CHENNAI : Anna Salai is more than 400 years old and it is the epitome of all things history. It is home to Higginbothams, LIC building, Devi Theatre, and the famous Old Curiosity Shop. But what stands out to me is Spencer Plaza, an old favourite of Chennaiites. Built in 1863 and established by Charles Durant and JW Spencer on erstwhile Mount Road, in the Madras Presidency, the mall has seen everything — reinventing their iconic status to come out of its relative obscurity, fire breakouts, and power supply cuts.
Today, the three-phased mall stands tall but is a structure frozen in time. As I saunter inside the plaza, which was earlier my family’s favourite hangout spot, photographic memories of the ice-cream machines whipping cones of softies, popcorn makers filling red and white-striped paper cones with warm and salty popcorn, hordes of people lazing around the basement and people queuing up at the Landmark store to listen to newly released music albums at the music stations, come to mind.Cut to present, even on a weekend evening, the mall is fairly empty. The rumbling noise from the escalator, the opening and closing of the doors of the cylindrical elevator, voices of retailers standing outside their shops inviting customers and the murmurs of few shoppers fill the air.
Losing the mojo
We approach a group of youngsters taking selfies with an absurd-looking mannequin. “I used to come here with my parents. I remember it being bright and full of activities. Nowadays, I come here only to buy mobile cases. One of my friends even got his ears pierced here,” says Sharan. Ask them about taking selfies with the mannequin, and he says, “Where else do we find such mannequins these days? When I think of Spencer’s these mannequins come to mind.”
Observing the scene, Wasim, owner of a 15-year-old Kashmiri handicraft store in the mall shakes his head in disappointment and rues, “Ten years ago, this place was buzzing with activities. You couldn't find this kind of variety and assortment of goods anywhere. It was so lively and we made business too. Now, people hardly come here.” Like several shops in the plaza, his store is on the verge of shutting down. “Expats and tourists often visit our store to buy handicrafts. But since there are many such shops here, not all of us make money. At this rate, we will close the shop soon,” says Wasim who came to the city in 2007, from Kashmir, to run the shop.
Another shop owner Irfan tells us that there was a time when the gates had to be shut to control the crowd. “Books and albums used to be released in the atrium here and celebrities visited often. The fire accident and later the power crisis in 2011-13 was a major blow. Who would want to come to a mall, which didn't have electricity? But now it has been sorted. But the facilities in other malls, especially film screens, are a threat to us,” he says.
The intimate atmosphere of the mall, the architecture, the glass roof in the third phase, and the atrium, makes us fall in love with the complex all over again. As we prepare to leave, a mechanical panda toy train whizzes past us. The operator standing next to the old play area, which has the famous elephant and clown mechanical toys tells us that they are new additions. “Do they still work?” I ask her curiously, she says,“Yes!” and asks if I have played here as a child. “It's still `20 per person.” she says, and I continue to cherish my childhood memories as I walk out.
Overview of the mall
Spencer Plaza was built in 1863 and established by Charles Durant and JW Spencer on erstwhile Mount Road, in the Madras Presidency. The now dimly lit complex houses new offices, mobile accessory stores, and clothing shops. Clothes are sold at a fairly cheaper rate here. In a bid to draw the crowd, most shops have cranked up discounts up to 50 per cent. According to the shop owners and customers, Spencers has an e-commerce website and is trying to put itself back on the map, but only time will tell.