Follow the Rainbow at Collins234
 
Head to Collins234 to discover the amazing life and times of Melbourne’s famous bookseller, Edward William Cole.
 
Anyone browsing the fashion and retail offerings at Collins234 [234 Collins Street] in the next couple of months will notice an exhibition taking over the store windows. During the days of Marvellous Melbourne, when the riches of the gold rush were transforming the city into one of the wealthiest in the world, one man built a huge empire. It was Edward William Cole’s message of hope, peace and equality, however, that touched the lives and hearts of so many. Remember his legacy at Cole’s Rainbow, on display at Collins234 until 12 November.

 

Follow the Rainbow at Collins234

Head to Collins234 to discover the amazing life and times of Melbourne’s famous bookseller, Edward William Cole.

Anyone browsing the fashion and retail offerings at Collins234 [234 Collins Street] in the next couple of months will notice an exhibition taking over the store windows. During the days of Marvellous Melbourne, when the riches of the gold rush were transforming the city into one of the wealthiest in the world, one man built a huge empire. It was Edward William Cole’s message of hope, peace and equality, however, that touched the lives and hearts of so many. Remember his legacy at Cole’s Rainbow, on display at Collins234 until 12 November.

IN SEARCH OF GOLD

In 1852, like thousands of others from around the globe, Englishman Edward William Cole, known by many these days as E.W. Cole, arrived in Victoria seeking his fortune. While he never found his riches on the gold fields, he began selling lemonade to thirsty prospectors. It fired up his entrepreneurial spirit and he returned to Melbourne to set up a pie stand on Russell Street. While he sold his pastries during the day, he spent the evenings reading and researching at the library. A love of books and learning was born, and Cole began selling second-hand tomes at Eastern Market, which once existed on the corner of Bourke and Exhibition streets, before taking a lease on his first store.

THE BEGINNINGS OF AN EMPIRE

He called it “the prettiest sight in Melbourne”, and E.W. Cole’s bookstore at the eastern end of Bourke Street, soon became a hit. Two mechanical men who turned over a metallic advertising board with a never-ending clatter – you can still see Cole’s Little Men at Melbourne Museum – welcomed browsers to the store, which glittered with mirrors and brass.

It wasn’t long before Cole had purchased the neighbouring Spanish restaurant to expand his store and make it a paradise for book lovers. There was a glass roof that spilled natural light to the floors below, as well as circular balconies on the upper floors. When he opened the doors on Melbourne Cup Day 1883, the police had to control the crowds that turned out.

BIGGER IS BETTER 

The evolution of Cole’s bookstore continued until, at the turn of the century, it extended from Bourke Street to Collins Street along Howey Place. Signs outside boasted two million books – although that was likely never true – and inside there was the atmosphere of a carnival. A pianist played popular songs for the customers, members of staff wore scarlet jackets and you could pop a penny in a slot and a hen would lay a golden egg. There were comfortable chairs throughout the store, and book lovers were told to spend as long as they liked reading. No one was ever pressured to make a purchase.

FAMOUS AROUND THE GLOBE

It’s fair to say everyone absolutely loved Cole’s Book Arcade and word of its riches spread around the world. Both Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain visited when they travelled to Australia.

Cole continued his expansion, opening a toy department and installing a printing press within the store. He produced Cole’s Funny Picture Book (it contained puzzles and historical facts, dark tales, essays about a united world and much more), among other titles, selling hundreds of thousands of copies for barely more than they cost to make.

He paved and enclosed Howey Place – Cole’s roof can still be seen there today, as can the facade at 271 Little Collins Street – so that all the buildings that had become part of the book arcade were linked. There was a Chinese tea room, fernery, hall of mirrors, live music and a family of monkeys in his arcade. It became the heart and soul of Melbourne.

A BIGGER PLAN

But while E.W. Cole loved books and seeing people enjoy them, he also wanted to change the world. He adopted the rainbow, which he saw as a symbol of peace, harmony and diversity, including it on his shopfront and the books he printed. He thought the colours above the door were a welcoming gesture to anyone who walked past.

On the shelves within, among novels and cookbooks, you could also find books on race relations and politics. He printed his own books in favour of an Australian federation and against the White Australia Policy. The store wasn’t just a place to sell books, but one where ideas were nurtured, too. Even his policy towards stealing was generous. “A least the thieves are reading,” he said.

PUBLIC VS PRIVATE

E.W. Cole was a visionary entrepreneur, but a very private man — and shy, too. Some Melburnians were shocked when he took out an advertisement in the Herald in 1875 explaining the qualities he wanted in a wife. He married Eliza a month later and the couple had two sons and four daughters. He continued to run Cole’s Book Arcade until his death in December 1918. The business stayed for another decade before the executors of his will, seeing how valuable the properties had become, decided to close it and sell up.

Thankfully, Cole’s dream of a peaceful world, where people treat each other with kindness and as equals, is one that many Melburnians still share today. His ideals should be honoured, so be sure to visit Collins234 and enjoy the Cole's Rainbow exhibition celebrating his vision of harmony and diversity this spring. 

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