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Dan Ellis: Bucking the odds

It’s not easy being a retailer at Whistler. High rents, restrictive covenants, the seasonal ebbs and flows of mountain resort life — making a go of it here in the retail sector requires just the right blend of boldness, determination and creativity.

It’s not easy being a retailer at Whistler. High rents, restrictive covenants, the seasonal ebbs and flows of mountain resort life — making a go of it here in the retail sector requires just the right blend of boldness, determination and creativity. And the long list of failed businesses provides mute testimony to that reality.

So how does a modest bookstore, launched in 1981 in a 300 square foot cubby hole of a space in Village Square by a housewife from Squamish, manage to survive — and thrive — for more than a quarter century? It would appear almost counter-intuitive. I mean, a bookstore in Whistler? Seems like a long shot at best…

When I ask him the secret to his family’s success, Armchair Books’ Dan Ellis just laughs. “A little bit of luck and a lot of hard work,” he says, in the calm, soft-spoken voice that seems so appropriate for someone in his business. “My mum, Hazel, was passionate about books. It was her vision that made this place work. And she was really good with people. When she started contemplating retirement eight or nine years ago, I decided to step in and get involved. Since I was a decent reader, I figured I could do the job.” Another quiet chuckle. “Little did I know at the time how much I still had to learn about the book trade…”

It’s not like Dan was a rookie or anything. With a business diploma from BCIT, and with several years’ experience toiling in the family moving business in North Vancouver (“now that’s a stressful job,” he says), Hazel’s youngest son was battle-hardened and world-wise. But he was definitely ready for a major trip change.

And working at Armchair, he thought, would provide just the change he needed. “My wife and I had been living in False Creek in Vancouver,” he says. “And the stress of city life was definitely starting to affect us. It was so busy there that I couldn’t even unwind on my days off. We wanted to buy a house with a yard, maybe even start a family. I figured we could move back to Squamish where I’d grown up — the housing market there was till pretty soft back then — and I could commute to Whistler to work at the bookstore.” So that’s what they did.

“The decision to work at Whistler was a really big one in our lives,” he says. “But I think it was the right one. The moving business is a tough business. You’re constantly juggling. Constantly dealing with things that are, ultimately, out of your control.” A long pause. A self-deprecating smile. “Unfortunately, I’m the kind of guy who can’t leave work at the office. I bring it home. And that was creating unnecessary stress in our lives.”

The bookstore, he says, was so refreshing that way. “It’s a very calm, very positive environment,” he says. “Everything is slowed way down. Do you know what I mean? Most people who come into a bookstore are in a good mood. They come into the store with smiles on their faces. After all, books provide an escape for people. And a bookstore is their gateway to that escape…”

For the next couple of years, Dan worked side-by-side with Hazel. “She taught me how to do orders, and deal with book distributors and generally figure out the book business. It was hard work. But it was fun too.”

And while he says that he remained true to Hazel’s vision once she left the store for good — “I’ll never be able to fill her shoes,” he says. “And I have no intention of even trying.” — Dan’s business acumen and work ethic have certainly raised the stakes at Armchair. Today, the little-bookstore-that-could sprawls over 1,200 square feet of space and boasts over 7,600 different titles and nearly 15,000 books. “And that number will double during peak season,” he says proudly.

A burst of laughter. “Most people come into the store and assume that I’ve read every book on the shelf. Well, that’s gotta be one of the biggest myths in the book business. Why? Because when you run a bookstore, you’re too busy taking care of business to have time to read…”

Still, he manages to find time to get his reading fix in “early in the morning, before my kids wake up, and late at night when everyone else is asleep.” He sighs. “I can’t remember the last time I had the leisure to just sit down and read a book in the middle of the day…”

Although it’s grown far beyond its original space, Armchair Books still exudes a sense of easy-going intimacy that is so vital in an operation of that kind. It’s also remained in the same corner of Village Square where it started. Down the hall is Gone Bakery. Around the corner is Moguls’ Café. It’s a little oasis of calm in a busy, bustling town centre where chain stores and global brands increasingly dominate.

“It’s true,” he says. “When I look around the village, I realize how much our little corner of Whistler has kept its integrity. It’s a great location to be in. In some ways, it’s the focal point of Whistler. Thousands of people stream through this square every day. This is the place where Whistlerites gather to celebrate momentous events. In fact, this could be the liveliest square in town.”

But it has its drawbacks. And Ellis doesn’t hesitate to mention them. “In recent years, it’s gotten a little seedy around here,” he admits. “Drug dealers and homeless kids have increasingly taken up residence in our little neighbourhood. I mean, when Vice Magazine promotes Village Square as the place to score drugs in Whistler, you know you have a problem.” He stops speaking. Draws a long, frustrated breath. “I’d love to clean it up,” he says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that we have the collective will to do that yet…”

The youngest of four boys (all born within three-and-a-half years!), Dan spent his youth in Squamish playing sports and “terrorizing the neighbourhood,” he says with a laugh. “Since I was the youngest, I had to work hard to keep up with my brothers. It was a real challenge. But Squamish was a great place to grow up in those years. Adventure was waiting around every corner…”

Although the boys were all busy with various sports, winter, says Dan, was reserved for skiing. “We were hooked on Whistler Mountain,” he explains. “Every winter weekend was totally dedicated to skiing.” He smiles. “Do you remember the old Olive Chair? I can still picture lineups there spilling down the stairs past McConkey’s shop and all the way into the parking lot.”

Along with his brothers — “and our mischievous gang of Squamish friends,” he says — Dan explored every inch of Whistler Mountain real estate on his skis. “If you went up the T-bar on any given weekend,” he says, “chances are that those tracks you saw heading up the Ridge towards Little Whistler were ours (this was in the days before the Peak Chair). We loved to ski powder, we loved to ski untracked runs.” A big smile. “Mostly what I remember of those years was fear and exhilaration.”

Sadly, Dan admits he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like to indulge his skiing needs. Like most small shop owners, he finds there’s just not a lot of spare time left after all the work has been addressed. “But I hope that’s going to change soon,” he says. “I’m looking forward to getting my kids on the mountain too. I think they’re ready…”

Still, his abiding passion for the bookstore — and his clientele — is apparent in everything he says and does. “I’m in awe of the sheer variety of customers we get here,” he says. “Europeans, Americans, Australians, Japanese, and our own local readers: we’re basically dealing with people — and reading tastes — from all over the world.” Which is exciting, for sure, but it doesn’t make Dan’s life any easier. “With 4-5 million books on the market, it’s a challenge to decide which titles we should carry in the store. And with the cultural diversity of our customers, it makes our choice even more difficult. But most of them are pretty good about telling us what they want to read. And I trust their tastes…”

Trust and respect. Maybe those two words say more about Armchair Books’ 25-year success story than anything else. “A few years ago, when Whistler was struggling,” says Dan, “I decided I would do all I could to make my customers feel that they got good value from shopping at our store.” And that’s been the driving vision at Armchair Books ever since. “Whether people come to buy, or just want to spend a few minutes browsing among the books, I want them all to know that they are welcome — and appreciated — here. Anything less just isn’t good enough!”