Flyleaf Bookseller’s Debut Novel on April Indie Next List

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The debut novel by bookseller Jeremy Hawkins of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has landed a coveted spot on the April 2015 Indie Next ListThe Last Days of Video, which will be published March 10 by Soft Skull Press, tells the story of the hilariously dysfunctional staff of Star Video, who try to keep their store afloat after a Blockbuster sets up shop just down the road.

Hawkins has personal experience with the tail end of the quaint era of video cassette rentals. Before becoming a bookseller, he worked for 10 years at the Chapel Hill branch of VisArt Video, a family-owned chain of video stores of which only one location still exists.

“My goal, the only thing I ever thought about was just getting the book published,” said Hawkins. “Anything else that might happen would be icing on the cake, so there’s a good bit of icing right now. It’s especially nice to be picked by my fellow indie booksellers.”

Hawkins, who earned an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and in 2010 founded the web-based editing service The Distillery, said he believes that indie booksellers really drive trends in bookselling, while publishers strain their marketing budgets plugging a select few titles they believe will be commercial successes.

“If a book is going to catch fire, it’s going to catch fire at independent bookstores,” he said.

The Last Days of Video has already received a starred review in Kirkus and another good write-up in Booklist, which called it “an unapologetic, quirky, and surprisingly moving elegy for the passing of the local rental hangouts.”

Hawkins is looking forward to the book’s official launch event on March 10 at Flyleaf and a trip to Brooklyn, New York, for a March 31 reading at Greenlight Bookstore, as well as several upcoming media interviews already on his schedule.

In the novel, which is set in 2007 Chapel Hill, Waring Wax, the cantankerous alcoholic owner of Star Video, must confront every independent video rental store’s worst nightmare: Blockbuster Video. The misanthropic movie snob develops all sorts of whacky schemes to save his store from the incursion of the big box chain with the help of his hapless employees Alaura and Jeff.

For Hawkins, a combination cinephile and bibliophile, bookstore people have proven to be the nicest people to work with.

“Least snobby are bookstore employees, middle-snobby are video store employees, most snobby are music store employees. I defy anyone to prove to me in any way that that isn’t true,” he said, with a laugh.

Hawkins said he got the idea for the book’s setting and time period when he began working at the video store as an undergrad in 2000. He decided it would become his MFA thesis project at UNC Wilmington, where he studied under Southern fiction writer Clyde Edgerton, who became his mentor. The first draft came quickly, he said, followed by revision after revision for the next two or three years.

Hawkins connected with his agent in the early days of his freelance editing company, when he was doing some work for the Kayser Pierce Literary Agency. When agent Craig Kayser picked up the book, albeit two years after Hawkins first gave him the manuscript, he e-mailed Hawkins the next morning and told him he could sell it.

Hawkins knows the inevitable comparisons to High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s record store saga, will come, but that can’t be helped, he said. As long as he has known his own story would take place in a video store, he purposely never read Hornby’s book so as not to be influenced by it.

Hawkins, who also teaches creative writing at the Carrboro ArtsCenter and whose fiction has appeared in Diagram, Pacifica, and The Molotov Cocktail, said his book had many influences: he looked to Edgerton’s work for comic pacing, while the buffoonery of main character Waring Wax is a nod to Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. He was also inspired by Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, a book he said he “went back to again and again,” and the British TV sitcom Black Books, which is set in a bookstore full of dysfunctional characters.

In addition to his reluctant social media efforts and his hardworking publicity team at Soft Skull, Hawkins said it is his personal connections with booksellers that will continue to be most valuable in driving sales for The Last Days of Video.

“If anything is going to get back my advance, it is going to be being able to talk to so many other booksellers,” he said.

This year’s Winter Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, was a great place to get to know booksellers from other stores on both the author and bookseller levels. It was also where he met one of his literary heroes, the novelist and poet Wendell Berry.

“I feel really lucky to be working in this industry and to have been adopted by other booksellers I have met,” he said. “My main take-away from the Winter Institute was the same as it was at the SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance] regional conference in Norfolk a couple months ago. I think booksellers are my favorite people in the world. They are so committed to the cause; they do it because they love it.”

Although he wrote a book about the decline of one cultural industry in The Last Days of Video, Hawkins said the current status of the American independent bookstore is nowhere near that of video stores in the mid to late 1990s.  

While evolving technology like Netflix and online streaming sites led to video stores’ inevitable end, this has not proven true with bookstores, despite all the changes of the modern era, Hawkins said. Bookstores’ staying power comes from more than just people’s romantic attachment to them, he said; people understand they are vitally important bases of cultural knowledge.

“From my point of view as a bookseller,” Hawkins said, “specifically working in a store like Flyleaf, there are so many indications that booksellers are strong.”