Here's how it works. In the shop, they have a computer on which there is a searchable database of (type) books. You choose one, and the Espresso Book Machine prints out a token for you on the spot. I asked for a copy of Royce’s The Religious Aspect of Philosophy. They downloaded a scan of the book from Google, printed it out, and then charged me $8 for the book. This is a bargain – it costs $40 from Amazon. The whole process took about ten minutes; the book was still warm as I walked out of the shop. It’s a paperback, and it looks and feels cheap, but it’s hard to complain given the price.
It seems to me that this is an exciting thing for people who do history of philosophy. Many old books – which are out of print and hard to get hold of – are actually in the public domain. From now on, it should be possible to get cheap copies of these books using an Espresso machine.
According to Wikipedia, each one of these machines costs at least $75,000 – so a bookshop will have to get a hell of a lot of use out of one before it even makes enough to pay off the initial investment. And as I say, the books that the machine makes are of rather a low quality. However, if the technology improves, or gets cheaper, it may make a big difference to the way we buy books. Perhaps bookshops in the future will have just a few tables of books at the front (for browsing), plus the inevitable coffee-shop, and then a big printer in the back rather than rows of shelves.