The bookstore is an ode to an epoch that revelled in the wondrous possibility of losing yourself for hours to a crisp scented paperback.
Sometime in 1859, Lord Trevelyan, the Governor of Madras, in the course of exchanging letters with Lord Macaulay, essayist, historian, linguist, orator, politician, statesman and thinker, mentioned to his friend, his special affection for a one-of-its-kind bookshop based in the presidency. He wrote: “Among the many elusive and indescribable charms of life in Madras City, is the existence of my favourite book shop 'Higginbotham's' on Mount Road. In this bookshop, I can see beautiful editions of the works of Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aristophanes, Pindar, Horace, Petrarch, Tasso, Camoyens, Calderon and Racine. I can get the latest editions of Victor Hugo, the great French novelist. Amongst the German writers, I can have Schiller and Goethe. Altogether a delightful place for the casual browser and a serious book lover.” Its widespread popularity even earned it a spot in John Murray’s Guidebook to the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay.
Today, stepping into this rustic structure with a slowly fading off-white exterior facade, colonial India-era high-arch doorway, and a slightly chipped checkered black and white interior flooring, is enough to transport you back in time. Established in 1844, the Higginbotham’s branch based in Mount Road, Chennai is India's longest surviving bookshop. This uniquely placed bookshop has witnessed a fascinating voyage throughout its existence.
It is believed that English librarian Abel Joshua Higginbotham–the inspiration behind the name of the bookstore–arrived in India as a British stowaway. Rather unfortunately for him, the ship’s captain after discovering Higginbotham’s clandestine presence onboard, ordered him off the ship at the Madras port. Aspiring for a better living, young Higginbotham took up work with a Christian missionary-run bookshop named Wesleyan. During the 1840s, India witnessed a significant inflow of Christian missionaries, more specifically protestant evangelists, who came with the aim of establishing their religion. After surviving for a couple of years, the Wesleyan’s fortunes began to dwindle. It was at this time that Higginbotham decided to purchase the bookshop, renaming it after himself. The early days had been difficult, as Higginbotham single-handedly ran the venture. But the fledgling venture soon garnered popularity among Madras’ residents as Joshua Higginbotham was the only known person willing to order any book for his customers, from anywhere in the world. The bookstore started small, supplying office stationery. By the 1860s, it had expanded into printing and publishing books as well. It published its own titles. Its first publication “Sweet Dishes: A Little Treatise on Confectionary” by Wyvern came out in 1884. It thereafter went on to publish a slew of other prominent works including Mark Wilks’ Sketches of South India, Colonel Todd’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, and Francis Buchanan’s Mysore, among others
The British government’s annexation of India from the British East India Company saw the bookstore’s fortunes rise further. It became an important component of the then-political landscape.
On Joshua Higginbotham’s death, the bookshop came into the possession of his son, Charles Herbert Higginbotham. The young Higginbotham’s enterprising nature powered the bookshop’s fortunes further. He expanded it beyond Madras, to other regions in south India. As a part of this initiative, Higginbotham's opened its first bookstore in the then quiet town of Bangalore at MG Road (then known as South Parade) in 1905. Eventually, this bookshop ended up being the oldest bookstore in existence in that city.
The bookshop remained in the Higginbotham fold for two generations, but in 1925, John Oakshott Robinson of Spencer's conglomerate purchased it. He thereafter merged it with his own printing firm Associated Printers. Associated Publishers was later on acquired by its now-Indian owner S. Anantharamakrishnan of Amalgamations Group in 1945.
As years flew by, Higginbotham faced an increasing onslaught of competition from newer bookshops like Crossword, Odyssey and Landmark among others. E-books are another competition, but regardless the bookshop chain has relentlessly persevered. Today, it continues to remain as popular. In a world submerged in technology, Higginbotham is an ode to an epoch that revelled in the wondrous possibility of losing yourself for hours to a crisp scented paperback, comfortably nestled in the palm of your hands. At present Higginbotham has twenty-two outlets across all four southern Indian states.