The Little Bookroom

Across the road from Flinders Street Station there is a little street called Degraves. At one end there’s a splash of street art adorning walls and dumpsters, while the other end remains Parisian: all black umbrellas, quaint cafés, tucked-away restaurants and the world’s oldest bookshop for children and young adults–The Little Bookroom.

Established by Albert Ullin, the original Bookroom opened its doors on 13 October 1960 in the Metropole Arcade. Named after a collection of Eleanor Farjeon stories, and its logo illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, The Little Bookroom came from Ullin’s desire to be the first retail children’s book specialist in Australia. Ullin had a unique understanding of his young customers, and refused to arrange books by age group, preferring that children discover their own reading level by choosing books that appealed rather than what was prescribed.

Such was Ullin’s impact on the Australian children’s literature scene that over the years he was awarded the Dromkeen Medal, served as judge on both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the CBC Crichton Award, and was made an Honorary Life Member of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. In 1997, Ullin received The Order of Australia Medal, for his services to children’s literature in Australia and overseas.

The Little Bookroom was founded on Ullin’s passion for children’s books, and such enthusiasm remains the backbone of the Bookroom today. It helps that the store has remained ‘in the family’ since Ullin stepped down in 1997, selling The Little Bookroom to three of his staff members: Sarah Portelli, Deborah Kelly and Christine Andell.

Today, The Little Bookroom co-owner and manager is Leesa Lambert, who worked for ‘the ladies’ while she was at university finishing an honours thesis; ‘But then they decided to sell the business on and I thought ‘Oooohhhh! This would be a good project, wouldn’t it? So I somehow convinced my parents to let us use their house as security for a business loan and here we are!’

‘It’s a family business, it surely is. It’s glorious!’ Lambert says, of co-owning with her parents, Lesley and Ian. ‘They didn’t want to be bookshop owners, but they’ve taken to it like ducks to water. I had no idea of this kind of latent talent and passion.’ It’s pretty incredible that Melbourne’s historic Little Bookroom has had only three owners in 53 years (in 1978 the Collins Book Depot chain made Ullin an offer he refused). Lambert agrees, ‘It’s pretty bloody amazing! And it means there’s a real sense of continuity. They were his staff, and I was their staff.’

The Little Bookroom has moved a few times from its first Arcade location, though the original bookshelves remain in the current store at 759 Nicholson Street, Carlton North. And in 2011 The Little Bookroom marked its success as a Melbourne institution by opening the small city outpost store in Degraves Street. Lambert remembers the fanfare opening of the store quite vividly: ‘We were driving down Flinders Lane with the float for the first time when we heard that Borders, the REDgroup, had officially closed.’

So, how has The Little Bookroom continued to thrive in the midst of such ‘Death of Bookstores’ doomsday theorizing? Lambert can’t deny there have been battles for independent bookshops. But she’s never been so concerned by the digital revolution, ‘A way bigger threat was discount department stores entering the market–the Big Ws and Myers.’ But even they have been somewhat conquered. ‘I feel we’ve seen off the threat of the department stores! Us good Indies have carved out a point of difference they can’t compete with–service and discoverability. And we’ll do the same in the face of online competition (if we can keep our rent under control).’

The Little Bookroom continues Ullin’s legacy as a destination bookshop and haven for children. The Degraves Street shop is small, but glorious, with a window display that changes regularly (when I popped in for a visit, author/illustrator Heath McKenzie was happily creating a spooky display, to celebrate his book ‘What do Werewolves do when it’s not Halloween?’) and when you step inside, the shop closely resembles an art gallery dedicated to beautiful children’s books.

Book launches are frequent occurrences in the little laneway outpost, and especially at the ‘mother shop’ in Carlton North. It’s quite a cachet for young adult or children’s author/illustrators to launch their book at the world’s oldest children’s bookshop, and The Little Bookroom certainly takes pride in such celebrations. ‘It’s kind of a big deal for us, launching a book into the world. It’s the whole point of being a bookseller. And there’s so much joy, it just reflects off everyone–back and forward, back and forward.’ Then there are the Saturday afternoon story time sessions, Inside Story (the November event included 15 authors with three minutes to wow their young audience) and any number of other fabulous bookish events throughout the year.

So, what’s next for The Little Bookroom? Lambert says the iconic store will always have a home somewhere in Melbourne. But there’s also room to dream, especially when you’re in the business of children’s books. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have little satellite shops in other places . . .  it could happen? Kids books are strong, kids books are resilient.’

The Little Bookroom’s top Christmas picks:

Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript. 

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