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Range Rover: Armchair Books—Your local readery

o-range rover 29.16
The best thing about owning a bookstore is the customers, says Armchair Books owner Dan Ellis.

And a big armchair for two more to curl up in…

Thus, the famous words uttered by Bob Homme in his landmark (albeit hallucinatory) children’s show, The Friendly Giant. Those who watched on the regular were doubtless already familiar with big ol’ chairs you could squeeze two into—most of our parents having a favoured example—as well as the notion that these were household loci for pursuits both relaxing and cerebral: the place where dads smoked pipes, read papers and watched TV; where moms knitted, pearled and worked their way through the typeset infinities of pictureless novels no child’s brain could heft—either aesthetically or intellectually. Every once in a while, though, we’d be hauled up from our carpeted netherworld into the laps of these armchair-bound adults and recited our own fanciful volumes. Long before we understood its meaning, the armchair as semiotic for consumption of literature was as firmly imprinted as the pun this represents.

No wonder, then, that walk-ins to Armchair Books often spend their first few minutes glancing around for the expected comfort seat. That is, until owner Dan Ellis politely explains that his mother, who started the Whistler institution back in 1983, named it for the nearby Armchair Glacier. Judging by customer loyalties, that factoid probably does more to endear them to the store than disappoint.

“Definitely the best thing about owning a bookstore is the customers,” says Dan. “When people come in, they’re in a peaceful mindset, so right off it’s a happy place to be. And our clientele ranges from longtime locals to people from all over the world who make a point of coming in once a year to catch up.”

On an overcast Friday in April, the store is busy. To be expected at the start of a holiday weekend, last of the ski season. Also to be expected because Armchair’s space, split by a pedestrian walkway, captures traffic heading elsewhere. And despite the pandemic, it has been a best-ever year for Armchair. With pent-up demand, it seems plenty of folks included Whistler in their travel plans, many of whom found their way to the store.

“We’ve never been busier,” says Dan. “COVID affected people in a lot of ways and reading was a nice escape—including helping lower kids’ screen time. Plus, more people are embracing the shop-local ethos. Whether it’s hardware, books or food, they want that personal connection, to meet the owner, talk products, contribute to the community. I’m definitely feeling the love.”

The path for this general trade bookstore that stocks all genres has not been an easy one, but it has been steady.

“We do well with all parts of our store because we have such a multi-age, diverse clientele,” says Dan. “My team, which includes assistant manager Sarah Temporale—who, by the way, can run this place without me—and a few part-timers, do best with contemporary fiction. But right behind that are kids’ books, adventure travel, history, cookbooks—I mean, it is a foodie town.”

In addition, Dan enjoys excellent relationships with a range of publishers.

“Armchair is fantastic,” says Don Gorman, publisher of Victoria-based Rocky Mountain Books. “Its attention to detail in curating books that celebrate Canadian writing and publishing, along with mountain culture as a whole, is vital to ensuring these are available in areas outside of major metropolitan centres. It’s always a joy to see our books in their store.”

Of course, when Hazel Ellis opened Armchair some 40 years ago there was only one season—winter—and the long shoulder season typically served locals. As Whistler changed into an all-season resort, however, the store’s size quadrupled from an alcove (now the kids’ book section) to the area it currently occupies. With its bisecting walkway, the space is unique, projecting a bigger feel.

With Hazel’s retirement imminent and a personal love of reading, Dan himself switched from the family moving business to bookstore wizard-in-training in 1998, and has been at it 24 years. Much has happened since, delivering plenty of lessons.

“We lost many customers during the 2008–2009 sub-prime mortgage disaster in the U.S.,” he recalls. “Just as Amazon was ramping up, people were getting into eBooks, and headlines were announcing ‘Bookstores are dead.’ It scared the crap out of me so I started fighting to stay alive. It happened all over. Some places didn’t make it, but those that did learned to be lean, mean and have the best customer service possible.”

Service like schlepping stacks of all the relevant titles for the Whistler Writers Festival to all its events.

“[Former director] Stella Harvey approached me about supplying authors’ books when it first started and I said sure,” says Dan. “So we partnered up and from modest beginnings it has been a great relationship I’m very grateful for.”

The Sea to Sky community is grateful in return, just as it was when Dan introduced an Armchair presence in Squamish—where he grew up and still lives. He dismissed a brick-and-mortar outlet because he had his hands full with Whistler. Instead, he advertised free Squamish book delivery on his website. This had modest traction over the years, but when the COVID stay-at-home order hit, word got out and it was suddenly all he could do to stay on top of things. And it hasn’t let up.

“It means something when you order online and the owner of the business shows up at your door to deliver it,” says Dan.

 

April 30 is Canadian Independent Bookstore Day, a great time to drop into Armchair and show our longtime local readery some love.

 

Leslie Anthony is a biologist, writer and author of several popular books on environmental science.