.”
Valdes points to the element of surprise that comes with interaction. “People are like, ‘Oh my God, that was my favorite CD in eighth grade,’ or ‘Is that an eyeball?’ Their minds get blown more and more with every selection. And being drunk helps because you’re looking for cheap thrills.”
The future of Venderias
Valdes sells some of her products wholesale to other U.S. vending companies, and she hopes to expand the Venderia to more local venues. But she also has vending goals on a much larger scales: She plans to write a guidebook and start a YouTube channel on how to run your own creative vending business, encouraging others to tap into the unique possibilities of vending.
“A lot of traditional vendors could benefit from using some of my products,” says Valdes. “I’m not gonna be satisfied until every vending machine in the U.S. has playing cards in them.”
Visitors can find Venderia machines at 16 locations across Portland, including beloved North Portland dive bar the Florida Room and Southeast Portland nail salon Finger Bang. Find a full, up-to-date list of Venderia locations at vendingmagic.com. For even more uniquely-Portland vending fun, track down a Magic Box, another local vending machine series that sells “vintage items, art… weapons and other fun items for adults.”