Author: Sarah LEstrange
In 1852 when George Robertson arrived by ship in Melbourne, he opened his trunk and sold books on the wharf because he needed some money for a cab fair.
On this day on a different ship EW Cole also arrived in Melbourne. Edward Cole went on to set up the famous bookstore ‘Coles Book Arcade’. Many people know him by his Coles Funny Picture Books but his arcade was a place in Melbourne where you could buy books, see monkeys, take part in a tea ceremony and if you didn’t have any money you could just sit on the chairs and read. He began his bookselling business in 1865 in the secondhand trade but kept on expanding and moving until he occupied a substantial block in the CBD.
In Sydney 20 or so years later, another George Robertson, also in the book trade, arrived from Scotland. He began work in the Sydney branch of George Robertson & Co – the bookshop set up by the Melbourne based George Robertson. Let’s call him ‘Robertson the Elder’.
An important meeting at George Robertson & Co led to the formation of Angus & Robertson. While working there ‘Robertson the Younger’ met David Mackenzie Angus. And hey presto, they set up Angus & Robertson in Sydney. As we know, this bookseller was until recently one of the longest running bookselling businesses in Australia. Its owner RED Group, a private equity firm, recently entered voluntary administration.
Add William Dymock to this 19th century mix – he was also mentored by Robertson the Elder – and you have a rich history of early Australian booksellers, many of whom also published works by Australian writers.
For the next 6 weeks I’m stepping back in time and will soak up this energetic atmosphere in the early chapter of Australian bookselling. But, I’m just going to focus on just one of these entrepreneurs: EW Cole. He’s hard to ignore actually and it’s enticing to focus just on his life rather than all of the early booksellers. So, I’m making a Hindsight documentary about him. Hindsight is of course ABC Radio National’s excellent social history program. I just have to adjust to the different pace and approach from the daily swirl of life on the Book Show. I’m sure I’ll cope, although I’ll miss the Book Show too.