The story of India's oldest bookshop starts with a man who boarded a ship illegally. Abel Joshua Higginbotham was a stowaway from Britain who landed in Madras (now Chennai) around the 1840s. He was first an itinerant Bible peddler and then a librarian before he set up shop in 1844. As his business became successful he built a bookshop at Mount Road (now Anna Salai) in Chennai in 1904 and entered into publishing.
He was succeeded by his son, who in turn was succeeded by W.W. Ladden, till in 1949 it was bought by the Amalgamations Group, a South Indian conglomerate who have since grown the business manifold. Apart from its stalls in all major railway stations in the south of India, Higginbotham's now has about 20 branches in the region, and even a shop-on-wheels in Chennai.
Higginbotham's for me is so synonymous with train journeys that I remember how shocked and aggrieved I felt when I first saw its large elegant premises sitting solidly in Chennai. The name conjures up memories of long and lazy train trips to the city, my sister and I peering out of the windows as the train eased into Vijayawada or Guntur and trying to spot the Higginbotham's stall so my father could pick up Amar Chitra Kathas for us.
Maybe that's one reason why I almost never shop at its imposing premises in the city. I want Higginbotham's only if it's on a railway platform.
When I do make a visit to the Anna Salai store, I simply gaze at its graceful brilliant white facade, almost church-like with its arched stained glass windows and imposing simplicity. The interiors reinforce the church motif with a sprawling 10,000 sq ft of space, a soaring ceiling stretching upwards, Italian marble floors, a large curved staircase that leads to the galleries on the first floor, and tall wooden doors that open onto the back offices.
One man epitomised much of that old world that Higginbotham's represents. To meet him, you would be led upstairs into a long room that would fit right into any government office anywhere in India. Rows of desks on the floor, rows of long-stemmed ceiling fans whirring above, and dusty people moving dusty files except that there are books piled everywhere.
K. Srinivasan was 70 years old when I met him but he had joined the shop as a stenographer in 1955. Before his death in 2015, he edited an antiquarian newsletter that reviewed new arrivals at the bookshop. Sitting at Mr. Srinivasan's desk was like going back in time.
He had fascinating stories to tell, whether they were about standing on the terrace and watching Queen Elizabeth II pass by on Mount Road, the time he served Clement Attlee in the shop, or how, as soon as the Maharaja of Mysore's upcoming Madras trip was published in The Hindu, people would drop in at 11 am sharp at Higginbotham's because they were certain they would see him there.
A shingle outside the bookshop has the words 'Printers and Publishers, Booksellers and Stationers' written on it. While their publishing business is now almost defunct, the stationery department has expanded, with every manner of folder and writing material on stock, plus greeting cards, gifts, and a large collection of CDs and DVDs.
This step towards modernism was made for survival. Its strength, however, continues to be its huge collection of textbooks which account for almost 60 per cent of sales. One half of the first floor gallery now houses a comprehensive range of medical and computer books. Their stock of Tamil language books, possibly the largest in the state, represents all the leading Tamil publishers, while English fiction, non-fiction and children's books make up the rest.
All this I can find anywhere. For me, the best time is spent browsing beautifully designed books such as embroidery pattern books, batik design books, dated black-and-white tailoring books with patterns for dresses that were high fashion in the 1960s, old-fashioned books of maxims... these are practically collector's items!
I wonder if there is some way Higginbotham's could specialise in such books, perhaps start a section for rare books; a gesture that could underline its 110 year history. In fact, even if it could redo its interiors with more care it would make a statement. As such, the modern shelves and plastic sit awkwardly inside the striking exteriors. It's like a gracious old lady forced into high heels tottering between two worlds.
The shop cries out for gleaming wooden display shelves and cupboards; mellow lighting for long, low pew-style seating; and a section reserved solely for people browsing, which is separated from the rest of the bookshop by the discreet placement of potted palms and carved screens. I want Higginbotham's to remain old-fashioned because anyone can find modern bookstores selling Barbie dolls everywhere.
The closest metro station to Higginbotham's on Anna Salai is the LIC station on the blue line. The bookshop is 4-5km from Chennai's main railway station and a 45 minute drive from Chennai Airport, which also has a blue line metro station.