The nostalgia of A.H. Wheeler & Co.

At some point of time, everyone living in and traveling through India, could be for work, could be for leisure, could be for an emergency, would have experienced a journey via the Indian Railways. One would also often have entered the Indian railway platforms in different cities and towns, if not to travel themselves, then to drop someone off for their journey or to pick someone. The basic architecture of all railway platforms is the same, though there are some regional variations and decorations individual to each station. From the beautiful warli paintings at the Ratnagiri station, to the colorful paintings at the Mumbai central railway station, the artistic installations at the Vadodara station to the unique colorful wall paintings at the Nizamuddin railway station, each railway station has its unique sights and smells that distinguish it. However, one thing that can be found common at a very large number of railway stations is a small shop spread across the platforms with a plaque on the top that reads “A.H. Wheeler & Co. Pvt. Ltd.” in generally in Old English fonts.

All of us would have purchased a book or a magazine from the railway station, and there is an extremely high probability that it would have been from one of the A.H. Wheeler bookshops. A.H. Wheeler & Co. Pvt. Ltd. or A.H. Wheeler or sometimes even called as just Wheeler is an Indian chain of bookstores. The chain was originally founded by Emile Moreau (a French businessman), T.K. Banerjee (an Indian businessman), Arthur Henry Wheeler (after whom the store got named), Arthur Lisle Wheeler, W.M. Rudge and Armenian Tigran Ratheus David in Allahabad or present day Prayagraj, in 1877. The name A.H. Wheeler had been borrowed from the very famous and then-successful London bookstore – “Arthur Henry Wheelers”, who had been a friend of one of the founders (Moreau) and had also helped him financially.

At the time when the company was founded, Moreau was just a young man of 20, and he along with T.K. Banerjee set up the first stall at the Allahabad railway station. The East Indian Railways had began operation from Calcutta towards north in 1854, and by 1877 it was expanding towards north India from Allahabad. The Allahabad to Jabalpur railway line had been laid out in 1867, and owing to this, two major cities in British India – Mumbai and Calcutta were connected by train for the first time, via Jabalpur and Allahabad.

Moreau was a young employee of the managing agency Bird & Co. in Allahabad, while his brothers were partners in the same company. The company was a leading labor contractor, supplying workmen to the railway company. Moreau had come to India when he was 17, traveling on a steamship to Calcutta where his uncles were established. He was considerably familiar with Allahabad railway station, living in the city as an employee of Bird & Co., and he soon noticed the demand for reading material in the city, especially from the First class passengers. At that time, A.H. Wheeler, Moreau’s friend, mentioned he had way too many books at home, and Moreau offered to sell them at the railway station from a wooden almirah. The experiment yielded great success, and encouraged by it, the A.H.Wheeler & Co. was established, with support from the other co-founders.

An alternate story also goes that after repeated threats of being thrown out of the house along with their countless books, Banerjee and Moreau had come up with a plan to sell the books on the Allahabad railway station. Together, they took a part of their pile, spread a sheet on the railway platform and began selling the books, at a fraction of the actual cost. By day end, they had sold everything. In this way, they sold all the books they had. The two formed a business idea around this together and got a licensing agreement for bookstalls at railway stations.

After A.H. Wheelers was founded in 1877, the company became a chain of stores, with shops at railway stations all across India, especially in the north. In 1888, the company also began publishing a series of booklets called the Indian Railway Library. The railways had expanded significantly in India, and the Wheeler bookstores were a familiar landmark in railway stations across the United Provinces, the North West Provinces and beyond, all in less than 10 years since being established. The store at Howrah in Calcutta was and is exceptional. Made of Burma teak, this Wheelers stall had slanting doors made in England and shipped to Calcutta in 1905. This store exists as is, even today, and a miniature of the same is also present in the Wheelers office reception. A similar store also exists at the Mumbai Central railway station in Mumbai.

By 1888, renowned author Rudyard Kipling was already writing for The Pioneer and the Civil & Military Gazette (CMG), contributing stories and narrative sketches. His first novel – a collection of his writings called Plain Tales from the Hills had already been published by Calcutta-based Thacker and Sphink & Co. Moreau, ambitious as he was, proposed to Kipling publish his stories as a book. A.H.Wheeler & Co. then began publishing a series of books called Indian Railways Library Series, which included seevral of Rudyard Kipling’s early novels. The included Soldiers Three, Wee Willie Winkie, Under the Deodars, The story of the Gadsbys, In Black and White, The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales, The Man Who Would be King. As part of the Library series, Kipling’s The City of Dreadful Night was also re-published. All of these were sold for one rupee each!

