Chennai is not only famous for its “biggest little bookshop”, it is also host to the bigger names in the trade. Landmark, that started the trend, has now become a part of Trent Ltd, owned by Tata. It has a huge presence in two of the major malls, as well as in the original stand-alone shop at Nungambakkam. Odyssey, that started as a retain bookshop, has been bought by the Deccan Chronicle Group from Hyderabad and has several smaller outlets. R. Sriram, who started Crossword, that is now a part of the Shoppers’ Stop brand, is a Chennai boy. The newly opened Oxford Book Store is known for its smart interiors and fashionable Cha Bar, but long before it made its presence felt, Oxford University Press (OUP), Orient Longman and Macmillan’s, to mention just a few, all had showrooms to display their very distinct publications. OUP, under the enthusiastic guidance of its publisher, Mini Krishnan, is making its name in producing excellent translations into English from a number of Indian languages.
Chennai’s best-known landmark for books was started in 1844 to promote missionary tracts. The Wesleyan mission needed someone to run their bookshop and when a certain Abel Joshua Higginbothams was washed ashore (legend has it that he was a stowaway who was thrown out of a ship by the captain), they gave him the job. It did not prosper as a missionary shop, but when it was sold to Higginbothams, he made sure it became a huge success. He is said to have worked the shop all by himself, taking his customers around personally, thereby establishing that special rapport that is the charm of the individually owned bookshop. When the Prince of Wales visited Madras in 1875, Higginbothams became known as the booksellers to His Royal Highness. In the Diamond Jubilee year, 1904, son C.H. Higginbothams built the present shop to its current architectural grandeur, with imported marble floors, high ceiling, stained-glass windows and a special staircase. With its vast godown for keeping stock at the back taking up almost two acres and the built-up area in front of 10,000sq. ft, Higginbothams claims to be the biggest bookshop in the country. It’s a part of the Amalgamations group that acquired it in 1945.
Premier Bookshop in Bangalore
This is another one of the book-lovers’ haunts of the South that provoke intense nostalgia. It was started in l971 by T.N. Shanbagh, belonging to that rare tribe of booksellers who, while seeming taciturn, nurture an instinct for books. There are tales about how he has helped students to buy books on hire purchase, or how he creates arresting rectangular tower of remaindered books that sometimes fall on customers, stunning them into buying them. When the owners of the building off Bangalore’s Church Street, where his cramped bookshop of 600sq. ft is located, wanted to evict him, the city’s chatterati rose as one and begged the sharks to back off. Not far off, there’s the Select Book Shop, a second-hand bookshop that is going strong into the second generation.