The Hindu’s Lit for Life 2015 is in progress and where better to have it in than Madras or Chennai, which has for long been a city of books? Let us remember that located here is Higginbotham’s, the oldest surviving bookshop of India.

It began in 1840 or thereabouts as a shop selling the publications of the Wesleyan Missionaries. Abel Joshua Higginbotham worked there and when the Mission found it difficult to continue with it in 1844, he bought the business and named it after himself. One of its earliest business transactions available in the public domain is the Madras Literary Society’s purchase of Shelley’s Poetic Works for ‘ 7 ½ rupees’ in April 1847.

By 1859, it was one of the premier bookstores of India, John Murray referring to it as such in his Guidebook to the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay. What is even more interesting is the Governor of Madras, Sir Charles Trevelyan writing to Lord Macaulay the same year that “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.”

What made Higginbotham’s a pioneer was its publishing business. James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan had to await their 1873 edition, printed by Higginbotham’s to become famous the world over. Several landmark books from and on Madras were to come out of its printing presses. Mayne’s Hindu Law, for years the official handbook for all lawyers of the High Court of Madras for solving tangled inheritance and adoption issues, was brought out in 1878. Culinary Jottings by Wyvern (real name Col Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert) published the same year brought out several colonial Madras recipes. Had it not been for this, mulligatawny would have just languished at the Madras Club. Philology, religion, fiction, Government records and biographies – everything was grist to the Higginbotham’s printing press.

That it was not just a bookshop but also a place where browsing was encouraged is evident from the diary of Nemali Pattabhirama Rao, afterwards Dewan of Cochin. When he was a struggling student in the 1880s, he was deputed by James Thomson, Sub Collector of Madanapalle to “go every week to Higginbotham’s, read some book and write to him about its contents.” Business prospered and in 1904, Higginbothams built its present showroom. It was at around this time that it published its landmark Guide to Madras. It also began printing picture postcards featuring various sights and scenes of the city, and these are collectors items today. In the early 1900s, CH Higginbotham, who succeeded his father to the business, built the firm’s retail presence in railway stations. Both father and son were pillars of the Madras Trades Association and the former also served as Sheriff of Madras in 1888/89.

In 1921, Spencer’s acquired Higginbotham’s and in 1945 the Amalgamations Group took it over. What is important is that it has survived when others in that line have long faded out.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated January 17, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.