THOSE stopping at Mumbai Central station’s Wheeler Bookstore to quickly grab a copy of a comic book or a novel for a long train journey ahead are often surprised at the signage near the store that announces its heritage status.
Started by a Frenchman named Emili Edward Moreau, Wheeler is more than 135 years old, and has its headquarters in Allahabad. Moreau approached Arthur Henry Wheeler of England, who was by then already established in book retailing, and they planned on a collaboration. Thus goes the story of the inception of the Wheeler Bookstores, that are now common across Indian Railways network.
Given the status of a railway heritage site by the Indian Railways, the Wheeler store at Mumbai Central station was founded in 1905.
The original wooden structure is still intact, more than even a century later.
Amit Banerjee, director of operations and administration at Wheeler, told The Indian Express that Wheeler has been running stores in rural areas as well. “Spread across 258 stations, Wheeler has around 900 railway bookstores in India,” said Banerjee.
Explaining the idea behind stores at railway stations, Banerjee said that when Moreau was leaving India, he had a lot of books that he wanted to sell.
According to Banerjee, his ancestors and those of Moreau came together and sold these at the Allahabad railway station, an idea that received an overwhelming response. This sparked an idea to start a bookstore network across railway stations.
According to Banerjee Wheeler generates negligible revenues from smaller towns but the stores continue to operate as a service for people and as a mark of respect to a legacy. “Small towns don’t have good book stores and so we decided to start our stores in rural areas as well,” added Banerjee.
Marud Krishna Kalgude, a employee of the Wheeler Bookstore at Dadar station said,”Over the past 20 years, the readership of newspapers and magazines has gone down because of the development of digital media. However, there are many loyal people who come to the store daily to buy magazines and newspapers.”
The oldest surviving structures of the Wheeler stores stand in Mumbai Central Station and Howrah Station in West Bengal.
Dhondiram Andhale, a 68-year-old employee at the Churchgate store of Wheeler said that because of his passion for books, he didn’t accept a job offer from a major PSU. Observing a change in the trend over a period of almost 50 years he said,”The readership amongst youth has shifted from genres like science fiction to romance.”
Wheeler is planning to expand their standalone store chain, one exists only in Allahabad now.
Catering to the needs of people who don’t like to move out of train while travelling, Wheeler came up with the idea of “Basta” hawkers. These hawkers carry certain books in their bags and travel in and around the trains to sell the books.