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Cole's Book Arcade
Photograph: State Library of Victoria

The completely true and absolutely bonkers story of Cole's Book Arcade

Did you know Melbourne was once home to the biggest bookstore in the world? And there were monkeys...

Cassidy Knowlton
Written by
Cassidy Knowlton
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The history of Edward William Cole and his book emporium is one of the strangest stories rarely told in Melbourne. We first heard about Cole on a Hidden Secrets Tour of Melbourne and have refreshed our memories on the details with the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Museums Victoria. Buckle up, because it's a wild ride.

Edward William Cole was born in England in 1832 and arrived in Melbourne at age 20, drawn by the gold rush. But upon discovering that gold mining was physically difficult and intellectually boring, Cole opened a pie stall and then a secondhand book stall at the Eastern Market, on the corner of Bourke and Exhibition Street (then Stephen Street), in 1865. His book stall did so well that in 1873 he opened a book shop on Bourke Street near Russell. Ten years later, he moved the shop to a much larger, two-storey premises in what is now Bourke Street Mall, in what is now David Jones. 

Cole's Book Arcade
Photograph: State Library of Victoria

The new Cole's Book Arcade was enormous, and Cole claimed it held 2 million volumes – certainly the largest book shop in the world at the time. The atmosphere was more like that of a carnival than the quiet, staid atmosphere of a bookshop, and it was so popular police were required to manage the crowds that flocked to it. At times a token was required to enter the arcade, to control crowds.

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Cole's Book Arcade
Photograph: State Library of Victoria

A colourful rainbow sign hung over the entrance, and a notice inside invited visitors to 'Read for as Long as You Like - Nobody Asked to Buy'. Staff wore bright red jackets, and there was a pianist playing inside every day after noon. The shop did so well that Cole was able to buy up neighbouring buildings, eventually extending all the way from Bourke to Little Collins Street. He filled the arcade between buildings with talking bird and exotic plants. 

Cole's Book Arcade
Photograph: State Library of Victoria

The book shop was so popular and famous that Rudyard Kiping and Mark Twain both visited it when they came to Australia. 

Cole was one for the whimsical and fantastical, adding numerous attractions to his arcade, including a hall of funhouse mirrors, a gallery of optical illusions, toy store, music boxes, funny pictures and a cage filled with live monkeys. 

Eliza Cole in Cole's Book Arcade
Photograph: State Library of Victoria

All these monkeys and birds and property development left little time for romance, so in 1875 Cole took out a full-page ad in the Herald, detailing all of the qualities he was looking for in a wife and asking for suitable women to apply. One month later, he married what he considered to be the only 'serious applicant', Eliza Frances Jordan (pictured above in the shop).

Not content with just selling books, Cole started publishing them, too. Cole's Funny Picture Book (1879) was the most successful of his titles, and you can see some extant copies at Melbourne Museum to this day. He also published Cole's Fun Doctor (1886); Cole's Intellect Sharpener (1900); and The Thousand Best Poems in the World (1891). He also published numerous pamphlets on everything from religion to a treatise in favour of the racial integration of Australia. 

Eliza died in 1911, and shortly afterwards Edward retired to the country. He died himself seven years later, in 1918. His obituary in the Melbourne Argus said: "In his character were goodness of heart, domesticity, the reforming instinct, shrewdness, and simplicity all mixed inextricably. His business was not his business only – had it been so he would have made much more money than he did – it was his hobby, the medium by which he spoke to his fellow citizens of the ideas which stirred his consciousness. Most businesses own their proprietors, but Mr Cole owned his establishment, and impressed himself upon it until through the shop one could read the man."

The business had prospered under Cole, but his trustees lacked his magic. The business started making a loss, and Cole's Book Arcade was finally closed for good in 1929.

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