Little Bookroom founder championed the cause of quality reading for children

[Image credit: Simon Schulter SMS]

Albert Ullin OAM was the founder and longtime owner of The Little Bookroom, Australia's oldest specialist children's bookshop.

The nomination for the Dromkeen Medal, which Albert received in 1986, stated: "his tireless advocacy of quality books for children through the interactive role of The Little Bookroom, his work on The Children's Book Council and his convincing and sincere approach with the media, have all combined to give children's literature the esteem and stature in the community which it deserves".

Albert was born Albert Heinrich Ullmann in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1930. He was the beloved first child of Henry and Elinor (nee Wertheim). His parents imbued in him and his younger brother Claude a love of art, music and books. His earliest childhood memories included poring over fairy tales illustrated by Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac.

Frankfurt had the second largest Jewish population in Germany at the time, and when the Nazis came to power in 1933, government, business and other enterprises suffered from the compulsory dismissal of Jews from their employment.

The family relocated to Milan, in Italy, when Albert was five years old. He started school there and soon became fluent in Italian. As the threat of world war grew, they sought another home. A great-uncle, Hugo Wertheim, had come to Australia in 1875 – first importing and later manufacturing sewing machines, pianos and other household necessities. It was this connection that enabled the renamed Ullin family to make their home in Melbourne in 1939.

Albert was educated at Glamorgan and Caulfield Grammar School. To the end of his life, he kept treasured books that he had been given as prizes at school.

He served his book-selling apprenticeship in Speagle's Bookshop and Robertson & Mullens before establishing The Little Bookroom in October 1960. The original shop was a tiny space in the now-demolished Metropole Arcade in Melbourne. Over the years, the business operated in Equitable Place, Elizabeth Street, with branches in the suburbs of Camberwell, Malvern and Toorak as well as Geelong. Albert established the first bookshop of children's books in foreign languages in the 1970s, opened by the Whitlam government's immigration minister, Al Grassby.

It is often expressed in obituaries that a person was "ahead of their time". Albert helped to create the time in which we now live when children's books are rightly celebrated, not just as reading for enjoyment, but as works of art.

He had boldly asked Eleanor Farjeon for the use of her story title as his business name. When that was granted, he followed it up with a request to renowned English illustrator Edward Ardizzone for the drawing which is the shop's logo to this day.

Albert befriended and nurtured the talents of many emerging illustrators and authors, including Ron Brooks, Donna Rawlins, Peter Pavey and Graeme Base. He supported many Australian picture-book artists by purchasing their original artwork, building up an enviable collection over the decades.

Long before writers' festivals became a regular fixture on the "City of Literature's" calendar, he hosted visiting artists from all over the world, book launches and signings. As a friend said at his funeral, he was "constantly putting people together to their mutual advantage".

He gifted his collection to the National Gallery of Victoria several years ago with his expressed hope that the illustration of children's books would one day be recognised as mainstream art. Bunyips and Dragons, an exhibition of most of these works, was held at NGV Australia in 2015.

Albert was a friend and advocate for school and public libraries, and served, among other things, as the president of the Victorian Branch of Children's Book Council of Australia. One of his legacies is the Maurice Saxby Creative Development Program, which this year awarded five emerging writers and illustrators from around Australia the opportunity to learn from mentors in the children's book industry.

Throughout his book-selling career, Albert frequently travelled to book fairs and gatherings in the United States and Europe. He was particularly thrilled to meet his idol, Maurice Sendak, on one trip to New York, and exchange correspondence with him.

Albert was awarded a fellowship to study his beloved fairy tales at the prestigious Internationale Jugendbibliothek (International Youth Library) in Munich.

From an early age, Albert was interested in all things esoteric and spiritual. In the early 1980s, he became a member of Rosa Veritas, an organisation of people from all walks of life who feel called to be of spiritual service. After seven years of study, he was ordained as a priest, making vows to serve Christ and the community. In his quiet way, he was a friend and mentor to many.

Albert was awarded Member of the Order of Australia for service to the promotion of children's literature in Australia and overseas in 1997.

The Little Bookroom thrives today in Nicholson Street, North Carlton under the excellent management of Leesa Lambert and her family. A recent book launch at the shop celebrated the publication of a picture book by young Indigenous writers and illustrators who had flown in from remote Western Australia for the occasion. They leant on "Albert's signing desk" to inscribe copies for purchasers – he would have loved it.

Albert is survived by his sister-in-law Margaret, nieces Sophie and Emmie-Lou and nephew Nicholas, and their children who will miss his ever-curious mind, cheeky spirit, warm heart and charming continental flair.

By Sophie Ullin and Margaret Robson Kett


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