Inside Higginbothams: A Bookstore That's Shaped India's Literary Legacy Since 1844

Inside Higginbothams: A Bookstore That's Shaped India's Literary Legacy Since 1844
L:, R:

In the year 1844, amid the streets of Madras City, an establishment was born — Higginbothams; a name that would soon be synonymous with literature and knowledge.

Abel Joshua Higginbotham, an English librarian, reportedly arrived in India as a stowaway, but fate led him to Madras port where he found employment at the Wesleyan Book Shop run by Protestant missionaries. When the missionaries decided to sell the struggling business, Higginbotham seized the opportunity and bought the store in 1844, naming it Higginbotham's. Thus, Higginbothams emerged as India's oldest existing bookstore

Higginbothams' white, Palladian facade, adorned with a prominent blue-lettered sign above the entrance, stood as a witness to antiquity. As modern shops pressed in around it, the bookshop's charm only grew stronger.

Old Postcard From 1944 of Higginbothams
Old Postcard From 1944 of

Abel Joshua established himself to be a man of intellect with a prodigious memory, especially when it came to books. Higginbothams became not just a bookshop but a sanctuary for browsing. It cultivated the art of browsing, inviting patrons to linger, and allowing plenty of time to feel the essence of each book.

Higginbotham himself remained well-informed about current national and international affairs, and this awareness was reflected in his selection of books. Understanding the reading habits of the people of Madras, he began importing an extensive array of literature, covering poetry, fiction, non-fiction, politics, philosophy, religion, ethics, economics, history, medicine, engineering, and fine arts.

Abel Joshua Higginbothams (L) and his son Charles Herbert Higginbotham (R).
Abel Joshua Higginbothams (L) and his son Charles Herbert Higginbotham (R).

The heart of the bookshop featured the words of Francis Bacon, inscribed on the sidewall of the entrance: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested".

The building itself was thoughtfully designed to protect its literary gems. With a high ceiling facilitating air circulation to prevent mustiness, minimal windows to guard against dust from the unmetalled roads, and imported stained glass adorning the few windows present, Higginbothams exuded an aura of reverence for the written word. The elegant Italian marble floors and a splendid staircase leading to a second floor added to the building's grandeur.

For many today in the South, Higginbotham has become synonymous with train journeys, establishing stalls at more than fifty railway stations across the country since 1944. Moreover, travellers passing through Chennai airport can find the comforting presence of a Higginbothams store.

Higginbothams in Chennai airport.
Higginbothams in Chennai airport.

Despite the advent of the digital age, Higginbothams has stood its ground, refusing to succumb to the increasing pull of e-books and Kindles. Its legacy endures, for it has carved a niche that thrives in the physical presence of the store. The experience of stepping inside the old building, with its original Italian marble chequered flooring, ornate stained glass decorations, and stately white facade, is irreplaceable.

Inside Higginbothams: A Bookstore That's Shaped India's Literary Legacy Since 1844
The 3 Oldest & Most Iconic Family Run Independent Bookstores In Delhi

There is another famous quote regarding the old bookstore that circulates from the past. In March 1859, Charles Trevelyan, the Governor of Madras, wrote to his uncle Thomas Babington Macaulay, praising Higginbothams as a preserve of literature.

"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. It's Altogether a delightful place for the casual browser and a serious book lover."

Charles Trevelyan, Governor of Madras

As the decades passed, Higginbothams stood witness to monumental changes. From the Industrial Revolution to revolutions in printing and publishing, from two World Wars to Partition and Independence, and finally to the advent of the internet age, the company weathered numerous political, cultural, and technological shifts while retaining its unyielding presence.

The Tribune

In an era where many venerable institutions have faded into history, Higginbothams stands tall, preserving its status as India's oldest and most loved book shop. Its legacy remains intact, carrying the essence of generations past into the hearts and minds of those who continue to seek respite in the written word.