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Webber, Margareta Louise Pitcairn (1891–1983)

by Laurel Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Margareta Louise Pitcairn Webber (1891-1983), bookseller, was born on 17 September 1891 at Prahran, Melbourne, daughter of English-born Edwin George Webber, banker, and his New South Wales-born wife Margaret Pitcairn, née Fairbairn.  From an early age Margareta had a passion for books.  Educated at a private girls’ school at Armadale, she 'scribbled a lot' and had some verse accepted for publication.  In her early twenties she led an amateur singing troupe.  By 1918 she had commenced work with the respected Melbourne antiquarian bookseller Edgar Parr, who also sold new books and had an excellent book-trade lineage, having worked for George Robertson.  From Parr she learnt a great deal and in 1931, despite the Depression, she opened her own bookshop, on the fourth floor of an office block in Little Collins Street.

One of several small booksellers in Melbourne, including Gino Nibbi, Frank Cheshire and A. H. Spencer, Webber gained a reputation for her care in selecting stock and advising customers.  Insisting that 'books must have atmosphere', she furnished her shop with elegant antiques, rugs, pottery and prints, and took pride in providing comfort for her customers.  While most bookshops at that time sold stationery and often ran lending libraries, she stocked only books.  Her stock featured poetry, private presses, psychology, philosophy, cooking and gardening.  One third of the shop was set aside for children’s books, making her perhaps the first Australian bookseller to have such a designated section.  Emphasising her 'secret' of 'specialising', she was featured in the December 1936 edition of The Modern Store.  In 1938 the London Publishers’ Circular reprinted the article with the publisher Jonathan Cape—who had visited Webber in 1935—claiming that hers was the best ordered and most attractive shop he had seen.

Often dispensing coffee or sherry, and fostering good conversation, Webber took a personal interest in her customers, among whom were George Bell, Arnold Shore, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Sydney Ure Smith, Mary Grant Bruce, Barry Jones and Manning Clark.  In 1950 she travelled to London, establishing personal contact with major publishers and enabling her to become one of the first Melbourne sellers to stock titles from the Hogarth Press and the Penguin series.

Energetic, charming, shrewd and dedicated in business, Webber employed only women, believing they made the best booksellers.  Margaret Bird and Elise Belle Champion, sister of Vida Goldstein and wife of Henry Champion, also owned bookshops in Melbourne at that time, and Chaucer’s, Everyman’s and the Literature bookshops were run by women.  Webber sold her business in 1973.  She had been a vice-president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Booksellers Association, and treasurer (1938-63) of the Lyceum Club.  Her friend and companion of fifty years was Dr Jean Littlejohn, with whom she had founded the Soroptimist Club of Melbourne in 1948.  Margareta Webber died on 6 May 1983 at Hawthorn and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Clark, 'Margareta Webber’s bookshop', in C. Munro and R. Sheahan-Bright (eds), Paper Empires (2006)
  • Modern Store, vol 1, no 9, 1936, p 42
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 September 1937, p 21
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 November 1971, p 37
  • L. Clark, Aspects of Melbourne Book Trade History: Innovation and Specialisation in the Careers of F. F. Baillière and Margareta Webber (MA thesis, Monash University, 1997).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Laurel Clark, 'Webber, Margareta Louise Pitcairn (1891–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webber-margareta-louise-pitcairn-15794/text26993, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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