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Catching Up (10+ Years Later!) with Rebecca Dolen, of Regional Assembly of Text

It’s been almost two whole decades since Regional Assembly of Text opened doors on Main Street in Vancouver, and more than a decade since Scout’s last interview with artist, zinester and co-owner, Rebebecca Dolen (along with her rad business partner, Brandy Fedoruk), roughly a year before their second Victoria shop opened in 2013.

As champions of all things DIY, the Regional Assembly holds a dear place in Scout’s hearts; we simply can’t imagine Mount Pleasant, or Vancouver, without the flagship boutique. Although the shops’ shelves and various surfaces are stacked with beautiful, handmade and thoughtful reasons why we love it, a special shout out is in order for Dolen’s own quirky, silly and personality-filled zines and illustrations. And that’s more than enough reasons to justify a good catch-up Q&A:

What have been some of the highlights since we last touched base?

We had so much fun designing and renovating the Victoria shop. It is a truly unique little space. And that was over ten years ago! We also worked very hard trying – and succeeding – in building an online shop that encapsulates our nostalgic style and shows off all the products we make. It was launched just in time for the pandemic, which we struggled through, and survived. Phew! I also started a family, which includes two wonderful little girls.

Nearly 20 years of business in Vancouver – that’s an impressively long haul; and yet from the customer’s perspective, not much seems to have changed over the years: you’re still stocking shelves with an impeccably curated selection of beautiful and unique printed things (including using Regional Assembly’s signature letterpress style), the letter writing prompts still keep a-coming, in-store typewriters and button-makers are still being put into action…and you’re still hand-writing all of your receipts! What’s changed behind the scenes, both for the better and the worse, since taking off in 2005?

We look back on the early years of the shop with fondness. Imagine two recent art school grads working in the back of the shop late into the night making, assembling, and packaging products in order to keep the shop stocked for the next day. We tracked all of our expenses in an old fashioned ledger, and made many trips to the photocopier in the back of Office Depot to make our cards. We have learned a lot, to say the least. It was a fun time, and we’re still having fun. Our business has grown and changed a lot and we’ve been dragged along learning and doing our best to keep up.

How has your role with (and within) the store evolved over time?

In the early days both Brandy and I did all the things together. Now we split responsibilities based on our strengths and interests. I’ve had less time to devote to the business recently as I’ve taken some time to be home with my kids. And Brandy, the very best business partner of all time, has picked up all the slack. Struggling through the pandemic threw both of us back into the front of the shop a lot more, as we had been mostly working behind the scenes for a few years. It has been a bit of a blessing, as I forgot how much I really enjoy helping the people find that perfect notebook, or the thrill of a stationery fan finding us for the first time.

Nostalgia has always been a central part of Regional Assembly’s ethos. It’s actually quite brilliant as a business model, I think, since nostalgia doesn’t have an expiration date – although I suppose it might be a bit of a moving target… What has your experience been of this relationship? Is nostalgia the key to the shop’s longevity?

That’s really true. Nostalgia has a way of drawing in people who remember having penpals as kids, playing office with their friends, and knowing intimately the wonderful clickety-clack sound of the typewriter. We’ve heard many a harrowing tale from customers who’ve painstakingly written their thesis on a certain model of typewriter we have in our extensive collection of old machines on display.

Nowadays there is a whole new generation of consumers who have been brought up with computers, cellphones and social media, which are now simply taken for granted as parts of day-to-day reality. As such, they have no actual nostalgic relationship with a lot of the antiquated techniques, tools and activities that you promote – such as letter writing/correspondence, typewriting, etc. How do you attract and connect with this new demographic? How has this new reality affected or changed the Regional Assembly’s motivation, mission and/or daily operations?

