Remember typewriting ribbons? Anusha Parthasarathy drops in on the kind of stores that thrived before computers took over the planet

Housed in a Mexican Villa on Armenian Street in George Town, ‘Office Equipment Co' is a repository of quaint heritage. The entire area is wood-panelled, the stocks stored in teakwood cupboards and desks, and portraits of the founders hang from peeling-limestone walls. The ‘Pitman's Shorthand Books' cupboard no longer houses what it's supposed to, and contrary to the legend outside, they no longer deal with just ‘Stationery, Commercial Books, Typewriter and Cyclostyle requisites'. The air is that of holding on to a colonial past while trying desperately to keep up with changing times.

Started in 1903 by C.A.Venkatachar, a Pitman's Shorthand and Typewriting instructor who also conducted Government Technical Examinations, the shop imported shorthand and typewriting books from Pitman's & Sons, UK. “My grandfather was importing those books but there are very few takers for shorthand or typewriting these days. After computers took over, there seems to be no need even if there are opportunities. Shorthand is useful, especially in courts and there is always a demand for the skill there,” says C.R. Srinivasan, who now runs the store.

The shop also sold related stationery, like typewriting ribbons and carbon paper. “We used to sell stencil paper and printing inks as well but we don't really have customers these days. What really sells now are Xerox paper and notebooks, among other office stationery. We do sell typewriting ink but on an order basis, since it's not very easily available,” Srinivasan adds.

Venkatachar's son C.V. Ramaswamy, a Chartered Accountant, took over the business from him around the time they were importing major stationery brands from abroad. “Pelican, Faber Castle, Staedtler, Pilot and Parkers; we imported writing instruments and stationery from all major brands and people from all over town would come here to buy them from us. But now there are so many shops selling everything, the novelty is no longer there.”

This 600 sq. ft. shop attracts a large legal clientele, owing to its proximity to the high court. “I'm a law graduate myself and joined the business in 1970,” says Srinivasan. And while we get a lot of lawyers, our old customers still keep coming. We've had them for many generations. But I guess things are changing because Chennai has now gone to its suburbs.”

Office Equipment Co. used to supply to British firms like Binny and Co, Shaw Wallace, Lloyd's Bank and others like the Integral Coach Factory. “People would want to have a store in George Town previously because this is where people would shop, and the Broadway bus stand was the main bus stand in the city. Now that has shifted to Koyambedu and the old town has been neglected. A few of us who've been around for many years are the only ones who refuse to move. I have not changed anything here, including the ambience. These cupboards have been with us since the shop began and I have no intention of changing them. We've kept a lot of things as they were,” he says, pointing at a room temperature reader that has been with the shop for a few decades.

In another part of George Town, a year after Indian Independence, Hindustan Trading Company opened business in Kasi Chetty Street.

Founded in 1948 in Parry's Corner by P.V. Narayanan, this stationery shop started out by selling cashew nuts and then added plastic ribbons to their cards. He began to market two-way feeding bottles and baby soothers, and his son, P.N. Venketakrishnan, who then owned a Standard Ten van, travelled throughout the state to promote it.

“There have been times when the van has broken down in Ooty, Dharmapuri and other remote areas and I've had to tow it for a few hours in the night to get it fixed at a nearby village. Every sale was a lifeline back then,” says Venketakrishnan, who now runs the business.

He credits his father as being among the first to introduce the re-distribution system. “He zeroed in on stationery and art materials, and supplied them to schools and artists. We were the sole selling agents for the Madras Pencil Factory, who were known for their Mercury pencil much before other brands came into existence,” he adds. “Then we started selling tiger locks, playing cards and become exclusive distributors of Camlin for Chengalpet, Salem, north and south Arcot.”

In 1975, Hindustan Trading Company opened a second showroom in Royapettah, next to Ajanta Hotel. “We started to sell gift materials and other stationery paraphernalia. Now we focus on art materials from brands like Pebeo, Windsor and Newton,” he says. This shop's clientele includes the late M.F. Hussain, Achudan, S.G. Vasudev, Eswaran, Yusuf Arakkal and Naresh Kapadia.