The first bookstore was opened in 110½ Market Street, Sydney by Scotsman David Angus in 1884; it initially sold only secondhand books. In 1886, he went into partnership with fellow Scot George Robertson. This George Robertson should not be confused with his contemporary, George Robertson the Melbourne bookseller, who later traded as Robertson & Mullens.
In 1895 the company moved to 89 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. The head office of the firm was at Castlereagh Street until the 1950s. The shop was known as the "biggest bookshop in the world". In 1907 the partnership was converted into a public company: Angus & Robertson Limited. In 1951 a store was established in Australia's High Commission in London, which operated until the 1970s.
In the 1950s, Angus & Robertson began the growth which led it to become Australia's first nationwide chain of bookstores. In 1977, it opened its first franchise store in the southern Sydney suburb of Hurstville. In 2006, the company had over 170 stores spread throughout the country, and it claimed that it had more than twice as many stores as Australia's next largest bookseller. The firm had about 18% share in the Australian book retail market.
George Robertson encouraged book collector David Scott Mitchell to convert to collecting in the then-neglected field of Australian literature. Mitchell accumulated a large collection (many bought from A&R), which ultimately formed the basis of the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales. George Robertson also encouraged businessman and collector William Dixson to collect Australian books and art. His collection ultimately formed the Dixson Library of the State Library of New South Wales.
Angus & Robertson began publishing in 1888. Their first work was a book of verse, A Crown of Wattle, written by a Sydney solicitor, H. Peden Steel. From the early years of publishing to 1900, Angus and Robertson developed a highly successful and profitable marketing formula and mix of products: a mixture of literary publishing together with educational publishing, plus active marketing by distributing large numbers of review copies. They also published valuable reference works, including the Australian Encyclopaedia, John Alexander Ferguson's multi-volume Bibliography of Australia, and the early years of "Art in Australia". In 1938 A&R opened a publishing office in London.
As a publisher, Angus & Robertson has played a substantial role in shaping Australian literature by publishing, to huge sales, works by popular Australian authors such as Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis, Norman Lindsay, Frank Clune, Ion Idriess, Colin Simpson, Arthur Upfield, Frank Dalby Davison, E. V. Timms, and children's writers Dorothy Wall and May Gibbs.
George Robertson died in 1933, and he was succeeded as publisher by Walter Cousins (to 1948) and George Ferguson (to 1971).
To better control printing costs, and maintain a consistent quality, George Robertson bought a printing company Eagle Press in 1929, and renamed it Halstead Press (after his birthplace in Essex). Printing thus became the third tier of the Angus & Robertson business. It was Australia's leading book printer for forty years. However, the printing presses had become antiquated by the 1970s.
In the 1970s, after a corporate takeover, the printing presses were sold to John Sands. Halstead became a publishing imprint, Robertson's great grandson having acquired the logo and identity. These he passed on to the present company, Halstead Press, when it was set up in 1991.
About 1895 or 1896, George Robertson started the Sydney Book Club (SBC), based on the principles of a lending library. It evolved out of the actions of a group of legal men who bought 100 books for reading among themselves, then sold the books back to A&R. The SBC was a great success and highly profitable, as the same book could be borrowed by post and returned many times. Fifty to 100 copies of A&R bestsellers were often available for loan. The SBC had a vast membership throughout Australia, particularly in remote rural areas. The SBC closed in 1958, as space was no longer available because of expansion of retail trade. Also, the rapid expansion of local government libraries throughout Australia offered a more localized and free service.
Support for literary societies and authors
From time to time, Angus & Robertson has offered substantial support to literary societies. For example, it published the literary journal "Southerly" for some years.
In 1947, the Book Collectors Society of Australia (BCSA) started publication of its monthly newsletter Biblionews. Until the 1970s, Angus & Robertson printed the newsletter free of charge, in return for the enclosure of a brochure about recent A&R publications. Eric Russell, an editor at Angus & Robertson (and local historian), was a consistent supporter of, and committee member of, the BCSA.
A&R has provided incentives for promising Australian writers. For example, in 1993, the first A&R Bookworld Prize of $10,000 was awarded for a first book of fiction by an unpublished writer. A&R has also frequently applied for Australia Council grants to subsidise the publication of worthwhile but limited-market books.
In the 1960s, a battle for control of Angus & Robertson commenced, based on its extensive property holdings. Scottish publisher William Collins bought a significant defensive shareholding, acting on behalf of worried British publishers, as A&R comprised a significant proportion of their Australian sales. In 1970, entrepreneur Gordon Barton, via his IPEC Insurance company, made a takeover offer, and soon had effective control. Many of the old staff resigned, and a long period of rapid change followed, in which mass-market books became increasingly preferred, instead of high-brow literature. Richard Walsh was Managing Director and Publisher for 14 years (1972 to 1986).
Since 1977, the publisher has been a separate company under separate ownership from the bookseller. In 1989, Angus & Robertson was included in the merger of William Collins and Harper & Row, to form HarperCollins.
Ownership of the company has changed several times since the 1970s. In the 1990s, the company was owned by Gordon & Gotch, followed by the purchase by Brashs who merged Bookworld with A&R. For several years the company went by the name Angus & Robertson Bookworld before eventually dropping Bookworld as part of the name. Ownership of the company then passed on to Whitcoulls which was itself later purchased by W H Smith in 2001.
From 2009, Angus & Robertson was under the portfolio of REDgroup Retail, a retail operations company owned by Pacific Equity Partners, a private equity company, which loaded A&R with large debts. In February 2011, REDGroup (including the Borders, Angus & Robertson and Whitcoulls chains) were placed into administration. Retail stores were closed, and the website was sold to media conglomerate Pearson, which also owns Penguin Books. In 2012 the Borders website was rebranded "Bookworld", but the Angus & Robertson website (still widely known) was retained as a clone of Bookworld.
An independent network of several Angus & Robertson stores operates in Queensland, and uses the A&R name under licence. The chain of remainder bookshops named A&R Bargain Books is not connected to Angus & Robertson.
In August 2015, Angus & Robertson joined with sister company Bookworld to form Angus & Robertson Bookworld under new owners Booktopia, and returned to its roots by moving its base of operation from Melbourne back to Sydney.
In August 2007, A & R Whitcoulls Group's commercial manager, Charlie Rimmer, demanded payments ranging between $2,500 and $20,000 from smaller distributors and publishers to make up for reduced profitability compared to other suppliers. The letter, leaked by Tower Books to the public, claimed that if the payment was not made, the books from the supplier would no longer be sold in A&R stores. Many publishers expressed disbelief at A&R's decision. Tower declared that they will withdraw supply for A&R as per the letter's requirement.
In response to the situation, Dave Fenlon, Chief Operating Officer at Angus & Robertson, responded by claiming that the whole situation is blown up out of proportion and that A&R is simply negotiating a new business agreement with selected suppliers deemed to not be meeting their obligations to the company and that Angus & Robertson is committed to selling Australian published books from a large range of Australian publishers, large and small.