Albert Ullin with Ron Brooks’ image of John Brown and the Midnight cat from John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, 1977, and Albert’s three legged cat Lucifer, the inspiration for the Midnight Cat

In 1960 Albert Ullin founded the first children’s bookshop in Melbourne and named it the Little Bookroom. This tiny shop in the Metropole Arcade, followed by later expansions into other premises, became synonymous with the creativity of the Australian children’s book scene.

The Little Bookroom in the Metropole Arcade
John T. Collins Photographer, Jan 4 1964

A selection of items from Albert’s personal archive of pictorial and manuscript material held by the Library illustrates this tribute. The intention is to show how Albert’s personal archive evokes the sense of fun and enjoyment inherent in Albert’s ventures. Many children’s book authors, artists, publishers and the child readers who met Albert, delighted in his knowledge of children’s books, his enthusiasm for the field and the many anniversary parties he and his staff organised.

Eleanor Farjeon aged 18, unknown photographer, print given to Albert in 1960 on the opening of his first Little Bookroom
Below Farjeon’s permission letter accompanying her photograph

Just before opening the first Little Bookroom Albert received permission from Eleanor Farjeon for the use of her story title as his business name and from Edward Ardizzone for the drawing that became the Little Bookroom logo.

Edward Ardizzone’s drawing that became the Little Bookroom’s logo

Over many years the Little Bookroom operated from various shopfronts. But Albert’s children’s bookselling actually began on July 1st, 1960 from his own flat. Later that year the first shopfront in Melbourne’s Metropole Arcade opened on Oct 13, 1960. In 1963 Albert received news that the Metropole Arcade was due to be demolished so he moved the Little Bookroom to Equitable Place.

Albert loved Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books and papered the walls of the South Yarra Little Bookroom with Moomintroll wallpaper.

South Yarra Little Bookroom shopfront showing the Moomintroll wallpaper above the book shelves
Albert beamed when wearing his Moomintroll tie

In 1979 Equitable Place was under reconstruction and Albert moved the Little Bookroom to 185 Elizabeth Street. Children’s book author and artist Ron Brooks gave Albert a drawing of this shopfront.

Ron Brooks’ Little Bookroom drawing 1981

Other premises spread across the Melbourne suburbs of Camberwell, Malvern and Toorak and to the major regional town of Geelong.

Incredibly the limitations of small floorspace never daunted Albert, though many friends and colleagues found reason to contrast Albert’s more than 6 foot tall frame with the floorspace of his premises. The first Little Bookroom in the Metropole Arcade had a floor space 10 feet by 20 feet.

Reknowned children’s books creators Janet and Allan Ahlberg sent a pictorial acknowledgement of his success with the Little Bookroom

Albert was a tall slim man with both enthusiasm for the subject of children’s books, a canny understanding of promotion in his chosen niche and a quiet humour which was delivered laconically. The Little Bookroom premises were immortalised by many artists.

Terry Denton wrote a story about the house of Baron Albert

Another successful celebration

Albert often invited schools, children and parents to meet illustrators at his shop book launches. A number of hand written letters from children show how much that audience appreciated the programmes Albert organised and the advice he gave about specific books. Several letters, dated 1982, from Bacchus Marsh Primary School, Victoria’s first state primary school, express the interest and admiration Albert sparked in child readers.

Other letters include several from Colac West Primary School

Roselyn would send hand decorated Christmas cards to Albert and this, thanking him for mailing a book to her

Albert kept a copy of a thank you letter to Ron Brooks from a student, and a 1996 letter of thanks from Colin Thompson

Ron Brooks’ book John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat was widely admired by child and adult readers and this image had a special significance for Albert in that Ron modeled the character of the Midnight Cat on Albert’s cat Lucifer.

John Brown and the Midnight Cat by Ron Brooks

Albert enjoyed a celebratory occasion. Many children’s book creators joined in the celebration as the Little Bookroom marked its 10th, 18th and 21st anniversaries.

Raymond Briggs employed his Snowman, now famous in picture book, pop-up and film formats, to acknowledge Albert’s achievement

The 21st birthday of his shop was marked by many artists including:

Shirley Hughes Many happy returns pen and ink drawing 1981,

Leon Garfield wrote to Albert congratulating him on 21 years as a children’s bookseller “a great reckoning in a ‘little room’,

Jacques Faith pen and watercolour 21st anniversary sentiment,

Ann James’ pencil and watercolour drawing of a Child sitting on a chair reading,

Meredith Thomas’ Night goanna paper sculpture,

Krystyna Turska Mouse with a sunflower pen and ink drawing,

Brian Wildsmith’s Kangaroo, lion and birds drawing in blue pen,

and John Winch’s Run hare, run gouache painting on paper and his Old woman who loved to read.

Working amongst such creative people, Albert was gifted many artworks such as David Miller’s beautiful paper owl sculpture.

David Miller paper sculpture of an owl, 1999

Patricia Mullins sent a garden setting collage with the message “For Albert, some tiny garden visitors to brighten the day!”

Patricia Mullins, Garden collage, undated
Tessa Wallis’ Bookworms maquette, 2004

Tessa Wallis’ sculpture was a tower of books, readers and worms with the inscription “Albert Ullin flying the flag for Australian children’s literature, thanks for the inspiration.”

The children’s book world was saddened when Albert passed away on 12th September 2018 and many tributes followed. Perhaps the most touching is the tribute his niece, Sophie Ullin, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald. The many professional awards for Albert’s work are listed along with further references at the end of this blog.

Albert’s advocacy for quality children’s books spanned seven decades. Over that time his initiatives have changed the face of Australian children’s literature. Albert drew upon his wealth of contacts and achieved many remarkable programs. He was a gentle man in the true sense of the word, an understated yet high achiever with a wry sense of humour.

Awards

1986 Dromkeen Medal for outstanding achievement in the advancement of Australian children’s and young adult literature

1997 Order of Australia for services to children’s literature in Australia and beyond

2007 Australian Booksellers Association lifetime achievement award

2009 Leila St John Award by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Victorian Branch

Life member of the Children’s Book council of Australia

References

Albert Ullin Pictures Collection full archive can be found in the Library’s online catalogue searching under ‘Albert Ullin’ and limiting the search to Pictures & Photographs

Goodman, Jo, ‘Albert Ullin: advocate for children’s literature’ in Magpies: Talking about books for children, Sept., 2009, Sept., 2009, vol. 24(4), pp. 18-19.

The Little Bookroom homepage

Munro, Craig and Robyn Sheahan-Bright (eds), Paper Empires: A history of the book in Australia 1946- 2005, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 2006, pp. 217-220.

Obituary: RiP Albert Ullin, in Books and Publishing online

Prentice, Jeffrey, The Little Bookroom: Fifty years with children’s books, Braidwood Press, Fairfield Melbourne, 2010.

Records of Albert Ullin and the Little Bookroom, State Library Victoria, Australian Manuscripts Collection, YMS 15946

Ullin, Sophie and Robson Kett, Margaret, ‘Little Bookroom founder championed the cause of quality reading for children’ in Sydney Morning Herald, 2018 National Obituaries online

This article has 3 comments

  1. Great insights into, and memories of, a lovely man and a terrific bookshop, which was so much more than just a shop.

  2. Thanks for your blog Juliet,
    It is a great reminder of Albert and his many contributions to Australian Children’s Literature through Dromkeen as well as the Little Bookroom. Happy memories!

  3. In the field of children’s literature Albert was Melbourne’s very own BFG – we all have so very much to thank him for. Will we ever see the likes of him again?!?

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