December 2, 2022

Cole’s Book Arcade

Melbourne was once the home of the world's biggest bookstore, a sprawling space containing more than a million books. Welcome to Cole's Book Arcade.

A picture of the front of Cole's Book Arcade, Melbourne

Edward Cole was born in Kent, England, in 1832.

His father died when he was young and Cole left home when he was 18, heading to London with dreams of making it rich. He later drifted to South Africa, where he worked as a farmer near Cape Town.

Neither of these places brought the success he was looking for. In 1851, gold was discovered just outside of Melbourne, and Cole joined many thousands of others, heading for Australia to prospect.

Edward Cole
Edward Cole

Arriving in 1853, Cole initially worked the goldfields near Bathurst. But the harshness of the prospecting life quickly cured him of gold fever.

Instead, Cole started his own business, cannily selling provisions to other prospectors. This was lucrative enough that he could expand into land speculation, buying and selling claims around Castlemaine.

By the early 1860s, Cole had made enough money to return to Melbourne. He started with a pie stand, on Russell Street.

In 1865, Cole, a restless man, sold his pie business and bought a stall at the Eastern Markets.

Melbourne's old Eastern Market
The Eastern Market, exterior.

Established in 1847, the Eastern Markets occupied a city block on Exhibition Street, between Bourke and Little Collins. By the 1860s, they were primarily a flower market, with some fresh produce and retail stalls (you can read more about the history of the Eastern Markets, here).

Although Cole had only a limited formal education, he had always been fascinated by learning and was an avid reader. He channelled this enthusiasm into his market stall, which he used to sell second hand books.

Melbourne's Eastern Market, interior
Artists impression of the Eastern Market interior.

At a time when entertainment and recreation options were limited, books were extremely popular, and bookstores common.

Cole worked hard to distinguish his stall by acquiring titles that were hard to find, and stocking the widest range of books possible. His bookstore quickly established a reputation as one of the best in the city, and turned into a remarkable money spinner.

Within a few years, Cole was so successful he was able to take over the whole Eastern Market, subletting the stalls out to other sellers.

Cole's Book Arcade, Bourke St facade
Cole's Book Arcade, Bourke St facade

Never one to rest on his achievements, Cole looked to expand. In 1873, he leased a new shop on Bourke Street.

Cole had grand plans for the new site. It would be not only a bookstore, but a kind of treasure trove, stocked with unusual items. 'The prettiest sight in Melbourne,' according to his own promotional flyers.

The interior of the new premises was decorated with mirrors and brass fixtures, and the staff were dressed in bright scarlet jackets. A pianist was hired to play music each afternoon.

Cole acquired a massive catalogue of books, new and used, to fill the store's enormous shelf space. The new shop was instantly, a great success.

Interior of Cole's Book Arcade
Interior of Cole's Book Arcade

In 1883, Cole upgraded again, and took over a much larger, two storey building on Bourke Street.

A former Spanish restaurant, this latest bookstore featured a stylish façade. Cole had the interior gutted, carving away the middle of the building so that the upper floor would look down into the ground floor below.

Artists impression of Cole's Book Arcade
Artist's impression of the new bookstore.

He then applied his ideas from his earlier stores; a vast selection of titles, selling of toys and other novelties, elaborate presentation, and live music. But this time on an even grander scale.

In the Melbourne of the 1880s, 'Coles Book Arcade' made quite a splash. The new store opened to such acclaim that the police were required to handle the crowds.

It quickly became a local institution.

Interior of Cole's Book Arcade
Interior of the new store, showing the art gallery and curios display

Always looking to expand, in 1896 Cole began acquiring the buildings behind his arcade.

He bought the property abutting Little Collins Street, and then the properties between Little Collins, and Collins Streets. He had the adjacent buildings joined together, effectively extending the store right through two city blocks.

The finished arcade now billed itself as, 'the world's biggest bookstore', and boasted of its stock of more than 1 million books.

Cole's Book Arcade, toy store and glass roofed arcade
The glass roofed arcade, and the toy store.

Cole added a stone bridge over Little Collins Street, so that his customers would not have to bother with crossing the road if they were walking through.

The stretch from Little Collins to Collins Streets was augmented with a stylish, glass roofed entryway. This was bordered by a toy store, art gallery and a professional printing shop, further developing the scope of the business.

