Amelia Mellor’s debut novel The Grandest Bookshop in the World is an enchanting adventure set in the real-life Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne in 1893. Here, Amelia shares what makes all bookshops magical.
I’ve written a book set in a bookshop.
And now that book is itself in bookshops.
And while there has never been another bookshop quite like Cole’s Book Arcade, all bookshops are alike in one magical respect: they are the crossroads between worlds. A book is a portal. They take us into other minds, other lives, other times, other places – many of which have never existed.
Cole’s Book Arcade allowed people of the late 1800s and early 1900s to travel to other worlds and other minds by reading, as all bookshops do today. In fact, while its founder EW Cole was alive, customers were encouraged to read the books without being pressured to buy them, just like in a library.
But Cole’s Book Arcade was also a junction between worlds in a more physical sense. Instantly recognisable by its rainbow sign, it was not only a bookshop, but a magnificent literary amusement park. You could visit Music Land, to buy sheet music and hear the Arcade band play; or Monkey Land, to see live monkeys and learn about evolution. In Wonder Land, you could laugh at your reflection warped in a funhouse mirror or your own head on Queen Victoria’s body. Children delighted in Toy Land and the Confectionery Department. Ladies of the upper crust shopped at the Ornament Department and the Perfumery. Sepia portraits were captured in the lush Fernery and the photography studio.
When you were in need of a rest, you could order a plate of buttery scones at the Tea Salon, and read Mr Cole’s latest essay advocating for racial equality or predicting the technologies of the future. You might even run into the Cole family themselves: shy, bearded Mr Cole; spirited Mrs Cole; or their six boisterous children.
When I first learned about Cole’s Book Arcade, I almost didn’t believe such a place could exist. I was so enthralled by this glorious emporium that I thought it must have been invented for a children’s book, like the Faraway Tree or Wonka’s chocolate factory. I was a bit annoyed that no one had taken me there as a little girl – or even told me about it. And I was shocked to learn of its demolition in 1929, which left Toy Land standing on Little Collins Street but nothing of the splendid main building at 299 Bourke Street.
So, after getting over my disbelief that no one else had done it first, I wrote the children’s book for which Cole’s Book Arcade had seemed to be invented. That, at least, would allow people to visit it in their heads, almost a century after the passing of Mr Cole and his beloved bookshop.
You could never keep monkeys or an orchestra in a bookshop today. But when I visit an independent bookshop with polished wooden shelves, excited kids, and old-fashioned chairs to read in, I can see that the core of Cole’s Book Arcade – the magical crossroad between stories and worlds – still lives on.
Love Your Bookshop Day is this Saturday October 3rd. We’d love to hear what your local bookshop means to you – let us know here for your chance to win a $100 voucher.