Joshua Higginbotham, a British stowaway, founder of the largest book store in colonial India!!

Founder A.J. Higginbotham.

Higginbotham's main store, Chennai, Tamil

The Higginbotham's is an Indian company of booksellers and publishers whose head office is in Chennai city, the main bookstore being located on  Mount Road, Chennai. Except old timers, the younger generation of Indians may not be aware that the book shop is an historical one and  has the reputation of being India's oldest bookshop in existence.

You will be surprised if you come to know that it was founded by a British  stowaway!! His name was Abel Joshua Higginbotham who was offloaded at Madras port by an irate captain of the ship who found out that he traveled all the way from England without proper ticket and documents. Being a well educated man (he was an English librarian  before) Higginbotham, whose main interest was in books, it is not quite surprising,  he got a job of managing the Wesleyan Book Shop at Madras. The book shop  was catering to the needs of a large influx of Christian missionaries, especially Protestant evangelists  in India. As a matter of fact, they had a big stake in the book store.

HigginBothams,India's oldest bookstore, Chennai,TN,

The missionaries kept running the shop under compelling circumstances despite dismal saleAt last, having found the going tough and it was useless to keep the shop open, they decided to put up the bookstore for sale because a losing venture is a pain in the neck. The 'Dame Luck' smiled on Joshua who approached the missionaries about the sale of their bookshop and struck a reasonable deal within his shoestring budget.
In the year 1844, he then set up his book shop in the name and style of "Higginbothams" on Mount Road. Initially, with a small budget to run the show, it was a sort of one man operation, the owner doing various duties and  sometimes he had to take the customers around the shop, leaving a part of the shop unguarded. It was tough time, however,  he enjoyed doing it with confidence that his sale  would  move upward in the near future. Book freaks  and worms in the city  got the scent and found the store useful. You name the book, Higginbothams would order for them any book they wanted, from any part of the  world.

The visit of the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) to Madras in 1875  was a blessing  in disguise for the store owner.  Higginbothams & Co  drew the attention of the city's elite and others in the society and surely the visit of Royalty highlighted the usefulness and importance  this shop had in the Empire. from that point of time onward, he never had to look back.

Higginbothams & Co" had the honor of being appointed booksellers to His Royal Highness, a mark of favor not conferred on any other firm of booksellers in India".

Now the book company gained popularity and name and the founder's reputation  and fortune also shot up concurrently. In 1888 and 1889, 
Higginbotham became the Sheriff of Madras,  the port city where  the Captain of the British ship ceremoniously threw him - a stowaway off the ship.

Higginbothams  book store,Chennai.

In March 1859, in a letter to Lord Macaulay, Lord Trevelyan, the Governor of Madras wrote:
    ''Among the many elusive and indescribable charms of life in Madras City, is the existence of my favorite 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. Amongist the German writers, I can have Schiller and Goethe. Altogether a delightful place for the casual browser and a serious book lover''.

Higginbotham's were the sole suppliers to the Connemara Public Library, Madras (now Chennai). Besides, they  became sole official book-supplier to government and to various institutions. Their prominent  customers included  British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (in office 1945-1951), veteran Indian statesman Rajaji, who became the first Indian Governor General in 1948 after the British left, and  S. Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, the last Maharajah of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, et al.  The main patrons were the elite of Madras presidency as well as other regions. In the 1950s an 1960s, it was one of the prestigious book companies in India.

 C. H. Higginbothams took the reigns after his father's death. During his period the store moved over to a palatial, well designed building on Mount Road with high ceiling (to allow free air and to reduce mustiness) with minimum windows  (to avoid dust from un-metaled road in those days). Decorated  stained glass  from Europe and  Italian marbles  were used in the building. The showroom was the largest one in India till the 1990s. The owners of this famous book company are very particular about retaining the heritage flavor of the building.
After Independence in 1947, Higginbothams was bought out by the Amalgamation  group in 1949 headed by the late Indian industrialist C. A. Anantha Ramakrishnan. After him, his son A. Sivasailam and others managed the book company well and saw to it it was not fallen off midway on account of acute competition. Once  it had a chain of 22 outlets spread across the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of  Pondicherry.  Now, the number of branches has gone up, but the company's strategy is limited to sales operations.  The parent company,  which is a huge engineering company with other interests like tea, coffee plantation, tractor, etc has, somehowlimited book sale operations and branches. Even to day, one can spot the old book company's outlet at all major railway stations in Southern India, a tradition first introduced by  founder's son  C. H. Higginbotham.

Despite being penniless Abel Joshua Higginbotham, British librarian, who landed here for a decent living, made it to  the top through sheer hard work and business acumen. The Higginbotham book stores,  reckoned to be India's oldest chains, stand as a grand memorial to the founder's toil under testing time. Still the book company is heaven for genuine book worms.

''Put your heart, mind, intellect and soul even to your smallest acts. This is the secret of success''.
                                          - Swami Sivananda