Around this time, book trade had become extremely profitable in India, with book imports from Britain accounting for roughly half of what was sold in India. By 1894-95, book and newspaper imports from Britain reached a count of about FIVE MILLION UNITS, making for 500 mailbag every week!

With the turn of the century a few years later, Wheeler’s became an indispensible tool for the expansion and promotion of the Railway Company. Wheelers earned the sole rights for running advertisements in publications on behalf of the railways. In 1858, the Naval Kishore Press had been set up, which carried out the publishing work in Hindi and Urdu, especially working with the fast-growing segment of religious and mythological texts at that time. Railway travel was gaining major popularity in this era, and Wheelers became the go-to place on the railway stations to buy books and magazines, a necessary conduit to killing time during the long train journeys.

Eventually, the relations between Kipling and Moreau/Wheelers soured considerably. It is with the advance received from Wheelers that Kipling had set out on an exploratory tour of the world. Encountered pirated copies of his work in Japan, meeting a lot of people in London, experiencing the fruits of fame in Britain, and meeting other publishers through his own network, there had croppd quite a lot of irreparable differences between the two parties. With this Moreau’s interest in publishing also diminished, though he still retained partnership of the company in London as well as in Allahabad.

With the start of the World War I, Britain, inspired by the efficacy of the German propaganda store, opened up its own propaganda department. Tons of literature in a multitude of languages began being churned out. The department had numerous writers working for it, including big names like Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyale, G.K. Chesterton, John Masefield, John Bunyan, etc. (I couldn’t help notice there were no women in the list, but then it’s nothing surprising, is it?)

By June 1915, the British propaganda department had distributed more than 2.5 million books in over 17 languages. A.H. Wheelers became a valuable resource to sell the propaganda literature in India, across a host of Indian languages, thanks to Moreau.

Once the war ended, in 1917, A.H. Wheelers split, and the Allahabad entity separated from the London one. Moreau by then, was well-travelled and had diverse interests. He was serving as a director for many companies, and had wide interests including in rubber in Java and in the Malaya states, and in oil, in Trinidad oil fields. Even today, a road in the village of Marac is named after Moreau.

In 1913, the Banerjee took complete control of the Wheelers, Allahabad, buying Moreau out, with the latter being keen to leave India. The company is headquartered in Prayagraj even today. Once a thriving business, the biggest asset for the company today, is the nostalgia it inspires. The Wheelers stores on Indian railways tations have almost always been there, like furniture at the station. For young people, always short of money but looking for interesting reads, Wheelers was the place to find unmatched treasures. A staple for people catching the morning train to get the day’s newspapers or for people to get the latest editions of their favorite magazines, or people looking for some interesting books, Wheelers doesn’t get the same attention it once used to though. Over the years, Government restrictions and rules have messed up the legacy of the Wheelers to quite some extent.

In 2004, Lalu Prasad Yadav announced, “Angrez chale gaye, Wheelers reh gaye.” Apparently, the ‘English’ name of the bookstores was a problem, and so, he decreed, they must go. Amit Banerjee, the great-grandson of T.K. Banerjee, had said that then that they have all been there for like six generations, managing Wheelers. He, along with five from the fourth-generation Banerjees manages the chain today. Wheelers had filed a case against Lalu Prasad’s ruling of discontinuing the Wheelers’ stores in the Supreme Court, and thankfully, won. Wheelers faced a lot of trouble during this time – commision agents witholding revenue, agents seeking change of name,pushing the proprietors to shut down the company, etc. However, they also had countless supporters, including lawyers like Fali Nariman (now Supreme Court judge), and Shanti Bhushan. The Wheeler’s monopoly on the railway stations has been broken, but the nostalgia remains. About 30% of the stalls yield losses now.

Today, there are 378 Wheelers stores, 121 counter tables and 397 trolleys at 258 major railway stations in 14 zones of Indian railways. They do not have any major presence in the south, as down south has bookstores from Higginbothams. Some northern states like Punjab and Himachal Pradesh also do not have Wheelers stores. Their number now stands frozen by the government. The entire distribution network is still managed from Allahabad. Nowadays, people who buy English and niche books do not travel much by train anymore, so, vernacular material and popular fiction sells more at the Wheeler stores now. Business in tier II and tier III cities is briker than tier I cities.

In February this year, Indian Railways had began converting the Wheelers stores into multi-purpose stalls, stocking daily items for train travel, hoping to not just breath some life into the Wheeler stores, while enabling some decongesting of space on the railway platforms by optimizing the available space. These other items to be sold at Wheeler stores include, apart from the usual fare of books, magazines and newspapers, medicines, OTC drugs, chips, confectionary, aerated beverages, bakery products fruit juices, ice creams, snacks, etc.

Do you have any interesting memories of these Wheelers stores? Drop me a comment, would love to hear about it.

Penny for your thoughts!