If you were at the recent Squamish Refresh Market, you may have seen it — the distinctive red Iron Dog Books truck.
The outside looks a lot like a food truck, but step inside and it is reminiscent of the coziest of bookstores — all wooden with books neatly stacked from floor to ceiling.
Cliff and Hilary Atleo own the unique business.
(Cliff is a cousin of former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo.)
The Chief caught up with Hilary for a chat about how the business got started, her thoughts on brick and mortar businesses and what she loves about coming to Squamish.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: Why did you call your business Iron Dog?
A: We had been thinking of having a brick-and-mortar shop for a long time and we had been playing with various names. We thought we would call it Black Dog Books because our dog was black, but there are a lot of Black Dog Book-named businesses.
Then, we were transitioning to having a truck instead. My sister mentioned we always called our dog, 'cast iron dog,' because he was the best dog — totally bombproof — we had moved him 10 times in 10 years and he was just the sturdiest dog that could eat anything. My sister suggested from that 'Iron Dog Books.' I liked it, it sounds like a trucky-type name.
Q: What made you want to have it as a truck business?
A: We moved to the Lower Mainland. When we moved here in August 2016 for my husband's work — he is an SFU professor — I was being paid as a bookstore employee and he had just graduated from grad school and we had two small kids. That was the worst year for housing prices. We started looking for commercial properties and they were just so far beyond what could make financial sense.
This is something that is really important to me to talk about.
Developers and redevelopers — they build really large [commercial] units and then they command really high per square foot prices. If a unit were 500 square feet, we actually could afford it even at the ludicrous rates they charge, but it is that the spaces are 1,000 square feet or bigger and that is where you start seeing $6,000 a month for rent. There isn't a way to make that number make sense for a small entrepreneur.
Q: And the whole independent book industry is a tough business to get into these days, no?
A: Actually, it is really interesting. Paper book sales are up. I was reading about bookstores and it said, 'It is important to remember that there has never been a good time to open a bookstore.'
Our margins are fairly slim, especially compared to other retail businesses. But if you are in an area where there is a lot of foot traffic, the shop can be very successful. It is just that in Vancouver, Squamish and the whole Lower Mainland, so many of our neighbourhoods aren't foot-traffic based. We end up having to commute far distances so we aren't wandering around our neighbourhoods, we are wandering around downtown Vancouver.
Q: You have about 2,500 books in the truck and 7,500 more books in storage. When you first started out, where did you get all your books?
A: I have been working in the industry since 2010. I worked at a bookshop in Edmonton and Victoria. We went to a lot of charity sales. People also donate books to us or sell us books. When people sell us books we give a certain amount of in-store credit. When people donate books, the amount of money we would have given to them, we put into a fund and do donations to primarily Indigenous schools.
Q: The truck is so decked out and beautiful inside, who did all that work?
A: I worked with the coolest wooden boat building company, Commodore's Boats.
I called them up and told them what I needed. And the guy said to me, 'So it is a rectangle? And it stays on land? This is going to be easy, bring it down.'
It was easy for them as it didn't have to be ocean going.
They had it done in two weeks. I went down to the yard and worked with them on it every day. They even invented a passive heating system for me. It is really cool.
They built the inside all to my specs.
Q: What has the response been when you pop into places like Squamish?
A: I love coming to Squamish. I do reasonably well financially in Squamish, but I really go because people are so happy. It is really an amazing community. The people who live there are just so interesting in terms of the things they think about or care about. I can bring a really diverse selection of books and they will all have a person for them. There are really good humans there.
Watch for Iron Dog Books at this summer's Squamish Street Market. (https://www.squamishstreetmarket.com/)
For more on the business go to irondogbooks.com.