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Alta States

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. 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.”