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

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


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 the cover states. I imagine my husband sitting in rapt silence, on his Grandpa’s knee flicking through the pages, always coming back to the ‘whipping-machine’ for naughty boys.

‘We’re not really a book library anymore…’ the university librarian says as I lug a jumble of books on Cole to the counter. She seems perplexed by the manual checking-out process, as though I’d just asked her to perform open-heart surgery. Apparently, most of the books are online now. I look around and realised I’m not ready to say goodbye to the book. Sure, I own an e-reader, to the horror of my bookish friends who tell me they just love the feel of a real book.

But I hear the chatter, among parents. The harbingers of doom to our children’s intellect; that great and looming beast: technology. Or is it social media? Turning our little digital natives into dolts with exceptionally muscular fingers who can hashtag and DM like Kim Kardashian?

Studies have long covered the effects of the digital era on literacy to the point that, as Mangen and Van der Weel put it, ‘it is, by now, a cliche to claim that digital technologies are redefining reading and literacy in education and learning’. But for a young parent emerging into this brave new world, it’s intimidating because we know first-hand the addiction of screens. How will our children stand up to them?  

The word technology has etymological roots in techne, which refers to making or doing, so it’s less about computer cables and more about the skills of a craftsman, the artist.

Books are technology. Hackles were raised when storytelling shifted from an oral tradition to written, and again in the emergence of Gutenberg’s printing press when books were widely and cheaply distributed and newspapers conveyed information more frequently.

The mission statement of the site ‘Future of Books’ says, ‘we use the word ‘book’ broadly, even metaphorically, to talk about what has come before and what might come next’. The story of books is one in which stories will always flow into whatever technology is available.

Libraries are adapting to the evolution of the book. The State Library of Victoria Director of Library Services and Experiences, Justine Hyde says, ‘If you look at libraries around the world, the global trend is towards offering creative and collaborative opportunities for young people beyond literature programs’.

The spaces are changing. As Canadian library consultant Marie Palmer writes, ‘they will shift from content warehouses to content creation enablers’ to incorporate Virtual Reality hubs, gaming rooms, table-tennis, 3D printers and ‘maker’s spaces’. With less books on the shelves, there’s more space for co-working or study spaces, places for meetings and creative inspiration hubs. Libraries are ‘the city’s living room’.

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,’ as Australian literary critic Daniel Wood writes in a review of Utopian Man.

Now, more than ever we need spaces which facilitate community. In an age of division and isolation, we should aim for something like Cole’s Book Arcade; a light-filled cathedral dedicated to the love of knowledge and stories, and their power to cross borders, politically, ideologically and culturally. Perhaps we won’t reach the kind of Utopia Cole had in mind anytime soon, but we can dream of it together. As Cole says in Lang’s book, ‘let them see for themselves how wide the world is. Let them see what it can hold’.




Cherie Gilmour is a writer from Torquay whose work has appeared in Voiceworks and The Australian.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston. 

Topic tags: Cherie Gilmour, Books, Technology, Cole's Book Arcade, Community, Stories



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Existing comments

Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories,
86yr old Bill

(Fr.) Bill Burston | 19 April 2022  

A love of books and eccentricity go so beautifully together. Add on monkeys and a stuffed polar bear: nothing could be more wonderful. The majority of my books are packed in boxes at the moment and until I have the time and energy to devote to unpacking them they will remain constantly in my thoughts. How could an e-reader compete? I like your writing Cherie and look forward to more of the same.

Pam | 19 April 2022  

Cole's Book Arcade! What a walk down Victoria's memory lane. At my school, founded 1858, one of the great readers and controversialists just before my time was Barry Humphries, now 88 and still firing on all cylinders, if a little more slowly. The school library is now an 'Information Centre' and has been moved from the marvelous old bluestone quad to a new building which features a real architectural folly: some monumental stairs which look like the Stairway to Heaven. When you reach the top of them it's pretty mundane. Is this the Modern World? I wonder. I am underwhelmed.

Edward Fido | 19 April 2022  

Interesting perspective which took me back in time to 1954 when in year 10 at high school I failed four major subjects and did extremely badly in the English paper in trial exams prior to the statewide examination at which success lead to a scholarship to complete the senior years. The failure threatened that I would have to leave school and get a job, a prospect which interfered greatly with my ambition to play First Fifteen rugby at school and hopefully do well at interschool athletics. I had to improve to be allowed to continue at school and so, for 25 shillings, I joined the public library and soon found that I had purchased a world that I had no idea existed and became an avid reader of every classic I could get my hands on. Two years later I topped the State in English in the leaving examinations. The best 25 shillings ($2.50) I have ever spent!

john frawley | 20 April 2022  

An excellent article. I remember my grandmother buying us Coles Funny Picture Books and I found reprints for my children. I recommend Lifeline Book Fairs, I’ve just been to one with grandkids, and everyone was chatting and recommending books, and all for a good cause. Real community!

Jenny O’Neill | 22 April 2022  

Thanks for the memories Cherie. My family had a Coles Funny Picture Book. Don't know what happened to it but growing up, my brother and I got a lot of fun out of it, even if we did not fully understand what it was all about.

I would have loved to visit the arcade, but I grew up in Sydney and in those days Melbourne was in another country.

Brett | 22 April 2022  

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