Anusha Parthasarathy flips through the history of Higginbothams, India's oldest-known bookstore which is still in business

Here, the high white arches and wooden railings hold portraits of two men with beards and enigmatic smiles. Higginbothams, India's oldest-known bookstore, began as a religious bookstore in 1844. Every dog-eared page of its 167-year-old history has had booklovers thronging its aisles and taking back a lingering smell of printed paper.

Though it was started on a small scale by Abel Joshua Higginbotham, the shop no longer restricts itself to a particular genre, absorbing trends and keeping stocks up-to-date, while allowing the past to linger on in the original Italian marble chequered flooring, ornate stained glass decorations over the entrance door and windows and the white façade that is archaic and regal.

Nothing has changed at the bookshop, and business is as usual. A wooden door at the back leads to the offices, where K. Srinivasan, who has worked here since 1955, sits at the very end. He is quick to dole out trivia, “This flooring is as old as the bookstore,” he remarks, “and so are the stained glass frames over the windows and door. It's because they are from that time that they've lasted so long.”

The history of Abel Higginbotham's life has largely been documented, from his first job selling copies of the Bible to soldiers and later as a librarian of the local Wesleyn Book Depository, which then closed and handed over its books to him. “When he eventually started the bookshop with whatever stock he had, it was a small place on Mount Road,” adds Srinivasan, “He expanded his collection when he got familiar with what the public was reading.”

The bookshop grew, so did its reputation. A guide book published in 1859 by John Murray titled ‘Presidencies of Madras and Bombay' listed Higginbothams as a ‘premier book shop'. “When King Edward visited Madras as the Prince of Wales in 1875, Messrs Higginbothams and Co had the sole honour of supplying him books,” says the veteran, who is the editor of the monthly newsletter ‘The Mail'.

As business grew, Higginbothams also expanded to publishing, with ‘Sweet Dishes: A little Treatise on Confectionary' by Wyvern coming out in 1884. While cookery books were popular back then, it moved on to publish books across various genres. Higginbothams had already become the official book supplier for the government and its institutions by the beginning of the 20{+t}{+h}century, and had a list of important customers, right from then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee to the last Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar.

In 1891, Abel Higginbotham died, leaving his son C.H. Higginbotham in charge. “After his son took over, the bookshop shifted to where it is now, on Mount Road,” explains Srinivasan, “It was their diamond jubilee year and the shop was built just to accommodate books.” The high, sloping roof was for better air circulation while windows were kept to the minimum to prevent dust from entering.

In 1949, S. Anantharamakrishnan of the Amalgamations Group took over the bookstore from the Higginbothams. His son A. Krishnamoorthy is now its chairman. “After Independence, the transition of the company from British-owned to becoming an Indian family-run business happened,” says M. Hemalatha, senior customer relations manager, Higginbothams, “We continue to grow.”

Higginbothams soon began to stock every genre of books, their most popular section being the reference and technical books. “Perry's Chemical Engineering Handbookwas the Bible for any chemical engineer worth his salt. I remember, sometime in the 1960s, an American gentleman came up and asked for this book,” reminisces Srinivasan, “When I took him and showed him a copy, he turned to me and said, ‘I'm Perry. I'm the author of that book.' He was happy that his book had found a place in a bookshop in Madras.”

Higginbothams has had stalls in over fifty railway stations across the country since 1944 and also has one at the Chennai airport. “Our collection of books was awe-inspiring,” says Srinivasan, “Before we had retail outlets, we had small shops that would be our official distributors all over the place. We stopped that system later, and with the training they had received from us, those stores began to function as individual entities.”

Technology hasn't affected their business at all, says Hemalatha. Srinivasan concurs. “Almost everyone has visited Higginbothams,” he says, “We have books literally on everything, from toddlers to pregnancy related books to cookery. I've seen three generations of families coming back to our store.”

Some others:

In a Mylapore home with low entrances and green-painted doors, there are no people. Stacks and stacks of law books occupy every nook and corner from floor to ceiling, leaving a narrow space in between where faded signs of little Krishna's feet found their way to bless this home-turned-bookshop.

Started in 1914 by T.A. Santhanam, Old Law Books is not a bookshop in the traditional sense. A home-grown business that has lasted three generations, it is now run by K.S. Mukundan, after his father T.A. Srinivasan. While their home, just a few blocks away from the shop on Arundale Street is also crowded with books, they are part of a rare collection, says Mukundan. “We were always selling books from home,” he adds, “only recently, since there was no space at all in our house, we shifted to another place. I rented a house and keep them there. The space is still not enough.”

There are over 25,000 books there, the musty smell of their yellowing pages pervading the entire house. “I deal in second-hand law books only. I buy them from lawyers and others who would like to give them away,” says Mukundan, “Reports, journals, rare law books – we're known all over the country for selling them.”

Mukundan runs a one-man show, preserving and restoring the books. “I recently gave books to the Madurai High Court too. I'm in the only one in South India who deals with old law books and people invariably come to me. The oldest in my collection dates back to 1848. This is where people come to buy originals.”