Written by: Amneet Mann, News Editor
SFU finally has its own bookshop . . . and it’s on wheels.
Iron Dog Books is described by co-owner Hilary Atleo as an “indie mobile bookshop.” Hilary moved into SFU’s residential housing, UniverCity, around a year and a half ago when her husband, Cliff Atleo, joined SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management. Having worked in bookstores since 2010, Hilary noted that the campus did not currently have one.
The mobile bookshop concept was born as a solution to the space constraints that didn’t allow Hilary to open a normal, immobile store on campus. “[Cliff and I] always sort of joked about putting a bookshop in a truck,” said Hilary, “and one day in December of 2016, I just said to him ‘what if we actually put it in a truck?’”
The bookmobile’s presence on campus is currently a pilot project running until the end of March to evaluate the unique retail model. As per their agreement with SFU, Iron Dog Books sells in front of Cornerstone every Tuesdays and Thursdays from nine to six. On Saturdays, the bookmobile sells in Port Moody, another area Hilary has identified as lacking proper bookstores, and the mobile shop also makes appearances at festivals on Vancouver Island.
The shop is co-owned by Hilary and Cliff, with funding from Nuu-chah-nulth Economic Development Corporation, an Indigenous financial institution on Vancouver Island which provides financial assistance to native people to run their own businesses.
The shop sells a mix of new and used books. Customers are also encouraged to bring in used books, either for store credit or as donations. 20% of any profits the shop makes from donated books get donated to rural and remote Indigenous communities to fund their libraries and schools. At the time of the interview, Hilary reported that she was preparing to donate her first $500 to the community of Ahousaht.
When deciding how to stock her 70-square-foot store, Hilary relies on her previous experience working in bookshops, and she also finds herself adapting her selection to suit her new location. “Now that I’m here more regularly, it’s starting to reflect tastes of the general community,” she said. As an example she pointed out her newly installed Nicholas Sparks collection, inspired by a regular SFU customer who is a fan of the author.
The truck that is now Iron Dog Books was originally a medical services truck in California. Hilary enlisted the help of Commodore’s Boats to transform the interior of the vehicle and make it functional as a bookshop.
The metal-racking inside the truck was pulled out to install wooden bookshelves. The bookshelves themselves were built with notches, into which rails could fit that would keep the books from flying off the shelves when Hilary drove the truck. A passive heating system running off the truck’s engine functions to preserve the books when the truck is shut off by keeping the interior of the truck from getting too cold. The only aspect of the truck using extra power is the propane generator running during store hours in the winter.
“One of my main goals for the shop, and one of the reasons why construction on it was so intensive, was that it needed to be completely autonomous,” said Hilary as she showed The Peak the adapted features of the truck.
Hilary commented on how her vision for the bookmobile has expanded since she first opened the shop, “Originally, this was just a way to have a bookshop, but now it’s become a really important thing to me.”
She sees the mobile concept as a tool that can address issues of accessibility, such as in “literary deserts” where the ability to acquire a book is limited to people who are close to a library or a shop or who can drive to one.
She also finds herself now advocating for microshops: “I’m passionate about this idea that we can have a tiny shop. It’s a historical model, having these tiny shops, and you do one thing and you do it really well, and it doesn’t use a big amount of space.”
Looking forward, Hilary hopes to take the bookmobile on road trips to festivals around Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. She also still hopes to be able to open an immobile bookstore on SFU’s campus in the future.
For now, Hilary commented on the warm reception Iron Dog Books has been receiving on campus so far.
“It’s been really successful, and everybody seems really interested. I think we bring a much needed level of idiosyncrasy,” she laughed.