For a store that opened its doors barely three days ago, Higginbothams exudes an air of age, familiarity and old-world charm. But perhaps that’s inescapable, but also welcome, for a bookstore – possibly India’s oldest – that has stood rooted in its place even as the world around it transformed completely.
As Gautam Venkataramani, Director of Higginbothams, lists out, there’s a world of revolutionary changes that the bookstore – housed in a Graeco-Roman-style building on Bengaluru’s MG Road since 1905 – can claim witness to.
“If you look at the kind of changes that have happened since 1844, the Industrial Revolution has taken hold, there have been revolutions in printing and publishing, we’ve gone through two World Wars, Partition, Independence... the internet age has come. The company has gone through political, cultural, technological change, and has still maintained its presence.”
But it’s not just venerable age that makes Higginbothams, with its two heritage branches in Chennai and Bengaluru, so special. The booksellers’ history is a story of unique conjunctures. Its founder, Abel Higginbotham, was apparently a stowaway on a ship, dumped on the docks of Madras and began as a seller of Bibles to English soldiers in the city.
From there, the company passed on via Higginbotham’s son to eventually reach Amalgamations Group, which is mostly peopled by companies in various manufacturing sectors. But there was a romance of the word that threaded its way through the ethos of the group, otherwise dedicated to efficient engineering. Indeed, even today, Gautam hold s the reins of both Higginbothams and of India Pistons (where he’s the Whole-Time Director), itself one of the oldest automobile component firms in the country.
Along the way, Higginbothams has some superb nuggets of history. In 1876, for instance, it served as the exclusive provider of reading material for the Prince of Wales during his visit to India. And in 1884, Higginbothams’s first publishing efforts also established a unique culinary legacy – publishing the recipes for mulligatawny (from melagu thanni or pepper rasam) and for Madras curry powder for possibly the first time ever.
The Bengaluru store, says Gautam, seeks to make this heritage a tangible element of the experience it provides its customers. “So we have reconstructed the walkway that focuses on the history of Higginbothams and a lot of those milestones also have to do with a part of the history of Bangalore, and how Higginbothams was a part of landscape of what used to be called South Parade for so many years,” he says.
It’s not that Higginbothams stays stuck to its historical preeminence. With dedicated spaces to graphic novels and a gaming station, and with newer ideas of visual merchandising deployed in the redesign, the refurbished store is certainly eager to move with the times. But what the company refuses to do, says Gautam, is be swayed away from the heart of its purpose – to sell books and be an important part of the reading and academic culture of Bengaluru.
“Our research suggests that for many companies, other bookstores, the proportion of sales for books and what the industry calls non-books, that could stretch from perfumes to anything, stationery as well, that proportion is actually 70-30 in favour of non-books. Whereas Higginbothams has always been, maybe to a fault, focusing on books excessively,” he says.
But what about bookstores downing shutters, internet giants and e-readers replacing brick-and-mortar stores and paper-and-ink books? Gautam has a ready quote for that too: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than are stairs by elevators,” borrowing inspiration from British comedian Stephen Fry. More business-like, he adds that their research shows e-readers work better for high-definition magazines with a lot of graphic content. “And magazines are disposable as well, their shelf life is anything between a week to a month, not more than that. Whereas books last, for many people, a lifetime.”
But, says Gautam, business realities are realities, and Higginbothams cannot compete with online retailers on discounts and price points. Instead, where the venerable bookstore hopes to draw customers is with the physical experience of the store. So, wander through the store, and you find its so refreshingly different from the single-hall, nearly warehouse-style set-up of most large bookstores. Instead, Higginbothams wanders a meandering route, suddenly revealing new categories and collections of books.
“The whole concept of our experience that we aim to offer is a voyage of discovery. That’s the digital alternative. Because you don’t get to discover as much online. Of course you can, but not in the traditional fashion of moving yourself in a bookstore and coming across content that you never expected to discover when you walked in,” says Gautam.
And it’s the little touches that have been put in that add to the experience of the store. From the fascinating coat of arms that adorns the front door to the wire frame ratha (chariot) that overlooks the store’s designated Karnataka travel and culture zone to the old-style green metal shelves that mimic college libraries for the academic collection, there are little details that suddenly transform the casual experience of book browsing.
There’s a refurbished courtyard too for book readings, launches, workshops and the like, which fantasy author Amish Tripathi packed to the rafters on opening night. Soon, there’s also going to be a cosy little pathway connecting MG Road and Church Street, complete with a coffee shop to linger by and enjoy peace and quiet at the heart of the city too.
At the end of the day, what Higginbothams offers to its long-time fans and customers, is what it has always offered – a place of familiar constancy, in a rapidly changing world. As Gautam says, “We may not be the biggest bookshop in India, but we’re still around and kicking, and certainly there’s something to be said for that.”