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Opening up the world: The Utopian vision of Cole’s Book Arcade

  • 19 April 2022
If Baz Luhrmann is looking for his next film, he would do well to consider Edward William Cole. The life of the eccentric Melbourne Book Arcade proprietor would be a lush celebration of a colourful character from the Victorian era. A luminary of Australian folklore who was both a product of his time and ahead of it.

Luhrmann could recreate Cole’s three-storey Arcade, filled with monkeys, a stuffed polar bear, musicians, ferneries, carnival mirrors, a Chinese teahouse and mechanical men turning tin-clang signs bearing Cole’s philosophies under the huge rainbow-arched entry. He could turn it into a musical with flocks of Melbourne Cup carousers attending the opening of the Arcade as the grand prologue. He might even get Hugh Jackman to lead.

The character and personality of Cole would be the vehicle by which the story would evolve. Cole, the dreamy migrant, looking to strike it rich in the Victorian goldfields, falls into selling books and prospers greatly, opening an Arcade which attracts thousands, including Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain through its doors.  

Cole was a great spruiker of books and stocked ‘everything from geology to gladiators, Persian myths to phrenology, Buddhism to pigeon breeding,’ as Lisa Lang writes in her fictionalised account of Cole’s life, Utopian Man.

Cole was an early adopter of electric lighting and a hydraulic lift in the Arcade which could whisk people up to the third floor. He had mechanised curios like the tin-men out the front holding signs or a robotic chicken that lays eggs. Cole’s was an era of Victorian invention.

I first came across Edward Cole when my mother-in-law arrived with a box of my husband’s books for our daughter who’d taken an early interest in reading. I’d read to her in utero, convinced that by hearing Where is the Green Sheep? she would emerge hungry for words, fluent in the rhythms of language.

'Edward Cole understood that books encouraged community. The businessman could rub shoulders with the tramp in his Arcade. Knowledge creates compassionate global citizens, by providing them with a means to conquer their instinctual fears of the differences that divide the peoples of the world.'

Cole’s Funny Picture Books caught my eye and I dove into the endless pages of sketches, stories, rhymes, songs, and some dubious pictures of various nationalities and sinister-looking animals dressed in Victorian garb. They’re meant to be read aloud, together. To ‘delight children and make home happier’, as