Every once in a while, an email from David Ellis arrives in my inbox.
It’s plain, simple with no fanfare or hard sell. It’s just a list of obscure, rare historical books about the communities that make up the Sea to Sky corridor—with a few maps occasionally thrown in for good measure.
A title, author, and year—that’s it.
Maybe it was because I had never heard of most of these books or maybe it was something about the humbleness of this list in an era of flashy marketing, but for whatever reason, on a recent Friday it caught my eye and I wondered, “Who is this guy? And where did he find all these books?”
A quick Google reveals I’m not the only reporter to inquire; Ellis’ roving book van has been featured in both the Globe and Mail and on CBC over the years.
So, I called him up to find out more about books like The Whistler Hostel Hiking Book from 1979, 1971’s Beyond Garibaldi, and the 1965 copy of A Climber’s Guide to the Coastal Ranges of B.C.
“I used to go to Whistler myself as a boy with my family and I got the books then,” the 69-year-old Vancouver resident says. “I gathered them and kept buying … I kept buying all this Whistler stuff and then I bought the Squamish stuff. My dad had a big section of local history. I’ve got histories for the whole of B.C.”
Ellis inherited his book business—which consists of a specially constructed van and somewhere in the realm of 30,000 books—from his father after Bill Ellis died in 2002.
Since then—more so in his younger years—Ellis would load up the van with books that were relevant to a particular region and drive to those communities around B.C., Alberta, and beyond and try to sell them.
He has no internet or social media presence; rather, it’s about connecting with people and matching them with the right books, he says.
“For 23 years, I would go away in the spring for a month and the fall for a month,” he says. “I’ve been to Yellowknife, all over B.C. I had it all figured out … I was the roving bookseller.”
Increasingly, though, schools and museums have had smaller budgets for books, he says. The best market he’s found in recent years has been Indigenous communities that are keen to piece together parts of their history lost to colonization.
“They’re very interested in history. A lot of it was taken away from them with residential schools. There’s a strong need now,” he says. “It’s more the First Nations that drive this business now. They want [the books] at their schools, but the families want them, too.”
While it’s been a fulfilling career, Ellis says he’s now hoping to sell the business to the right buyer.
“I’m looking for a buyer for this romantic business in which you go see these interesting people,” he says. “It’s a pretty interesting business. If you keep at it and you’re disciplined, you’ll make a living at it. And I’m looking for that person who wants to do it—travel all over and meet these folks.”
The one attribute Ellis has—which is evident within 10 minutes of talking to him—that others might not is his deep knowledge of local history and, of course, his relationship with the massive book collection.
On the Whistler front, Ellis has tales of travelling to town before the highway was built, impressing Myrtle Philip as a teen when he retrieved a trap line hidden in the mountains, and catching massive trout in Alta Lake.
There’s a book that applies to each memory, too: many on the PGE rail line, a trio of novels (that I had no idea existed) penned by Alex Philip, and even a map that traces the local First Nations’ trail past Alta, Alpha and Nita lakes before the railway.
“I have [the books] all by region,” Ellis says. “Whistler is two shelves, Squamish First Nations, climbing books, Dick Culbert books, and the Loomers are all in one section. When I go for a trip, I go to that section. It’s all organized. You have to be well organized and you have to know them. I’ll have to make a tape recording for the person who buys the business.”
If you’re interested in the books or the business, email Ellis at email@example.com.