If anything I believe it makes us grip even tighter onto our original ideas. And even though there is perhaps no actual historical connection with our old ways, they come at it as something new to them, and it’s always delightful. The gaggle of teens who’d like a demo on how to use the typewriter are always intrigued, delighted and inspired. There is excitement and joy for everyone. And now that smart phones and technology have been around long enough for some to tire of them, there seems to be a whole new demographic of people who are perhaps coming around to the conclusion that the olden days had better ways. Time to pick up a pen and paper again.

Impervious to change as the Regional Assembly of Text may seem, your Main Street neighbourhood sure has seen its share! Which neighbourhood business (no longer existing) do you miss the most? Who else has weathered the years, and gentrification, along with you that you would miss dearly?

We miss our weekly breakfast meetings at Slickity Jim’s Chat and Chew, exploring the deep recesses of The Bakers Dozen, taking our outbound parcels by little red wagon to The Post Office in the back of the Garlane Pharmacy, and playing shuffleboard at the Legion across the street. The recent closure of The Arbor breaks my heart. Main Street wouldn’t be the same without Eugene Choo, Lucky’s Books and Comics, The Flower Factory, Liberty Bakery, and Urban Source. May we all survive another twenty years.

Favourite Main Street cafe? Coco et Olive.

Spot for lunch? The Fish Counter, East is East, Bob Likes Thai.

Place to hit for a drink/meal after work? El Caminos, Uncle Abe’s, Brassneck.

If you could correspond with any person (or non-person) alive or dead, who would it be and why?

To whom?! That’s much too difficult. But I do find myself daydreaming about living in a time and place where mail was delivered multiple times a day; or, depending on the destination, could take years.

What was the last piece of personal mail that you received? The last piece you sent?

Received: A handwritten invitation to a baby shower. How delightful. Sent: Postcards, written from a bustling little Parisian café. How romantic.

Okay, let’s turn the focus away from the shop, and onto your personal artistic practice. I’m a big fan of your silly, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and simple-line illustration/cartoon style! Besides the postcards that you’re selling at the shop (which I friggin’ love), what are you up to these days?

Honestly, between the shop and raising two little kids, my current creative endeavours involve helping my daughter with school projects and making princess crowns out of cereal boxes. But there is always a sketchbook and my favorite pens close at hand.

Outside of the Regional Assembly of Text, what inspires your art? Any projects in the works that we can look forward to seeking out and seeing in the near future?

I just returned from the most amazing cycling trip in the south of France. I feel a new little book brewing, which may or may not include castles, knights, monks, wine and cheese.

My favourite postcard illustration is hands-down your ‘Cat vs Whale Shark’ one. In a real ‘Cat vs Whale Shark’ battle, how do you imagine the scenario playing out and who would prevail?

That was a fun one to make. Are there any two animals which would be less likely to end up in a battle? Cats with their clever ways, and whale sharks drifting around with their mouths wide open. If it is indeed a battle of the mind, the cat would win for sure.

You have a real knack for anthropomorphizing animals in unexpected and hilarious/cheeky ways. If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why?

I think I’d make a really great cat. Their attitude aligns well with my personality: somewhat indifferent; hot-and-cold affection; independent; maybe curious; sometimes playful. Oh, and all the naps and laying about in sunny places.

Besides animals, another common theme that I’ve noticed in your Little Books is curiosity, to put it simply. How do you stay curious? What is currently sparking your curiosity?

I’ve always been a little nutty for interesting facts and strange bits of history ,and having two curious little kids has stretched my curiosity beyond what I thought possible. The questions I get asked (like why only some bugs can fly) and the facts that come home from school (like 40% of the earth’s land area is grassland) are interesting indeed. Thanks to my kids, my days are filled with little bits of inspiration, and also the making of a lot of snacks.

Lastly, we’d love it if you could shine some light on a few other local artists/creatives/zinesters that you are currently loving!

Hiller Goodspeed, Jenny Ritter, Caroline Ballhorn, Marlene Yuen, Sonja Ahlers, Owen Plummer… [Editor’s note: Goodspeed and Yuen have also both been subjects of our Vancouverites series; read our interviews with them here and here.]

 

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