Higginbothams, Chennai: India's Oldest Surviving Bookstore

Higginbothams, Chennai | © Ravichandar84 / WikiCommons
Higginbothams, Chennai | © Ravichandar84 / WikiCommons
Set up in 1844 by a British stowaway, Higginbotham’s Chennai’s storefront has been around long enough to be considered India’s oldest surviving bookstore. A remarkable white building located on Mount Road, the store has a history that is just about as charming as its presence itself.

When Abel Joshua Higginbotham boarded a ship to India from Britain without a ticket or documentation in the mid 1800s, he probably wasn’t expecting to soon be the founder of one of India’s largest bookstore chains. Off-loaded from the ship at Madras (present day Chennai) by the supposedly irritated crew, Higginbotham, a qualified librarian, soon found employment at a bookstore then known as the Wesleyan Book Depository.

The bookstore served mostly religious material and therefore catered primarily to local theologians, religious soldiers and Christian missionaries. However, by the early 1840s it was running at a loss and its owners were determined to sell it at a low price. Higginbotham purchased the business from them in 1844, set up a new store in his own name, and stocked it with a richer collection of books – which soon earned it a reputation for quality.

Testament to its rich and diverse collection of books, a letter dating back to 1859 from the then Governor of Madras, calls Higginbotham’s “a delightful place for the casual browser and a serious book lover.” The bookstore’s success was such that Higginbotham’s expanded to trade in stationery items and even began publishing books by the 1860s. When the British Crown took over the governance of India in 1858, the store printed copies of the Queen’s proclamation on this in both Tamil and English and distributed them all over Madras. By 1884, Higginbotham’s & Co. marked themselves out among publishers in India with their first publication Sweet Dishes: A little Treatise on Confectionary by Wyvern.

Higginbothams stall at Chennai International Airport © Sodabottle/WikiCommons

Abel Joshua Higginbotham was appointed the Sheriff of Madras in 1888 and 1889, a period during which his son, C. H. Higginbotham became increasingly involved in the business. When Abel died in 1891, his son continued expanding the business – with their still-standing Bangalore outlet being established on M.G. Road in 1905. By the mid-1900s, Higginbotham’s had established outlets in railway stations across south India and had been acquired by Amalgamations Group, a Chennai-based business conglomerate.

Higginbothams, Bangalore © Rameshng/WikiCommons

Today, Higginbothams & Co. own about 22 outlets across the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Its Bangalore and Chennai branches are not just two of the country’s oldest bookstores, but also remain among the most notable.