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.]

How important is the cover though?

The classic idiom ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ is both a general caution against placing too much importance on appearance, yet equally a literal warning to prospective readers of the deceptive power a great cover design can hold.

By suggesting that the front cover can influence a choice in reading material that would not otherwise have been made, this saying assigns a pivotal role to the cover and rests on the assumption that this is the first point of contact a reader will have with a text.

However to what extent does this expression reflect the true reality of the publishing industry’s current reliance on strong cover designs to communicate with potential consumers?

While image is focal to a book’s marketability; the front cover in itself is just one of several potential touch-points of varying significance which can determine how a book is discovered by the target demographic and whether they choose to buy it.

The aesthetic appeal of a book, and especially its cover, is undeniably important. Yet whether the book’s external qualities are the primary influence directing readers to select certain titles over others is a contentious assertion; particularly when one considers the heightened significance of brand identity in a culture that is becoming progressively orientated towards online and social media platforms.

The traditional retail practice of impulsively buying a book in a bricks and mortar bookshop – based on the book’s front cover and the plot summary written on the back cover – is just one means of discovery, and a marketing strategy for any title must be more nuanced than sole dependence on this single book purchasing pattern.

One can even contend that in the current literary landscape, the ‘cover’ that this popular axiom is referring to has expanded and now refers to the whole image carefully cultivated by a title’s unique promotional strategy prior to its release – which includes both the author’s personal brand as well as that of the publishing house.

As each book’s identity is a formation of multiple components – such as genre, author/s, unique selling points (USP), target demographic and purpose – how a title is marketed, and what marking strategies are more likely to be successful, will fluctuate depending on each of these elements.

Furthermore, while a front cover has multiple roles, its ultimate objective is to market the book it is packaging to a specified audience. Thus, the front cover’s significance – as with every marketing device – will also invariably be subject to variation rather than holding an identical level of automatic importance for every book.

Another vital consideration is that a prospective reader’s first impression is arguably more likely to be influenced by promotional efforts prior to the book’s launch rather than the title’s front cover. This is due to the importance that generating awareness of the book prior to its launch has as part of the publishing cycle, with the majority of newly released titles immediately facing heavy competition on top of a short ‘shelf-life’ in bookshops (approximately six to eight weeks).

According to data collated by reader analytics company, Jellybooks, there are eight major motivations for ‘buying a specific book’. Listed below, these include:

  1. ‘Entertain me now’
  2. ‘Entertain me in the future’
  3. ‘Inform me’ – A book which educates/helps fulfil an aspiration.
  4. ‘Obligation’ – Referring to a book one is assigned to read such as for book-clubs, study or alternatively books which are unanimously considered literary classics.
  5. ‘Social Pressure’ – A book one feels compelled to read as ‘everyone else’ is currently reading it.
  6. ‘Make me look smart’ – owning/reading a book for the symbolic status attached to that particular title.
  7. ‘Gift’
  8. ‘Impulse’ – Being in a particular state of mind, or being stimulated by environmental factors such as being inspired to buy a book at a literary event or in a Museum gift shop.

These motivations highlight how diverse and subjective the rationale driving each book purchase decision can be. But while the front and back cover can also act as further attributes bolstering any one of these justifications, the fact that the book’s appearance is not listed as a separate motivation suggests that – at least consciously – the front cover is a secondary interest compared to what the consumer plans to get out of this purchase/reading experience.

Another study examining reading patterns which also indicates the front cover’s general secondary status, is a comparative analysis conducted by book review site, Goodreads, of two similar novels – Gillian Fylnn’s Gone Girl and Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

This extensive survey involved collecting responses from readers who had read one of these titles, and its responses showed that while factors relating to trusted recommendations such as ‘reviews’ or ‘word of mouth’ were the highest ranking motivations amongst readers of both novels, the front cover and blurb ranked last – and only for Night Circus – as a direct motivation for readers.

Parallels shared between these separate studies, offer invaluable insight into what inspires a reader to choose a certain book when faced with an abundance of choice. Furthermore, the affirmed value held by ‘word of mouth’ in both cases is testament to how vital developing an initial awareness is to inspiring subsequent sales of the book.

Interpreting these studies however, as evidence that the book’s appearance is irrelevant would be far too simplistic. Rather, the marginal influence the front cover holds as a motivational tool, reveals that broadly readers are understandably more prompted by content and what a trusted opinion promises the text will deliver.

Developing positive word of mouth is imperative, yet the front cover also plays a meaningful role in this as an extension/representation of established brands – particularly that of the author and publishing house.

Although this function is less obvious than the front cover’s equally crucial role of introducing the book’s plot, tone and own identity; the cover’s ability to immediately visually connect a book to – often a multitude of – recognised brand identities in the mind of the consumer reveals how deeply interconnected motivational touch-points are, and how difficult it is to analyse the effectiveness of one as a wholly separate entity.

As pointed out by David Pearson in Books as History, a ‘successful design is most effective when the user of the object does not stop to think about what makes it work; it just does’. A reader may not have full awareness of the extent to which the front and back cover’s contents influenced their final decision to buy a book, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean the book’s packaging was not a factor.

A marketing strategy for any title must be nuanced, particularly due to the entrenched presence of online and social media platforms, yet while a book’s cover design is not the focal means of discovery, the various brand identities the cover will embody are pivotal to reaching and connecting with prospective readers.

Bernard Black is my spirit animal

My last job interview I was asked what my spirit animal was. I’m a huge disappointment and I did not answer that question truthfully – my spirit animal is hands down Bernard Black from Black Books. 

This beautiful Irish chain smoking filth wizard, who very nearly brought the world the classic children’s book The Elephant and His Balloon, is living the dream – he gets to be all witty and grumpy while surrounded by books with a red wine in his hand.

I strive to one day have my sense of shame that dead, and to be able to come up with insults that creative. If I had to narrow down my favourite Bernard moment it would be a draw between when he attempted to get himself beaten up to avoid doing his taxes, and the wicker chair incident.

He’s unsocial, childish, drunk, quite mad, slightly evil, always flailing his arms in the air dramatically, and he’s drops pearls of wisdom like ‘pineapples grow in space’ and ‘no one’s prepared to admit wine doesn’t really have a taste’.

He’s a legend, and I love his thing against children and how he does secretly care about Manny.