Melbourne’s Ghost Bookshop

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I’d buy a book from that guy. He has a santa/willy wonka vibe going [image via Spencer Shier]

I don’t know if this’ll make a lot of sense but cause I’ve lived in my fair share of rentals, sometimes I start imagining what I’ve looked  like from each of my former houses/flats’ perspectives [and ditto what my current abode thinks of me].

If walls were somehow sentient and could talk, do you think they’d have secret opinions and preferences on all the people who’ve called them home in their lives? Would every share-house remember all the various ways their rooms have been decorated over the years? And like an all-seeing, wise, grandma willow presence – could they give you a definitive and impartial answer to who out of the group, in their humble opinion, is the hardest to live with? 

With older buildings in the city too, occasionally I’ll walk past them and think about their stories and wonder whether there was an era, or identity or business that was their favourite. And whether they’d be pro or anti having a little graffiti on their bones?

Melbourne has so many beautiful older buildings and little traces of its past scattered and hidden in plain sight if you look closely; and since the CBD is currently so quiet it’s  almost a ghost-town, I figure let’s talk about a 137 year old ghost bookshop that I think about every time I pass the glass roof on Howey Place (I mean ghost bookshop as in it doesn’t exist anymore, I’m not talking about an existing bookshop that exclusively sells ghost-themed wares).

From 1883 – 1929, a bookshop two blocks in length, called Cole’s Book Arcade, stood on (what is now) 299 Bourke Street, and it’s founder, Edward William Cole, installed that glass roof illegally when he extended the bookshop to Little Collins Street in 1896. 

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Popularly described as a ‘palace to the intellect’ , in its heyday Cole’s Book Arcade was one of the largest bookshops in the world, with supposedly ‘two million books’ on it’s shelves.

Walking through the rainbow sign archway on the Collins Street entrance; the staff all wore scarlet jackets, and the ground floor had over a hundred chairs with signs everywhere reading, ‘Read for as Long as you Like – Nobody Asked to Buy’ [they did have a massive theft problem though bless them. But this didn’t phase Cole who was quoted as saying: ‘at least the thieves will be reading!’]

Cole’s Book Arcade also boasted the following features:

Basically it sounds so cool that I can’t believe it ever existed (sort of like a less lame Mr Magorium’s Emporium). So who was the eccentric shy-guy behind Cole’s Book Arcade?

Originally from Kent and the eldest of ten, Edward William Cole (1832 – 1918), was the son of a labourer who died when Edward was a baby. At twenty, after living rough in London and South Africa he emigrated to Ballarat during the Gold Rush where he started his first business – a lemonade stand called ‘Cole’s Cordials’ which had a frying pan for its sign.

Eventually, after then working as an itinerant photographer on the Murray, Cole moved to Melbourne where he was able to save enough money to utilise Melbourne’s public libraries for two years and make up for the education he missed out on.

Before opening Cole’s Book Arcade in 1883, Cole ran a pie stall followed by a book stall called Cole’s Cheap Books, then the first Cole’s Book Arcade in 1873 (which was a smaller bookshop, still on Bourke Street but closer to Parliament) until finally opening the bigger Cole’s Book Arcade (the one he is most remembered for) on Melbourne Cup Day a decade later.

He met and married his wife, fellow introvert Eliza Frances Jordan, in 1875, after he posted the following want-ad in the Herald Sun:

 A GOOD WIFE WANTED

TWENTY POUNDS REWARD

POSITIVELY BONA FIDE

I, EDWARD WILLIAM COLE OF THE BOOK ARCADE BOURKE STREET

wish to obtain… a wife with the following characteristics: SHE MUST BE good tempered, intelligent, honest… neat, but not extravagantly or absurdly dressy… industrious, frugal…

I am quite sensible that I may be laughed at, but… the best thing a man can have is a good wife, and the worst thing a bad wife, yet in most cases, a very irrational principle of selection is followed, for nineteen out of twenty [marriages] originate from the merest accidents of life…

I have no more hesitation in advertising for… my partner for life, than I should have were I merely advertising for a business partner…

They ended up having six children together who would live in an apartment above the famous Cole’s Book Arcade – the eldest of whom (Linda) would run the bookshop following Edward’s death in 1918.

Ultimately Cole’s Book Arcade couldn’t survive the great depression and it closed in 1929. A David Jones is now located on that address, and all the traces of the once immense cultural institution which stood there are gone – save the glass roof walkway and some original stone work next to it.

Even after seeing a whole bunch of old photos, I can’t picture what that lost bookshop must’ve looked like to walk past or how magical it must’ve felt to browse through those shelves. Plus it’s pretty incredible that you could walk past that the glass roof a billion times and not realise that its not meaningless and in fact it has its own rich backstory. I am glad though that (as far as I know) no respected bookshops keep monkey families anymore!

[A lot of really great independent Melbourne bookshops, like Embiggins and Grub Street in Fitzroy closed down last year. It really sucks and it’s embarrassing cause Melbourne is proud of its City of Literature status but the list of bookshops keeps getting smaller cause of rent hikes.]