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Just inside the front door of the Grand Avenue Ale House sits a large, yellow vending machine. If you’re in the mood for a questionable plastic-wrapped sandwich or a run-of-the-mill candy bar, you’re out of luck. But if you’re looking for some art and adventure, you’ve found the right place. This machine has come to you by way of Pocket Box, a new endeavor owned and operated by Kari Graczyk and Chris Rapp, who intend to deliver a bit of fun and convenience to your favorite haunts.

The couple moved from Portland, Oregon, to Bellingham in April of 2021, and enjoy the similarities they’ve found between the two cities. “We’ve not been here very long, but we have friends that are from here so we’ve been visiting for a really long time,” says Kari. “We fell in love with this place a long time ago.”

While they lived in their former home, the discovery of similar vending machines planted an idea in Kari’s head. “When Kari first moved to Portland there were just a couple of places that had vending machines with weird, kitschy stuff in them,” says Chris. “Whether it be zines that some local artist had drawn up, VHS tapes, He-Man toys — just really random, cool, weird things.”

It didn’t take long for the unusual business with its unusual treats to make a lasting impression on Kari. “It kind of became my obsession,” she says. “They were in taverns and bars, and all sorts of different venues around town, and then as the years went by they were increasing. When friends from out of town would come into town, I would specifically take them to those places so we could check out the machines.”

Kari Graczyk caught the creative vending fever in Portland, and quit her job to follow her dream in Bellingham. Photo courtesy Pocket Box

After settling into life in Bellingham, it became clear that Kari had the creative vending bug. She soon quit her job and began the unusual search for a vending machine of her own. “There was a lot of staring at Facebook and Craigslist marketplaces, and phone calls to every vending company we could find,” she says. A friend found the first one the couple purchased. “We scrambled to figure out how to move an 800-pound machine and put it in our tiny storage unit.”

As COVID restrictions eased and businesses started to open up again, the couple made the rounds, and decided to focus on the Grand for their first placement. “Selling the brand is really hard when you can’t see it. People just hear vending machine and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we have a snack machine,’” Kari says. “Then we say, ‘That’s not what we’re thinking; we are an extraordinary vending machine company.’”

Chances are good that a mystery bag full of goodies from the ’90s will keep you and your friends entertained for an evening. Photo courtesy Pocket Box

The couple describe the stock in the machine at the Grand as a mix of convenience items, nostalgia, and mystery. “You can find a lighter in there, gum, Tums, chapstick,” says Kari. But some of the convenience items might seem a little less obvious. “You can find condoms and pregnancy tests. We keep selling out of pregnancy tests, but we haven’t sold a single condom. We thought of it as kind of a joke, and then we walk in and they’re just gone.”

And from there, things just get weirder. “Right now, we have a lot of books that sell really well, which is great,” Kari says, “and then there are mystery bags of ’90s nostalgia and mystery socks.”

Chris Rapp shows off the “capsule machine” that has been known to make appearances at public events around town. Photo courtesy Pocket Box

Not only are the bags of 1990s memorabilia a good seller, but they also helped convince the owner of the Grand to host the first Pocket Box. “The idea behind the mystery bags is that when you get something out of the machine, you go back to your table and sit down with your friends and bust it open,” says Chris. “You put everything out on the table and play around, have some fun. Everybody has something to talk about and something to do that’s a little more interactive, instead of falling back into looking down at our phones. If we can get people to read a book or have a conversation with somebody about a silly little toy that we put into a bag that’s a win for all of us.”

In addition to useful items and fun distractions, Pocket Box is also working toward adding artwork to their offerings. “Kari has worked to get a group of artists into the machines, and their friends and fellow artists have really helped support us a lot,” Chris says. “That’s another aspect that business owners are interested in, because we’re doing this for arts in the community, too.”

Pup Pocket is credited with being the inspiration behind Rapp and Graczyk’s shenanigans, so they named their business after him. Photo courtesy Pocket Box

As Pocket Box offer more goods in more places, Kari and Chris are mindful of the opportunity to continue surprising clientele with new items tailored to each location. “We have three refurbished machines sitting in our workshop and have a location for our next machines: in Black Sheep on Holly Street, and in Rumors on Railroad,” says Chris. “Once we get into other locations, then you could see a completely different variety of artists and fun stuff in the machine. It won’t be the same in every spot.”

They hope to have all three machines placed before the year is over, as well as a website allowing them to communicate with artists more easily, since any art needs to be a certain size and a certain weight, as well as in a certain kind of packaging. “Right now we’re encouraging people to message us on Instagram or Facebook, or by email,” Kari says, “because soon we’ll have other machines set up.”

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