And a large armchair for two more to cuddle up in…
Those are the famous words uttered by Bob Homme on his seminal (albeit hallucinatory) children’s series The Friendly Giant. Those who watched regularly were no doubt already familiar with big old chairs you could squeeze two into—most of our parents had a favorite example—as well as the notion that these were domestic places for recreational and intellectual pursuits: the place where fathers smoked pipes, read newspapers and watched television; where mothers knitted, beaded and worked their way through the set infinities of imageless novels that no child’s brain could grasp – neither aesthetically nor intellectually. Every once in a while, however, we were pulled out of our carpeted underworld into the laps of these chair-bound adults and recited our own imaginative books. Long before we understood its meaning, the armchair was as ingrained as semiotics for literary consumption as the pun it represents.
No wonder, then, that walk-ins to armchair books often spend the first few minutes looking around for the expected comfort seat. That is, until owner Dan Ellis politely explains that his mother, who founded the Whistler institution in 1983, named it after nearby Armchair Glacier. Judging by customer loyalty, this fact probably does more to endear them in the store than disappoint them.
“The best thing about owning a bookstore is definitely the customers,” says Dan. “When people come in, they’re in a peaceful mood, so it’s a happy place right away. And our clientele ranges from longtime locals to people from all over the world who drop by once a year to share ideas.”
On a cloudy Friday in April, the store is full. To be expected at the start of a holiday weekend, the last of the ski season. Also to be expected because the space of the armchair, divided by a pedestrian walkway, captures the traffic going elsewhere. And despite the pandemic, it’s been the best year ever for Armchair. Given the pent-up demand, many people seem to have added Whistler to their travel plans, many of which have found their way to the store.
“We’ve never been this busy,” says Dan. “COVID has impacted people in many ways and reading has been a beautiful outlet – including helping to reduce children’s screen time. Also, more and more people are embracing the storefront ethos. Whether it’s hardware, books, or groceries, they want that personal connection to meet the owner, talk about products, and contribute to the community. I definitely feel the love.”
The path for this cross-genre general trade bookstore was not easy, but it was steady.
“We get along well with all parts of our store because we have such a diverse clientele of different ages,” says Dan. “My team, which includes Associate Director Sarah Temporale — who can run this place without me, by the way — and a few part-timers, are best at dealing with contemporary literature. But right behind that are children’s books, adventure travel, history, cookbooks — I mean it is a foodie town.”
In addition, Dan enjoys excellent relationships with a number of publishers.
“Armchair is fantastic,” says Don Gorman, publisher of Rocky Mountain Books from Victoria. “The attention to detail in curating books celebrating Canadian writing and publishing, and mountain culture as a whole, is critical to ensuring they are available in areas outside of the major metropolitan areas. It’s always a pleasure 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 off-season usually served locals well. However, as Whistler transformed into a year-round resort, the store quadrupled in size from a niche (now the children’s book department) to the space it currently occupies. With its bisecting walkway, the space is unique and gives a larger feel.
With Hazel’s approaching retirement and a personal love of reading, Dan himself made the transition from the family moving company to bookstore assistant-in-training in 1998 and has been with the business for 24 years. Much has happened since then and many lessons have been learned.
“We lost a lot of customers during the US subprime mortgage disaster of 2008-2009,” he recalls. “Just as Amazon was ramping up, people were starting to do eBooks and headlines were saying ‘bookstores are dead.’ It scared me to death so I started fighting to stay alive. It’s happened everywhere. Some places didn’t make it, but those that did have learned to be lean and mean and provide the best customer service possible.”
Service such as hauling stacks of all relevant titles for the Whistler Writers Festival to all of its events.
“[Former director] Stella Harvey approached me when it started shipping author’s books and I said sure,” says Dan. “So we got together and from humble beginnings it’s been a great relationship for which I’m very grateful.”
The Sea to Sky community is grateful in return, just as it was when Dan established an armchair presence in Squamish – where he grew up and still lives. He fired a brick and mortar store because he had his hands full with Whistler. Instead, he advertised free delivery of Squamish books on his website. This has had modest traction over the years, but when the COVID stay-at-home order arrived, word got around and suddenly it was 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 store owner is at your door to deliver it,” says Dan.
April 30th is Canadian Independent Bookstore Day, a great time to stop by Armchair and show some love to our longtime local readership.
Leslie Anthony is a biologist, writer and author of several popular books on environmental science.