On the iconic Mount Road (now Anna Salai), that winds from the southern, mountain end of Madras to the northern, bay end, stands a precious vintage jewel. And like all things Madras, this landmark too carries the weight of its grand history without much fuss.

India’s oldest book store, one of the oldest and largest bookshops in operation in the world, Chennai’s very own Higginbothams, is an underrated gem, and deserves a bit more of celebrity than has been accorded by the Indian literary establishment (whatever that means).

My own memories of Higginbothams are inextricably linked to those long, maddeningly hot summer months growing up. A pitstop, especially at the railway station branch, to pick up Tinkle, Archies, Champak and Gokulam, before rushing to the berth and lying down with a book under the whirring fan was a ritual as well as a treat. When my first book came out last year, it was a great thrill rushing to the store to see it out front on the new arrivals table, on the chequered black and white original standing on old flooring. By old, I mean pretty old.

Early days

In the year 1843, when the Wesleyan Mission in Madras found its Christian literature business a little less than lucrative, the store’s librarian, an enterprising lover of the written word, Abel Joshua Higginbotham, bought out all stocks. Then he named the shop after himself, moving it to Mount Road.

The new owner quickly gained a reputation; here was a man who knew people’s tastes and stocked up on the best of literature. Charles Trevelyan, then the Governer of Madras, reportedly wrote to his uncle Thomas Babington Macaulay in March 1859:

“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.”

In the same year, John Murray in his A Guidebook for the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay called the store “the premium bookshop of Madras”.

On Abel’s passing, his son CH Higginbotham inherited the store and expanded it further, starting a branch in Bangalore as well. The store grew rapidly, taking on publishing and printing work as well. In 1928, Allister McCain, in Seaports of Indian & Ceylon, called Higginbothams “the largest [bookstore] of its kind in South India” with connections “throughout the peninsula”. He also wrote:

“In 1875, when King Edward visited Madras as Prince of Wale, Messrs. Higginbotham and Co. had the unsolicited honour of being appointed booksellers to his Royal Highness, a mark of favour which was not conferred on any other bookseller in India.”

The group owned over two acres of land on and behind Mount Road back in the day, employing 400 people, across businesses. The Amagalmations Group led by S Anantharamakrishnan acquired Higginbothams in 1949.

Even today, the white façade of the Mount Road store wears an announcement of its year of birth – 1844 – and its line of business – Printers And Publishers, Booksellers And Stationers – in bold letters on either side of its large frontage. The sloping tiled roof, the stained-glass paintings, black and white tiles on the inside, and the handsome old, wooden furniture, like the grandfather clock on the stairway…it’s a monument of a bookshop. Standing there, luxuriating in that large space, under those long-stemmed lamps, looking for books, in a busy stretch of town, it’s impossible to not feel like one is a part of something grand. Something old.

To put it more crudely, oh the real estate! That something like this still stands today, in such an important part of the city, is a measure of how much Higginbothams means to its owner, the Amalgamations Group. The bookseller’s recent tie up with Writers Café, with branches across town, has come as a surprise; a welcome addition to a city that lost Landmark and Giggles, two iconic home-bred book destinations over the past few years.

Enter the pandemic

Just as the old Chennai bookshop was looking to be renovated, along the lines of the Bangalore branch (the oldest book shop in Bangalore too is Higginbothams, from 1905), Covid-19 struck. It has seen so much over the course of its history, but for its current owners this is an unprecedented time for the store.

“The pandemic has crippled the retail industry,” said Gautam Venkataramani, Director, Higginbothams. “And when one is selling a book that costs approximately Rs 300, something that you can get on Amazon much cheaper, why will customers want to risk their life? That’s the challenge we are faced with. We have to somehow work around this.”

The main bookstore in Chennai is fairly large. Nasir Ahmed, COO, Higginbothams, said, “Apart from usual measures like temperature checks for everyone coming in – staff and clients – sanitisation of door handles and floor regularly, we also decided to isolate incoming consignments of books for some time before opening them up.”

Since safety is paramount, they are now working on ways to improve customers’ in-store experience in terms of navigation, as well as to reduce the amount of human interaction. Doing this without compromising on service is among the bigger challenges for bookshops.

While things have eased up now, until September there were government restrictions on the number of people allowed inside the store; from the number of staff to the number of customers. “Not more than five people could be inside at any given point, which is nothing in a store of 15,000 square feet,” said Venkataramani. “There was more staff than customers.”

