The Higginbothams Bookstore — with its Mangalore tile roof, stained glass panels and Italian marble floors — carries forward its 179-year-long legacy.

The Higginbothams Bookstore in Chennai, Tamil Nadu

The 179-year legacy of this bookstore and its charming architectural language makes it one of Chennai’s remarkable gems

Words by Prathi Jagan
Photos by Indira Kumar

29 Dec 2023

For my 20th birthday, my best friend made a map of the most enchanting places in our hometown, Chennai. And on the gloomy morning of 10 January, this map led me to what soon became one of my favourite pieces of the city’s history, the delightful Higginbothams bookstore in Anna Salai.

Said to be India’s oldest surviving bookstore, Higginbothams has been around since 1844. Founder Abel Joshua Higginbotham had served a rather unhappy stint as a seaman, and only discovered his love for books when he managed a bookstore for Methodist missionaries. Their business eventually shut down but it opened a path for Higginbotham — the missionaries offered to sell him the stock of books, which he accepted, and set up his first store in Anna Salai (earlier Mount Road) in 1844. It was a tiny setup back then, but his passion for books and expertise for sourcing them led him to become a renowned bookseller in the city, and also one loved by the British. In 1904, after 60 successful years, the bookstore under the care of his son, CH Higginbotham, shifted into its current residence — the one I know and love — also located in Anna Salai.

Windows with stained glass panels on the ground floor allow ample sunlight but are not openable to prevent dust from entering the bookstore.
On the other hand, the windows on the upper level — which also feature stained glass — can be opened for ventilation.

This beautiful building was designed by RF Chisholm, a pioneer of Indo-Saracenic architecture in Chennai, who also built the Victoria Public Hall or Town Hall in the city. The building that now houses Higginbothams was built specifically to house books. I don’t spot many windows that can be opened — which I learnt was done to keep the dust coming in to a minimum — but the many fixed floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor grab my attention. The stained glass embedded in the circular arches on the facade adds a romance that is carried onto the interior. While these panels let in ample light, the windows on the upper level can be opened for ventilation.

I notice the touch of colonial architecture present in the details, like the entrance archway safeguarded by a timber and glass double door. The white walls and their extruding columns stand out to me, and more so when coupled with the symmetrical beauty of the building, topped by a cupola-like structure with ‘1844’ carved into it. The building also has a sloping roof of Mangalore tiles, supported by wooden rafters and metal trusses that are now painted white. The roof is also glazed with a polymer film to prevent water leaks.

Each time I visit the bookstore, I’m met with the nostalgic waft of old and new books, but Higginbothams holds a charm beyond this. The flooring here — of black and white Italian marble tiles placed diagonal to each other — is recognisable to any resident of Chennai. A piece of furniture that I’m particularly fond of is the grandfather clock that rests comfortably on the mid-landing of the staircase with timber railings. The architectural language is carried throughout the store, and with every look, I always get a glimpse of the design, the old and the new.

Higginbothams will always be laden with nostalgia from my 20th birthday for its legacy and the beauty of a declining architectural style that I adore. Tucked away somewhere amongst the array of bookshelves, I can rely on for comfort and solace in Chennai.

Find your way to the Higginbothams Bookstore in Chennai, Tamil Nadu via Google Maps here.

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Prathi Jagan is an architect who loves exploring art and colonial architecture styles, especially in her hometown, Chennai. She is on Instagram at @gtfo_prathi.

Indira Kumar is a Chennai-based photographer who is interested in pursuing long-term photography projects that focus on family and relationships, and the idea of memories. He is on Instagram at @indirakumar93.

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  • Andrew Samuel | January 10, 2024 at 12:40 pm

    When ever I walk in Mount Road ,this beautiful marvelous building takes me back to my school days memories way back in 1955s.What a wonderful magical days those period..

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