The interior grew more elaborate as well.

Clockwork gadget at the entrance to Cole's Book Arcade
The clockwork gadget at the arcade's entrance.

A clockwork gadget was added to the main entrance, where two mechanical boys wound a handle that displayed a revolving catalogue of different, upbeat slogans ('READ!' 'EAT WELL').

A garden of exotic plants was added, including its own display of monkeys. A hall of funny mirrors was added for children. A different band was hired to play each afternoon, and armchairs and sofas added to the ground floor so people could sit and listen, or just read from the shop's stock.

Lingering was encouraged.

Stuffed into every corner, into every available space, were wind up toys, music boxes, comics, souvenirs, posters and bric-a-brac of every kind. Cole was a man of wide interests with a busy mind, and his store reflected his personality.

Cole's Book Arcade became Melbourne's most famous store, a fundamental part of life in this city.

Edward Cole in retirement
Edward Cole in retirement

In 1911, Cole's wife Eliza passed away and Cole, now in his seventies, moved into semi retirement in Essendon.

He spent his last few years overseeing his beloved arcade from a distance, and writing a variety of pamphlets that he self published, and sold in his store.

He passed away in 1918.

The ownership of the arcade then moved to a trust of his business associates.

While the arcade had been enormously profitable during Cole's lifetime, revenue from the store had been slowly declining. Maintenance on the huge property was costly, and it faced growing competition from more budget oriented competitors.

By 1924, only six years after Cole's death, the arcade was in financial trouble.

The new managers disagreed on how to revive its fortunes, but eventually tried to rationalise its operation. The core business, book selling, was focussed on, other parts of the store were closed down.

The building was subdivided again, and parts of the property sold off.

Last day at Cole's Book Arcade
Staff photo from the final day. Note the empty shelves.

Story about the last book purchased at Cole's Book Arcade

The slide continued. While streamlining the arcade seemed to make sense, it also removed its main attraction. If it was just a bookstore, why would a customer go to Cole's Book Arcade, instead of a smaller, cheaper option?

The economic downturn of the Great Depression proved the final blow. In 1929, the main building was sold, and the arcade was finally closed.

An enormous crowd turned out for the last day. Future Australian test cricketer Chuck Fleetwood-Smith bought the very last book: 'How to Play Cricket', by legendary English batsman Jack Hobbs.

The Bourke Street property was auctioned and bought by G.J Coles and Co. (no relation) for ₤200 000. It was subsequently demolished, and a new department store built in its place. David Jones operates from the location today.

David Jones in Bourke Street mall
The Arcade's Bourke St frontage, today.
The glass roofed arcade from Cole's Book Arcade, present day
Howey Place, present day.

The glass-topped arcade through to Collins Street was also sold but preserved. Renamed Howey Place, present day it is home to a little strip of upmarket shops and cafes.

If you look up though, the old charm remains.


12 thoughts on “Cole’s Book Arcade

  1. My Dad gave me Cole’s Picture Book when I was little back in the 70’s. I looked it over front to back and back to front for years even though many of the illustrations creeped me out. Over the years the book disappeared, but I feel the need to find another copy to replace the old one. And living in Melbourne I have the pleasure of seeing the old store site on a regular basis

  2. Was there a photographic studio in the arcade. I have a photo stamped “Coles Studio, Book Arcade”

  3. I’d heard about Cole’s Book Arcade from a great aunt who remembered visiting it. I wish I’d seen it! I was given editions of the Coles’ Funny Picture Books 1-3 when I was a teenager, then I bought the biography by Cole’s grandson Cole Turnley and much later Cole’s Funny Picture Book 4. I now have nearly 30 of the Cole’s Arcade Tokens, a more recent biography, George Dean’s book on the tokens, a few Cole’s Book Arcade published photographs of scenes in Melbourne and now two booklets of photos of Melbourne he published, and two other books EW Cole published. I’ve probably left a couple of things out! One thing I don’t have is the Coles Book Arcade plate with the rainbow and view of the interior of the arcade. It’s a bit expensive when I have seen it up for auction. Still, you never know……one day maybe.

  4. I would give everything to see this, I recently read The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor. It’s a middle grade novel set in that bookshop.

  5. Ah, olde worlde times when people still had an imagination and drive to create something other than apartments. I love that Fleetwood-Smith bought a book on how to play cricket.

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