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Melbourne's pioneer bookseller was John Pascoe Fawkner, whose book and stationery warehouse together with a circulating library passed to William Kerr in 1840. The latter's 1841 advertisements show clearly the nature of the stock of a typical bookselling business of this period: books for sale and for hire, stationery, fancy goods, toiletries, musical instruments and sheet music, jewellery. The owners could be newspaper editors, printers or bookbinders, and the pattern was one found throughout the provincial towns of Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Apart from regular shops there was at least one stall, offering 'curious & rare works' at the corner of Collins and Swanston streets in 1841, and consignments of remainders shipped by London booksellers were auctioned from time to time.

The gold rush city saw not only a much larger population but an influx of professional booksellers like the Dublin-trained George Robertson and Samuel Mullen. By 1861 Melbourne had become the centre of the Australasian book trade, a position it was not to lose till after the economic crash of the 1890s. George Robertson & Co. was the region's major wholesaler-importer with branches in several other cities. Mullen's Select Library, consciously based on Mudie's in London, was the premier institution of a kind that continued to be popular. Henry Tolman Dwight ran, between the late 1850s and his death in 1871, the most important second-hand shop, drawing on the rich local auction market for stock. Many other booksellers, some of them specialising in areas like science, medicine or religion, operated in the centre of the city, with smaller enterprises doubling as newsagents setting up in the suburbs. Cole's Book Arcade drew on older traditions and on the advertising flair of its founder to create a spectacular prefigurement of the late 20th century's superstores. Free trade in books in Britain for half a century after 1852 and the ability of Melbourne shops to sell at London retail prices made for a golden age for local book buyers.

By contrast the period between Federation and World War II was less brilliant. Financial difficulties forced the fusion of George Robertson & Co. with Mullen's successors, Melville, Mullen and Slade, as Robertson & Mullens. Cole's great emporium was closed in 1929. Albert Henry ('Bert') Spencer brought to Bourke Street and to his Hill of Content in the 1920s the expertise of Angus & Robertson's second-hand department and Collins booksellers began business in 1922. Margareta Webber catered elegantly to the exclusive end of the market. Radical bookshops fed off the political passions of World War I and the depression. Meanwhile the move of independent and substantial businesses to the suburbs went on.

Decentralisation after 1945 accelerated to the point where the city centre was rivalled by areas like Prahran, site of Borders Books, Australia's first American superstore. Franchise chains moved into shopping malls and suburban strips. The decline in stockholding was matched by an explosion of specialist businesses. After the arrival of Gaston Renard, second-hand and antiquarian bookselling was revitalised. If they are prepared to be mobile, Melbourne's book buyers of the 21st century still enjoy rich possibilities.

Wallace Kirsop

Holroyd, John, George Robertson of Melbourne, 1825-1895: Pioneer bookseller & publisher, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1968. Details