The airport branch of the bookstore in Chennai too has been through a challenging couple of months. Said Ahmed, “Fewer terminals and gates were in operation, and even when the airport was open, initially people’s movements were restricted, there was no permission for shopping. As the unlock continues, we are slowly getting better traction.”

There’s no point comparing sales with last year’s figures anymore, Ahmed said. He’s now looking at it month-on-month. And right now, the airport store is selling about 30% of what it used to pre-pandemic. And all the branches combined are doing around half of their pre-pandemic sales.

Other troubles

Higginbothams’ business model involves stores in malls, the airport, railway stations, and restaurants, apart from the standalone showrooms. Venkataramani said, “Our showroom was in a containment zone; railways, I don’t need to tell you; malls were closed, restaurants, of course, were gone. The other segment we’re in is schools and colleges, which have still not opened. All our campus stores have been shut. So, literally, the business model of the company has been decimated.”

Having said that, even though it’s a small part of the entire group’s operations, Venkataramani insisted that maintaining the stores and not letting them go is at the forefront of the group’s thinking. The oldest and perhaps first recorded recipes of Mulligatawny soup as well as Madras Curry Powder were published by Higginbothams, he said. That is the kind of history and legacy the group is wants protect and grow.

(As early as 1880, Higginbotham and Co, published The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook To The Kitchen in Madras. There’s an elaborate recipe for Mulligatawny Soup in the book. And it’s far removed from the mulagu thanni or rasam that I thought it was. Mulligatawny is made with shin of beef soup, a full-sized curry chicken, and a host of spices.) “It’s a landmark, and you know, we want to be in the book business,” said Venkataramani. “There is a reason our founder bought the company, and regardless of what has happened through online [competition], I think we have to find a way.”

It isn’t just Covid-19 that’s been troubling the bookstore, however. Its location, which has been its greatest asset, has proven to be a big weakness over the last seven years. Work on the Chennai Metro, in progress outside the shop for almost a decade, has completely ruined the approach to the store. Cracks have started appearing, and the road is about four feet higher than the store now.

“It becomes a kind of a river now whenever it rains,” said Venkataramani. “We are powerless to do anything because it’s classified as a heritage building.” And until recently, until the Mount Road stretch of the Metro construction was completed, even access to the store was cut off. Among all the business of the group, Higginbothams has been affected the most by Covid-19. That’s par for course across the retail segment in Chennai, as Venkataramani pointed out.

Old favourite, new normal

What next? “We have to reinvent ourselves,” Venkataramani said. “The idea, as things open up, is to make it a destination. In Bangalore, our store looked exactly like the Mount Road one. The renovation has come out extremely well. This is what we had in mind for Chennai, and we were waiting for the Metro work to stop before we could do the heritage touch up, plus you know, getting permission from the Corporation, etc.” That was when the pandemic came.

Now, another new chapter is about to unfold in the resilient Higginbothams story. India’s oldest bookseller will also move online now. The group has already launched a beta site, and is doing closed-group testing now. Higginbothams is looking at offering same-day deliveries in Chennai. The store has uploaded a few thousand titles for which it has inventory readily available.

“We can’t compete on price, we are not in the valuation game,” Venkataramani said. “We have a profit motive and we cannot afford to sell a Rs-300 book at Rs 50. That’s what we are up against. But we are hoping this online initiative will slowly pick up steam. With same-day delivery – that’s the USP – we’ll aim to be like a Swiggy for books.”

Higginbothams has also developed an e-reader, for which the plan is to showcase books in local languages, starting with Tamil, and, later, if it proves successful, Kannada. The e-book market for regional languages in India, especially in Tamil, has immense untapped potential. This reader is also being tested right now.

The old Chennai bookstore, the management promises, will turn into a beautiful family-friendly space, where we can sit and browse books, something we’ll all will need after months of being indoors and away from bookstores, sooner than later. “We did have plans for doing something for the 175th year of the store this year, but Covid-19 has put paid to all that,” said Venkataramani.

I asked if in the long history of the store there’s ever been a break like this. “This has got to be the most challenging time,” he said. “Maybe in 1918, because of the Spanish flu they may have experienced something like this.” That would have been under the previous owners, however. For the group, “this is something totally alien. We were powerless. This is nobody’s fault. What can one say? Still, we can say we are keen not to let go of this business. We want to sustain it, and add whatever we can.”

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.