There’s nothing spectacular about Pratapgarh. Its most famous resident is Raja Bhaiya, the notorious MLA who has a fondness for breeding crocodiles in his backyard pond. It is in this eastern Uttar Pradesh town that Zubair Ahmad managed a rather unlikely gathering.

Every evening, teachers, intellectuals and people aspiring to be either would sit in a circle around the dusty AH Wheeler bookstall on platform No. 1 of Pratapgarh’s railway station. After a round of chai, discussions on Urdu and Hindi literature would begin. Ahmad, the AH Wheeler commission agent who had encouraged these daily lit-meets, was their moderator.

Best-seller: (above) The AH Wheeler stall at Churchgate station in Mumbai stocks popular works (photo by Hemant Mishra/Mint); and Amit Banerjee, the company’s director of operations, at the Allahabad junction stall (photo by Sanjay Kanojia/Mint).

Once a thriving business, AH Wheeler’s strongest prop today is the Indian traveller’s nostalgia. Darakhshan Khan, a research student at the University of Pennsylvania, US, remembers the Churchgate station stall in Mumbai not only as a place for buying books but also as a landmark. “It has always been there, like part of the station’s furniture," she says. Doon School students like Abhishek Pratap can never forget stealing comics from the stall at Bareilly railway station while on their way to boarding school. “We were young and didn’t have much money. It’s not something I’m proud of now but it seemed right at the time," he says.

But memories aren’t always enough. Over the years, government restrictions have limited the once thriving company’s growth, and market competition and piracy have gnawed at revenues. Several untimely deaths in the family and the lack of a guiding figure left it in serious turmoil. But it was former railway minister Lalu Prasad’s 2004 dictum that actually shook it and flung it many feet up in the air.

Possibly chuckling at his wordplay, Prasad had announced, “Angrez chale gaye, Wheeler reh gaye," in his October 2004 Budget speech. Not excited about the company’s English-sounding name, Prasad decreed that the bookstalls had to go.

Until then, the Banerjees—the family that owns AH Wheeler— had been content living the mofussil town life. It is difficult to imagine, but this pan-India book, magazine and newspaper distribution company started, and is still headquartered, in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. “We’ve been here for six generations. Some of us did move out for a few years but eventually came back," says Amit Banerjee, director, administration and operations, and great-grandson of T.K. Banerjee—the founding partner of AH Wheeler. He, along with five other fourth-generation Banerjees, manages the company today.

After repeated threats of being thrown out of the house along with the books, Banerjee and Moreau came up with a plan. They wanted others to enjoy the books as much as they did. So, in the early 1870s, the two took part of their pile, spread a sheet at the railway platform in Allahabad and started selling the books at a fraction of the cost. By day-end, they had sold out. They continued this little business till they had no books left. And the idea of making their makeshift stall permanent took shape.

The two men got a licence agreement for bookstalls at stations. The British were at the time rapidly expanding the rail network and this seemed like an interesting plan. Moreau, who had travelled to England, named the company after a popular London book-store chain—Arthur Henry Wheeler—and they were set.

As a hat-tip to their initial profit, the two opened the first stall at the Allahabad station in 1877; soon their stalls were spread across the entire rail network. Though the first one will always be special, Amit says the one at Howrah in Kolkata is truly exceptional. Made of Burma teak, the stall with slanting doors was made in England and shipped to Kolkata in 1905. The original exists even today, and a scaled down model sits inside a glass cabinet in AH Wheeler’s office reception.

In 1913, when Moreau decided to leave India, Banerjee bought him out and became the sole owner. Today, the company has 378 stalls at 258 railway stations in 14 zones of Indian Railways. Except for the south, which has Higginbothams, and some northern states such as Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, Wheeler is a station fixture. “At one point the company had over 500 stalls but post 1 January 1976, there’s been a freeze so it’s remained at 378," says Amit.

The sprawling distribution network is still managed from the nerve centre in Allahabad. Everyone, from the owners to the staff to the returns and distribution chain, works in the 6,000 sq. yard estate there. The porch-front colonial structure, at least 150 years old, was the Banerjees’ residence before being converted into Wheeler’s registered office in 1877.

With its manicured lawn, pristine pillared façade and row of garages, the building could be mistaken for one of New Delhi’s posh government quarters. All visions of piles of books at the entrance are belied. It is only when one walks past the driveway, away from the main building to the quarters on the right, that the smell of paper becomes apparent.

It is in these high-ceilinged rooms that books hold their own. Magazines with faded covers, soiled newspapers and books with frayed edges are haphazardly strewn and piled into heaps that tower above most average-sized humans. These are all returns— damaged and unsold items, or newspapers that reached a day too late.

Depending on the arrangement with publishers, the material is sorted and either returned or retained. “We try and donate some of the technical books, the dictionaries," says Amit, as he walks past a massive iron shelf stuffed with Hindi crime thrillers with titles as tantalizing as Kyon Woh Biwi Badalte Hain and Nark ka Jallad. He didn’t look particularly excited. “If I had it my way, I’d not stock these," he says.

But business demands that these hot-selling pocketbooks—which many read but seldom admit to reading—be given pride of place. Past the raunchy covers is an area with neat stacks of Tinkles, fiction, self-help and yoga books arranged for despatch.

The books here are all best-sellers, different from the once widely available classics. “People who buy English and niche books have stopped travelling long distance by train. So vernacular material and popular fiction sells more at stations," explains Amit. Business is more brisk in tier II and III towns whose only access to reading material is a Wheeler stall.

It’s been seven years since Lalu Prasad struck. A high court case, where the Banerjees challenged Prasad’s ruling of discontinuing Wheeler’s contract, ensued—they eventually won; the matter is now in the Supreme Court. Already rudderless after the death of Anukul Banerjee, T.K. Banerjee’s son and the man who steered Wheeler in the 1970s and 1980s, the company faced further financial and emotional turmoil. “It all came crashing down at once. There was a lack of leadership at the company in particular and there has been a general decline in literary sensibility too," says Prof. Arindam Chatterji of the Allahabad University’s English department.

Taking advantage of the upheaval, commission agents in bigger centres started withholding revenue, and advice on changing the name as well as shutting the company was aplenty. “But the support we received from lawyers like Fali Nariman and Shanti Bhushan, from the media and the public was overwhelming," says Arunjeet Banerjee, director, finance and accounts.

Changing the name was never an option. But the family knew tough decisions had to be taken. In 2005, the Allahabad office had 500 employees. That number was halved. Prasad had wanted open bidding for the station stalls. Amit says they would have bid if it had come to that, but only for the more profitable stations such as Pune, Vadodara or Ahmedabad.

Even today, 30% of the stalls turn losses. If bidding had gone through, small towns such as Mau and Neemuch would have lost a Wheeler forever. “Yes, losing Wheeler would have been a big blow. But we would have survived. We would have ventured into real estate," says Amit.

Indications of a shift are already surfacing. Recently, the Banerjees sold a 2,500 sq. yard plot adjoining their office. The headquarters sits in the middle of the city’s commercial hub, Civil Lines, and if sold, would command real estate gold. But the seniors in the family don’t want to let go just yet.

The Banerjees have now gone back to the drawing board. To breathe new life into stalls, they’ve started standardizing them. The company also has plans of setting up book stores in smaller towns.

Arunjeet says he once met columnist Jug Suraiya at the Mountain Trail resort in Mukteshwar. “In fact, he showed me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s first book, The Story of the Gadsbys, which we had published." Stories like these could fill many an empty bookshelf. But will nostalgic tales be enough?

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