The Cole's Book Arcade Collection comprises over 80 objects, including iconic objects from the Arcade such as a mechanical hen, Cole's 'Little Men' and a symphonion. Acquired over the course of many decades, the first objects were collected by Museum Victoria in the early 1930s, not long after the Arcade closed.

Cole's Book Arcade was one of the great iconic stores of Melbourne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It opened in 1873 in Bourke Street near Russell Street, and in 1883 moved to the site for which it became known, in what is now the Bourke Street Mall. It was a shop like no other, crammed with new and second-hand books and other wares, but with the atmosphere of a circus. Cole enticed customers of all ages with a menagerie and fernery, a band, a clockwork symphonion and other mechanical delights. Readers could sit in comfortable chairs, encouraged by a sign: 'Read for as Long as You Like - Nobody Asked to Buy'.

The Arcade's proprietor, Edward William Cole, was optimist and idealist, believing passionately in the power of education and envisaged a world without borders, expounding his views in pamphlets and books. Cole as was born at Tenterden, Kent, England, in 1832 and at the age of 18 migrated to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, where he spent two years farming with some success before being drawn to Victoria by the goldrushes. He landed in Port Melbourne on 12 November 1852 and made straight for the goldfields, remaining in central Victoria for about 10 years. He is said to have erected a marquee at Maryborough with a frying pan hanging outside as a sign. An enterprising man, he considered manufacturing moleskin trousers for the miners. Sometime later he and a companion spent five months rowing down the Murray River, collecting seeds and specimens and taking photographs. Baron von Mueller selected many of these seeds, and some were planted in the gardens around Government House, Melbourne.

In 1865 Cole established a book stall at the Eastern Market (Paddy's Market) in Melbourne. He sold both new and second hand books. By 1873 he was ready to expand, and opened a Book Arcade in Bourke Street, between Russell Street and the Eastern Market. In the early 1870s the Melbourne City Council decided to clean up the market site. Redevelopment cost about 100,000 pounds, but it was not successful and became known as 'Melbourne's White Elephant'. Cole saw an opportunity, and leased out the whole premises, covering nearly three acres of land. He invited small holders including several hundred butchers to erect stalls rent free for the first six months. In 1882, when the City Council did not meet this request for a three-year lease, Cole instead negotiated a lease on 40-42 Bourke Street East. His new Arcade opened in 1883, and gradually took over the block from Bourke Street to Collins Street.

Cole's Book Arcade had an enormous stock of new and second hand books, and took large numbers of remainders. It sold many books cheaply, and often bought up stocks of English publications which were re-bound with Cole's title pages and, in the case of children's books, with the characteristic rainbow cover and new titles such as Cole's Rainbow Story Book. When his fellow bookseller and publisher Edward Augustus Petherick went bankrupt in 1894, much of his Melbourne book stock was sold off at Cole's Book Arcade. Coles' most well-known was the self-produced publication Cole's Funny Picture Book, perhaps the most popular children's book published in Australia in the period 1890-1940. Around 630,000 copies were sold. Cole was self-educated, but he had an eye for collecting snippets, pithy sayings and appealing drawings. His Funny Picture books crowded riddles, rhymes, amusing anecdotes and drawings together. Cole also issued at least 80 types of medals, which one author (Moss) remembers were valued at 3d in the Arcade, where they were often given as change and could be 'spent' on other Arcade purchases.

Cole's Book Arcade in Melbourne continued to operate after Cole's death in 1918, finally closing in 1929. The Cole's Book Arcade name continued to be used for publications until at least the 1950s, when 'one of Cole's grandsons' managed the E.W. Cole 'Book Arcade' Mail Service at 343 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, distributing publications including Cole's Funny Picture Book. 

Cole's Book Arcade branches were also established in Sydney and Adelaide. The Adelaide branch was established in Rundle Street from at least 1884. By late 1932 Rigby's Ltd advertised itself the proprietor of Cole's Book Arcade in Adelaide, and announced that it was moving stock to a new site in Grenfell Street. The Sydney branch, on the corner of King and George Streets, was established from at least 1883, but was badly damaged by a fire that year. It also changed hands around the same time as the Adelaide branch, with Wynyard Book Arcade advertised as 'late Cole's Book Arcade' in 1933.

References:

Marcie Muir, Australian Scholarly Editions Centre website, http://idun.itsc.adfa.edu.au/ASEC/HOBA96 Papers/muir.html, accessed 22/9/2003.
Moss, H.P. (1952). 'The Medals of E.W. Cole'. The Numismatic Association of Victoria. Vol. 7. No. 3. September 1952 and Vol. 7. No. 4. October 1952.
Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, entry for E.W. Cole: http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A030410b.htm.
Museum Victoria, History & Technology Department, Supplementary File NU 20006.
Cole Turnley, 1974, Cole of the Book Arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W. Cole, Hawthorn, Vic., Cole Publications.

Edward Augustus Petherick, 1847-1917. Collingwood Historical Society, https://collingwoodhs.org.au/resources/notable-people-2/collingwood-notables-database/entry/193/, accessed 27/5/2020.
'Mr Cole's funny picture books , National Library of Australia, https://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/behind-the-scenes/2016/07/13/mr-cole-his-funny-picture-books, accessed 27/5/2020.

1884 'Advertising', Southern Argus (Port Elliot, SA : 1866 - 1954), 12 June, p. 2. , viewed 27 May 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article96931191.
1951 'Advertising', Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), 9 August, p. 30. , viewed 27 May 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article93858861.

1932 'Advertising', The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 - 1954), 5 November, p. 8. , viewed 27 May 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35176755.

1883 'Explosion of Gas in George-street.', Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), 6 June, p. 3. , viewed 27 May 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111031906.

1933 'Advertising', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 12 August, p. 22. , viewed 27 May 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16997792.

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