Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 22, March 1-15, 2024

Tracing Madras

– Ar. Aafreen Fathima S.K. (Ninetyeight.madras)

Today we immerse ourselves in the captivating narrative of Higginbothams on Anna Salai (Mount Road), a cherished sanctuary for book lovers. Founded by Abel Joshua Higginbotham, its tranquil structure adorned with white and brown hues is steeped in centuries of memories. Abel’s maritime ventures failed to yield fortune but a stint managing a shop selling the publications of the Wesleyan ­Missionaries ignited his fervor for books. When the mission ceased operations, Higginbotham seized the opportunity and purchased the remaining stock, establishing the now iconic store under his name in 1844. Though humble in its beginnings, Higginbothams moved into an iconic showroom on Mount Road by 1904. In a similar timeline, it produced its ­landmark Guide to Madras. 

During Abel’s tenure as Sheriff of ­Madras from 1888 to 1889, he involved his son C.H. Higginbotham in the business. The latter took up the reins following Abel’s passing in 1891, and under his stewardship, the business expanded, opening stores in other cities such as Bangalore. It was under him that the brand established small stalls at railway stations, a tradition that endures to this day. These stalls birthed a customary travelling tradition, where travelers procure books for their journeys – today, the practice extends to airports, too. Higginbothams changed ownership in 1925 when John Oakshott Robinson of the Spencer’s conglomerate acquired the business and merged it with his printing firm. Within these walls now reside numerous rare books, with a significant section devoted to Indian writers across various genres. Initially celebrated for its publishing ventures, Higginbothams played a vital role in preserving and publishing countless books and issues that might have otherwise slipped into oblivion. One such notable example is the launch of an edition of James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, which went on to achieve international fame.

The architectural marvels of the building remain faithful to their original purpose, with details like fixed windows strategically placed on bustling Mount Road to keep out dust while allowing ample diffused light. Noteworthy are the stained glass accents embedded in circular arches on the facade, and the cupola-like structure adorning the symmetrical beauty, inscribed with ‘1844.’ One can easily tell that the structure was originally designed to house books. Stepping through the ornate double door adorned with oak and glass, visitors are transported into a scene from a romance novel. The checkers-like diagonal arrangement of black and white Italian marble tiles, along with the grand stairway leading to the first floor, captivates the eye. From this vantage point, one can witness a variety of beautiful moments unfold – from a child’s inaugural book purchase to couples on dates, buyers seeking the perfect gift, or students browsing for information.

Each visit to the bookstore brings a wave of nostalgia and enchantment that leaves one wanting for more.

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