How The Old Curiosity Shop on Mount Road has endured the pandemic
The 90-year-old antique shop continues to charm visitors
Welcome back to The Chennai Emailer — a local journalism project that brings out original human-interest features & news compilation from Chennai. It’s run by me —Mohammed Rayaan😊
I’m currently pursuing the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (City University of New York).
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You are bound to miss The Old Curiosity Shop on Mount Road especially if you pass the stretch during busy traffic hours. Nestled by the junction near Spencer Plaza, this redbrick store has been existing for over 90 years now.
As soon as you enter, you will wonder if you have walked into a store from Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. It was well lit and much cooler than the sweltering heat outside.
From paintings to rustic typewriters, from telescopes to old clocks and watches, you name it, the Old Curiosity Shop has it for you. As you go deeper into the store, your sense of curiosity deepens as well. With hundreds of items on display, the place is an organised chaos of antiquity.
Lateef Mohammed, who now manages the store, sits down for a chat. He says that his grandfather Ghulam Mohammed came from Kashmir. The family moved to escape the violence during the struggle for independence. They felt that South India was far safer and were comfortable starting a business here.
The good ol' days
"Mount Road at the time was known as the 'Golden mile of Madras' as it was an area with several prominent businesses. It was a place for the elite Britishers to shop," Lateef recalls. "The old Spencer plaza was here and the SBI was functioning as the Imperial Bank."
"Those days handicrafts from Kashmir were extremely popular and the English loved to buy them," says Lateef. "People visited us for it. They found the store unique and over time we christened it as The Old Curiosity Shop based on the Charles Dickens novel."
The family registered their business in the 1950s as per the new government’s rule and were among the few exporters of antique items in Madras.
When asked how he collects antiques, Lateef informs that when you have such business, people reach out to you. "They say I have this item and would like to sell it to me or else manufacturers of statues or souvenirs reach out and ask if they could sell their products at my store."
But how does he spot the difference between a fake antique and an original piece? This comes with experience, Lateef says. "You need to do your research. Sometimes even the seller from a place where you buy won't exactly know where a particular item is from!"
The pandemic and the way ahead
Did the pandemic affect his business? Lateef says that nothing much has changed, although he had to close his shop for several months during the initial lockdown days. "Those who can afford continue to buy," he tells. However, he points out that people have shown more curiosity about his work. "I had faith in God that my business will survive," he says.
One of the best things about running this store, Lateef feels, is that youngsters from different professions, especially college students, visit his store and talk about the pieces he has. He has pasted small posters with quotes of several philosophers or writers such as Rumi on the display panes. "It is for young men like you," Lateef tells me.
What does the future hold? He says he has slowly adapted to the "changing times" such as by creating a social media page on Facebook and Instagram with the help of his son. They upload photos of the items for sales and they are earning a slow but a growing number of followers.
As the conversation ends, Lateef says, "Businesses don't care about their customers anymore while customers don't trust businesses. We should change this and serve people better. I am happy that I can pay my bills and eat with the earnings I make through this shop."
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