The old switcheroo: Retro-style vending machine trades trash for treasure

The old switcheroo: Retro-style vending machine trades trash for treasure
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

There’s take penny, leave a penny — and now there’s take an Aladdin DVD, leave some Band-Aids.

A Prospect Heights ice cream parlor is revolutionizing the act of barter with the Swap-O-Matic, a vending machine styled like a 1950s automat that lets patrons trade their trash for treasures (or, depending on your taste, more trash).

The machine, which operates at Ample Hills Creamery on Vanderbilt Street, is meant to comment on consumerism, but it has come to address recession-era economics, according to the machine’s inventor, Lina Fenequito.

“It’s more about American consumption than it is about saving money, but it’s kind of apropos for the moment,” said Fenequito, who designed the Swap-O-Matic as part of her thesis as a technology student at Parsons School of Design in 2005.

“We Americans have a lot of stuff,” she said. “We consume a lot and we waste a lot and I thought this idea was a fun way to comment on and combat overconsumption in our culture.”

The contraption has 13 glass compartments that would-be swappers can fill with items they want to give away. Each time they hand over an item — whether it’s a pair of nearly new pair of Adidas sneakers or a yo-yo — they earn one credit that can be used to claim items from the Swap-O-Matic’s other cubbies.

First-time users are given three credits to start, all managed by a small monitor on the “Swap-O-Matic,” which uses email addresses to keep track of people’s swapping accounts.

The machine’s sleek, retro look is an homage to the futuristic ideals of the fifties, said Fenequito, who has been perfecting the design over the past six years.

Like any swap meet worth its musty records, the Swap-O-Matic features occasional duds, such as the plastic spoon available in one cubbie on a recent visit. But for the most part, the machine’s items are at least as good as the free stuff Brooklynites leave up for grabs on their stoops.

“I haven’t actually used it myself,” admitted Fenequito, who lives in Park Slope but said Ample Hills was an ideal home for the piece because of its community feel. “Every time I go there, I see something exciting and I want to save it for somebody else!”

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

Ample Hills employee Caroline Glass shows off the ice cream shop’s one-of-a-kind “Swap-O-Matic” machine.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham