Planning a virtual book launch is not how Peninsula-born Amelia Mellor envisioned the launch of her debut middle grade novel – a dream she’d pursued since age three when she decided that “When I grow up, I want to work in a shop surrounded by books that I have written”. Having put pen to paper regularly from age eight, she received the first recognition for her talent as her high school’s resident playwright in Year 11 at Toorak College, Mount Eliza.
However, she’s taken it in her stride and is thrilled that now more readers have the chance to access the launch online. Amelia shares with us the magical world of Cole’s Book Arcade – a place that sounds so beautifully full-on and out of this world that you’d be mistaken for thinking it was an author’s creation. Alas, it’s a wacky and surreal part of lost Melbourne history, a literary theme park filled to the brim with energy and whimsy.
Released on Tuesday, September 29, The Grandest Bookshop in the World is an enchanting and exciting Australian kids’ novel set in marvellous Melbourne’s iconic Cole’s Book Arcade. Set in the late 19th century, Amelia expertly creates this exhilarating tale that delivers an awe-inspiring adventure that recaptures the magic of yesteryear. Amelia describes the enigmatic EW Cole as a one-of-a-kind Willy Wonka-like figure, who was also one of the most progressive and interesting characters of 19th century Australia.
“The idea started in 2017 when Aloma Davis, a teacher from Toorak College who later became a friend once I finished school, invited me over to her house,” said Amelia. “She asked me if I’d heard of Cole’s Book Arcade and showed me one of the books Mr Cole wrote. I actually said, ‘What a brilliant idea for a kids’ book,’ and Aloma said, ‘You’re a writer – you should do it’. We even found the title that day – a line from an ad which called the book arcade ‘the finest sight in Melbourne and the grandest bookshop in the world’.”
Amelia took the hint with gusto and threw herself into researching exactly who this eccentric Cole fellow was and all about his electrifying book arcade. He was all about good clean fun. In fact, he was determined that humanity become the best it could be in every way and that vices should be put aside – which was why he opened the arcade on Melbourne Cup Day, inviting ‘intellectual’ people. Her search led her to eBay and the Melbourne Museum, where she discovered artefacts that inspired characters, storylines and themes. There were endless possibilities. Just like that, Amelia was captivated by what Cole had in his three-storey book arcade, including a house band, a room of illusions, a jungle in a glasshouse, talking parrots, live monkeys, a lolly shop, toys, music machine, mechanical chicken, two million books and Mr Cole’s Arcade Tokens – because why wouldn’t he have his own currency? As she was avidly researching, she kept having to convince herself that this ‘absolutely bonkers’ place was real. Stumbling upon the biography written by Cole’s grandson brought the family to life: eccentric Mr Cole, feisty Mrs Cole, and their six children.
“You would pay three pence at the door to get in, and you could then use the bronze token as a store credit,” said Amelia. “They had sayings on them like ‘Reading and Thinking Bring Wisdom’. Cole was keen to have everything accessible for all. The coins are 3cm in diameter and I managed to get my own from eBay after years of searching. They’re now collectors’ items. His mantra was ‘be good and do good’, and he focused on racial equality and universal education. There was even a rule in the arcade that stated you could ‘Read for as long as you like – no one asked to buy.’ Cole offered books, reading and free access to the books if you paid the entry ticket.”
Amelia’s story starts in 1893 with 10-year-old Pearl Cole and her older brother Vally, who live in their father’s bookshop that is full of every curiosity imaginable. Each day brings fresh delights for the siblings, from voice-changing sweets to having a new story written just for them by their eccentric father. When the siblings hear that Pa has risked the arcade – and himself – in a shocking deal with the mysterious Obscurosmith, the siblings hatch a plan that engulfs them in a dangerous game with high stakes. If they succeed, their father and the arcade will be restored, yet if they fail, Pearl and Vally won’t just lose Pa, they’ll forget he and the arcade ever existed.
Amelia completed her creative writing course at the University of Melbourne and wrote a thesis on the reinvention of the Industrial Revolution in children’s fantasy literature. The Grandest Bookshop in the World was written with support from the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust’s 2018 Ian Wilson Memorial Fellowship. She’s currently teaching English via Zoom in regional Victoria and promises you that you’ll be captivated from the first page of her debut novel. Visit any good bookstore to pick up a copy to enter the magical world.