Wedged in amongst the gray office blocks and shopfronts lies a quaint, three storey, red brick building. If we were to climb the eight elaborately tiled steps and stand upon the landing before the carved double doors, we would find the commemorative stone laid by Alexander Roberts Esq. when the building was first commenced so long ago. The ornate windows, the elaborate portico and the imposing columns suggest this was once a home to a family of some importance. Now, as announced by the tarnished bronze shingle, it is home to Roberts’ Reading Rooms.
Long ago, in a slower, gentler time this building was a haven away from the dust of the streets and the rattle of carts. Gentlemen and ladies would enter, leaving their parasols and top hats in the entry hall, before immersing themselves in tea, news and gossip. Depending on the time of day, gentlemen may have chosen to indulge themselves by smoking a cigar and partaking of a glass of brandy before turning to the latest shipping crisis or political scandal within the page of The Times or other such broadsheet. Ladies on the other hand, would rush to the parlour, eager to read of the latest fashions from Paris and the news from across the seas. The tinkle of china cups on saucers, the low hum of whispered conversation and the crisp turning of pages was the steady background rhythm of these rooms. On the brisk cold days of winter, deep leather armchairs and roaring fires invited patrons to take a book from the shelves and settle in for the afternoon. Spring sunshine saw the balcony welcome lively debate from the ladies’ book clubs. Somehow the newly formed blossoms and gentle breezes always lent an air of romance to the story under discussion.
Gradually the world outside these Rooms began to change. Electric tramcars ding-dinged their way along the streets; people walked faster, scurrying from here to there like so many busy ants; children ran through the crowds squealing and shouting to each other. Inside Roberts’ Reading Rooms, however, the firs continued to crackle in the fireplaces and the china continued to tinkle. The news must still be read. Stories would continue to be shared.
There was first one war and then another. Ladies sighed with relief upon reading of the safe return of the HMAS Marlborough and celebrated with a cup of tea. Fathers’ toasted their sons’ bravery then considered penning their own memoirs of courage under fire after reading how Captain Brown shot down the Red Barron. Motor cars may pollute the streets outside, but the news must still be read and stories would still be shared.
The world wars ended, cars because faster, dresses became shorter. Boxes with talking pictures invaded living rooms. The news must still be read – every night at 6 O’clock to the waiting family with T.V. dinners. Stories would be shared – by Hollywood and its celebrities. Dust began to gather in the unused portions of Robert’s Reading Rooms.
By the time of the internet and the World Wide Web, Roberts’ Reading Rooms were forgotten by all but a few. Old Mr Roberts still opened his doors; he believed that news needed to be read and that stories needed to be shared. However the grandeur of the old days had faded and the Reading Rooms had taken on the air of a neighbourhood house, inhabited by the disenfranchised and the lonely with nowhere else to go. Tea was still available, although the tinkle of china had been replaced by the clunk of mismatched mugs. Saucers occasionally held some almost-out-of-date biscuits or cake. And, while still comforting to watch, the old fire didn’t give off enough heat to banish the rising damp and mildew. All in all, Roberts’ Reading Rooms appeared to be a relic of the past, outliving their purpose and no longer needed in the twenty-first century.
We all know, of course, that appearances can be deceptive.