The name ‘Higginbothams’ shakes up a lot of memories for all old-timers residing in Chennai, whether it was where they bought their first book or the classic chequered flooring, its high arches or the wooden railings.
“This is my usual routine for the last 50 years. I never forget to visit Higginbothams; I like to see Anantharama’s photo… it inspires me,” says Doraisamy Vishwanathan, one of the older customers.
The beloved bookstore once served royals, Prime Ministers, and institutions for more than a century. India’s oldest bookstore, still in business after 175 years, it all began with an illegal immigrant and his sheer luck.
In the early 1840s, a British librarian named Abel Joshua Higginbotham boarded a ship. When discovered by the captain, he was thrown out at the port of then Madras presidency. Fortunately, being a librarian, he found employment as a store manager of Wesleyan Book Shop. The store catered to local theologians and largely sold religious works.
His dedication was soon evident. But the Mission was losing its profits and in 1844, when they decided to shut the store, they offered Higginbotham the option of buying out the stock.
A J Higginbotham took the opportunity; he bought the shop and renamed it ‘Higginbothams’.
The store gained popularity for its quality of books and diversity of subjects, for its proprietor had the skill to track down rare and in-demand books.
A guide book published in 1859 by John Murray titled Presidencies of Madras and Bombay listed Higginbothams as a ‘premier book shop’.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 provided Europe with direct access to Asia in record time. This shortcut impacted shipping routes, world trade, and passenger travel. The three-month journey from England to India was reduced to three weeks. Ships arrived at Indian ports carrying foreign goods. Large crates for Higginbothams were being offloaded at the Madras port. They contained precious cargo—books and publications that were topping the bestseller lists in Europe.
Higginbothams became India’s largest bookstore chain in the 19th century. As it grew, so did its reputation.
History has it that Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was a voracious reader. Higginbothams was also appointed as his official bookseller when he visited India in 1876. They were called upon to provide the prince with appropriate reading material following his arrival at the Royapuram Station in Madras. This led the bookshop to attract a large number of elite clientele.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Higginbothams had already become the official book supplier for the government and expanded to publishing with cookbooks.
Their customers ranged from the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee to the Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. It is widely speculated that the Mulligatawny Soup and Madras Curry Powder became legacies of the British Raj only after Higginbothams first printed their recipes.
A J Higginbotham passed away in 1891, leaving his son C H Higginbotham, in charge. After he took over, he went on to spread this legacy across south India. The bookshop shifted to its present location at Mount road (now Anna Salai); the white building is one of the landmark and heritage structures in the city.
By the 1940s, it had stalls at the Central Railway Station in Chennai, and the Ernakulam Junction Railway Station in Kochi, making books accessible to travellers.
After Independence, in 1949, S Anantharamakridhnan of the Amalgamations Group took over the bookstore. “The year ushered in the transition of the Company from a foreign-owned one to an Indian company. Despite its long history of 175 years, Higginbothams remains young by constantly meeting the ever-changing needs of its esteemed customers,” says Nasir Ahmed Shariff, Chief Operating Officer.
Shariff talks about the relevance of the bookstore in the digital age. He says “Physical books have not lost the charm. As a brick and mortar store, we provide the ambience and meeting point for readers. In trying to reach the younger generations, we have moved closer to our customers. Regional language publications have always been dear to Higginbothams. The Chennai showroom has an exclusive section for Tamil books.”
At present, the Higginbothams group has more than 20 stores spread across South India. The Chennai store holds a special place in history as the first and the oldest bookstore, with an ambience that takes you back to a time long gone.
(Written by Krutika Haraniya and Edited by Shruti Singhal)