The history of the Indian Railways, a thread weaving the nation together, is closely intertwined with one of the first companies to operate from a railway station.
AH Wheeler & Co.Pvt. Ltd., traverses a century and more of heritage and is truly a part and parcel of the joy of travelling in a train, ensuring that a book or magazine is your perfect companion on the journey. And if you are someone who believes that the journey is more important than the destination, well, you have a lot to thank AH Wheeler for.
There are some common scenes across most railway stations in India as the young and old alike flock to the lone bookstore at the station, gathering around to discuss politics, Sachin’s backlift or the weather over some tea. You may have seen men making a dash to pick up a magazine for their lady from AH Wheeler just as the train starts to move. You may have noticed a book lover eagerly doing a last minute scan. You may have observed students heading to the bookstall, savouring the journals and the magazines on offer amidst the shrill horns of a passing train. The bookshop has truly been the center of attention at any platform of Indian railways.
Reliable records trace the roots of AH Wheeler to Frenchman Emile Moreau, who had come to India as a representative of railway labour contractor, Bird & Company. Soon, he met a local Allahabad resident, Tinkari Kumar Banerjee and the acquaintance blossomed into friendship on the common passion for books. Together the two owned over 45,000 books! Some accounts indicate that financial problems forced them to sell the stockpile and they did so by putting their ware on a sheet on the floor of the Allahabad Railway Station. By the end of the day, they had sold all the books and the makeshift stall, which was a wooden almirah that soon shaped into a permanent bookstall.
Over time, Moreau noticed that the Englishmen devoured books while travelling, more so as travel lengthened with the lay-out of long-distance railway lines. It struck him that the British would relate to an English name and thus he approached the famous London bookseller, Arthur Henry Wheeler, to lend his name and goodwill. Thus, the first AH Wheeler bookstore came into existence at the Allahabad Railway Station.
Soon, the business began to expand to other railway stations across undivided India and the patron, Arthur Wheeler, also sent books from London. The stalls housed books, journals and periodicals in various dialects.
Wanting to associate with its success, other companies began collaborating with AH Wheeler including the merchants, advertising agents, bookstall properties and contractors, East India colonial agencies and Symonds. In fact, during the later years, AH Wheeler also became the Indian representative of a couple of reputed English publishers,and even took up the responsibility of publishing advertisements of the different companies of the Indian Railways at that time.
In 1937, nearly 60 years after the first stall came up in Allahabad, Moreau transferred his goodwill partnership in the name of Tinkari Kumar Banerjee, his friend and longtime associate, before leaving for England. The foreign firm was nationalised thus and probably became the first Indian company to be granted total rights of business by the British.
Today, there are 378 AH Wheeler book stalls at 258 railway stations in 14 zones of the Indian Railways. The fourth generation of the Banerjee family manages the company.
Text: Adnan Hamid