January 18, 2022

Cole’s Book Arcade

Melbourne was once the home of the world's biggest bookstore, a sprawling space home to a million plus 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.

But he found his fortune in neither of these places.

And then, in 1853, gold was discovered just outside of Melbourne.

Edward Cole
Edward Cole

Like tens of thousands of others, Cole was lured to Melbourne during the gold rush.

He worked on mines near Bathurst, but after a short stint decided that he was not suited to prospecting. The harsh life, and limited likelihood of striking it rich, quickly turned his mind to other opportunities.

And so Cole started his own business selling provisions to other prospectors and mining camps. He even dabbled in land speculation, buying and selling potential gold claims around Castlemaine.

By the early 1860s, he had made enough money from these ventures to return to Melbourne and open a shop; a pie stand on Russell Street.

In 1865, his pie business was successful enough that he was able to expand into a new venture, at the Eastern Markets. And this time, this restless man finally hit the jackpot.

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 Streets. They were primarily a flower sellers market, with some fresh produce stalls and retail stores.

Although Cole had only limited formal education, he had always been fascinated by learning and was an avid reader. Now he channelled this enthusiasm into a second-hand book store, which he opened at the Eastern markets and which was an instant success.

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

Cole worked to ensure he stocked books that were unavailable elsewhere, and that he had the best, broadest range of titles in the city.

At a time when entertainment and recreation options were limited, books were extremely popular, and Cole turned his bookstore into a remarkable money spinner. Within a few years, Cole had made so much money that he was able to take over the whole Eastern Market, subletting the stalls out to other proprietors.

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

On the back of this success, Cole looked to expand and in 1873 he leased a second shop on Bourke Street.

Cole had grand plans for this site, not only a bookstore but also, according to his promotional materials, 'The prettiest sight in Melbourne.'

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. And Cole acquired a massive catalogue of titles, new and used, to fill the stores enormous shelf space.

But this was just the beginning.

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

As his book business continued to grow, in 1883 Cole took over a much larger building on central Bourke Street. A former Spanish restaurant, this building had two levels and Cole had the interior gutted, so that the upper floor would look down into the ground floor below, creating an enormous open space.

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

He applied his ideas from his earlier stores - vast selection of titles, elaborate presentation, live music - only on a much grander scale. The new store opened to such acclaim that police were required to handle the crowds.

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

This shop, now called 'Cole's Book Arcade', was an immediate success and would become a Melbourne institution.

Always looking to expand, by 1896 Cole had taken over the building behind his shop and extended his book arcade through to Little Collins Street. Eventually he would take over the shops to the rear of that, and his arcade would extend all the way from Bourke to Collins Street, stretching through an entire block.

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

He 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. And he augmented the stretch from Little Collins to Collins with a glass roof, toy store, art gallery and a professional printing shop.

Though the arcade was now in its final form, Cole continued to add to its interior.

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 entrance, where two mechanical boys wound a handle that then displayed different upbeat slogans ('READ!' 'EAT WELL').

A garden of exotic plants was added, and caged monkeys added to that. An arcade 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.

Stuffed into every corner, into every available space, were wind up toys and music boxes and comical pictures and anything else that Cole felt was amusing or interesting.

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, on topics both serious and trivial.

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 declining. And there was now disagreement among the trustees about how to revive its fortunes.

By 1924, only six years after Cole's death, the Arcade was running at a loss.

Operations were scaled down, some parts of the store closed, and some parts of the premises 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

But the slide continued.

Eventually the trustees decided to cut their losses, and in 1929 the Arcade was finally closed. An enormous crowd turned out for the last day, with Australian test cricketer Chuck Fleetwood-Smith the very last customer.

The Bourke Street property was auctioned and bought by G.J Coles and Co. (no relation) for ₤200 000, and was subsequently demolished and rebuilt as a department store.

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 old Coles Book Arcade site on Bourke Street is today occupied by David Jones.

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


6 thoughts on “Cole’s Book Arcade

  1. 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.

  2. 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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