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Haven for shopaholics

Published Jan 20, 2014, 3:07 pm IST
Updated Mar 19, 2019, 7:16 am IST
Spencer’s credited with creating the first departmental store in India and the first mall.

The wide choice boggles the imagination. Three decades ago, it would have been unthi­n­kable that an Indian could walk into a store and buy from a reasonable spread of goods from around the world.

Today, to buy a $1000 shoe at Jimmy Choo or an even more expensive handbag at Louis Vuitton in the same luxury mall located on an up-market high street is possible provided, of course, your purse is weighty enough or the plastic in it is sufficiently sound.


And yet, ‘mall’ is not a modern word. In 1737, it meant a "shaded walk serving as a promenade," although its modern sense of "enclosed shopping gallery" dates back only to 1963. Chennai, actually its predecessor Madras, would have had its first tryst with a fancy shopping area long before when in the late 19th century Spencer’s was a hou­sehold name for luxury goods. Spencer’s, housed in splendid Indo-Saracenic architecture symbolic of the city, was the departmental store to go to right up to the day it burned down mysteriously in 1983.

A very old friend remembers, as a kid, the distinct thrill of going up and down the first escalator in India, which was at Spencer’s back in the 1930s. Spencer & Co is credited with opening the first departmental store in the country in 1895 (the firm first built Spencer Plaza on Mount Road in 1863-64) and the store is said to have had 80 individual departments. The only reason we could go there as kids was to run errands for a rich uncle, to buy his favourite cigarettes, Personal Preference with its very name symbolising pricey exclusivity.

Imported westerns and Perry Mason books were showcased in the popular books section and there really were not that many goods made in India you could not buy at the stately store, even woolens for those fortunate enough to be able to spend their cruel summers in the cool of Ooty or Kodaikanal. The elite peered at the expensive fashion jewellery locked inside musty looking cupboards, but all nicely back lit to give shoppers the lustre. The displays at Spencer’s of the ‘60s were probably as good as those of Selfridges in London of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Shopping at Spencer’s was not necessarily egalitarian, which perhaps was the reason why the valuable real estate may have been waiting for its metamorphosis into a most modern shopping space to fit the new definition of ‘mall’.

Rumours swirled about the fire, the popular conclusion being it may have been an insurance scam although others thought the fire was convenient for bringing in the emerging mall developers of the time who eyed the 10-acre property bang in the centre of town where the store even lends its name to the traffic signal at the intersection outside.

The blackened shell of the old red brick building stood for some years as a reminder not only of the ravages of fire but also of the opportunity it represented of bringing in modernity. It took eight years to replace one landmark of about 80 years standing into a new shopping complex - this ‘complex’ being a word Chen­nai seems to love seeing how common it is in this metro.

But when an older name in Spencer Plaza came to replace Spencer’s, it was the swankiest mall in town and the first such in the country. Footfalls multiplied in factors of millions as the new shoppers came in hordes to the city’s biggest shopping attraction.

As time passed, shop displays may have got more and more sophisticated as we see in far more modern malls now. But the Plaza’s had a unique draw in the variety it brought in - from branded goods in swanky showrooms to the ‘Old curiosity shop’ concept. 

By far the greatest thrill was in window shopping at Tiffany’s, the curio shop filled with goods from another era - a telephone with a handle to crank like in old Hollywood movies, ancient gramophones with the big speaker, made so famous by one brand that had a dog sitting by to listen to his master’s voice, etc.

Rasheed, who runs the shop which has been the family business for long, welcomes the ‘browsers’ with as much enthusiasm as he would a genuine customer likely to make a purchase. The old clocks trigger nostalgia like none else, the space-demanding grandfather clocks looking even cuter, their big pendulums symbolising the march of time in an altogether different era, ages before the digital revolution ushered in the LCD readout warning us incessantly of the passage of time.

The mall has scored several other firsts too, like hosting an international squash tournament in a glass court in the wide atrium that also has the best tribute to the store the mall replaced with a recreated facade of the old Spencer’s.

The mall hosted a snooker national as well in a trendy amusement arcade. The tradition established a couple of centuries ago of elegant shopping is being preserved, that too in competitive times when glittering malls are fighting for a share of the footfalls and, more importantly, the sales that keep the nation’s GDP ticking too. 

Location: Tamil Nadu