Inside India’s Oldest Sports Store
With 150 years of history behind it, there is more to Wagle Sports – an unassuming little store situated on Kalbadevi’s Princess Street – than meets the eye. ShopLyne walks in to take a peek. There’s surely something to a store that outlives the building it was born in.
Originally operating from a little nook in Dhobi Talao, Wagle Sports had to relocate after the building went under redevelopment a few years ago. It’s now settled in, just down the lane, at Princess Street in a relatively modern avatar. However, just a few minutes into a conversation with the owner Manohar Wagle, the store’s rich history begins to unravel. India’s first sports store
Back in the late 19th century, Mr. Wagle’s great grandfather Raghunath Wagle owned a perfume store at Lokmanya Tilak Marg. Among his clientele were several British officers who lived in the Marine Lines barracks nearby. However, the officers told Raghunath they had a more niggling itch that needed scratched. With not a single big sports store in British India, they had to endure months of wait before their sports goods arrived from England. Where the British officers saw a problem, Raghunath saw an untapped business opportunity. And that’s how Wagle Sports was born.
Being the first store of its kind to import goods directly from England, it didn’t take long for them to attract a loyal customer base, most of whom were British officers across cadres. “This was at a time when India had started revolting against the British force. Despite this, the British were quite liberal in matters of business,” says Mr Wagle.
Within 20-30 years of its inception, the store was honoured with the title of ‘Appointed to His Excellency The Governor of Bombay’, an honour given to very few privileged stores. Several British Governors personally visited Wagle Sports for all their sporting needs.
Always on top of its game
It’s obvious that Wagle Sports has been no stranger to celebrities ever since its inception. And it’s a privilege it has kept earning over the years. The store has served the likes of tennis ace Vijay Amritraj, badminton champion Prakash Padukone and cricketer Vijay Merchant – no stronger testament to the Wagle family’s dedication to sourcing only the best quality of sports equipment across categories. And it’s not just sports legends who frequent the store. Over the decades, top film personalities have been regulars at Wagle Sports, right from Shammi Kapoor and Johnny Walker to Saif Ali Khan, Juhi Chawla and even Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan who has Mr. Wagle to thank for his personal, state-of-the-art indoor wrestling ring.
Preserving sports culture
However, its customers are not the most unique feature of Wagle Sports. The store is home to a vast array of antique sports memorabilia, including wooden badminton and tennis racquets that are centuries old, boomerangs and even leather footballs. You’ll also find mudgals here – traditional Indian clubs used to develop coordination and upper-body strength. And let’s not forget the wooden archery equipment, croquet sets and traditional Roman rings.
“That joy we see on our customers’ faces when they discover we have something they’ve been hunting for a long time.. that’s what keeps us going,” quips Mr. Wagle.
The practice of stocking such unusual items is an extension of the family’s commitment to preserving a sports culture that Mr. Wagle feels is in danger of dying out. While cricket and in recent years, football, has been attracting a consistent fan following, in the 30 years he’s been doing business, Mr. Wagle has observed an overall drop in interest among the youth in outdoor sports. It is a matter of concern for this avid sports promoter who regularly conducts guest lectures in a college in Wadala to talk to the youth about the life advantages of being a sportsperson.
While sticking to its core belief, Wagle Sports also works to stay relevant to a new generation of customers. The store stocks bowling equipment, pogo & polo sticks, foosball and pool tables, surfboards and even camping equipment.
Three years ago and five generations in, Wagle Sports set up its first branch at Khar Gymkhana. The new store is now run by Mr. Wagle’s son Aditya. Mr. Wagle remarks that, until recently, they never felt the need for a branch as people came to them from all corners of the city and beyond. “Now, with online shopping culture spreading everywhere, people don’t want to travel very far. We have to reach out to customers wherever they are.”