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Quirky vending machines rebound in Portland after COVID closures, expand to Astoria, Las Vegas

Now that many restaurants and bars are back open, an unusual collection of vending machines are again accessible to adventurous groups in Oregon and Nevada.

PORTLAND, Ore. — An unconventional vending machine business in Portland is picking back up after a rough year and a half through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cari Carter started selling art, humorous gifts, and novelty items through vending machines about seven years ago. She now operates Magic Box PDX full time, with 13 vending machines placed at local businesses around Portland.

"I sell fun," Carter said. "I like tchotchkes. simple weird things that just make me smile and laugh." 

From earrings that look like cassette tapes and kitchen knives to vintage magazines, old books, crystal growing kits, and kitty cat underpants, the collection is eclectic and different every time.

Businesses that house these machines are primarily restaurants and bars. When they closed during various COVID shutdowns, Carter's business halted, too.

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However now, Carter has expanded the business to include a vending machine in Astoria. Soon, a total of four will also be operational in Las Vegas.

"Mystery bags" are another big-selling item in the machines.

"A magician never reveals her secrets," Carter grinned.

Although Carter doesn't like to spoil the surprise, she said the small packages are all unique. She said the mystery items can be good conversation starters among groups of friends, family and couples.

"That sense of exploration is there," Carter said. "100% an icebreaker."

Carter's vending machine business works in collaboration with host businesses. Carter also commissions local artists to design the creative vending machine exteriors and some of the fun prizes inside.

She's always looking for artists who can mass-produce their work and sell within the vending price point of $2-$20.

"I have an artist that makes Dolly Parton pins, and I've ordered probably a thousand from her," Carter explained. "Dolly is America's sweetheart, everybody wants to wear a Dolly pin!"

The machines take cash and card.

All Magic Box locations in Oregon and Nevada are listed online.

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