by Von Wise
The modern world provides us with countless conveniences. Almost anything we could want is available for purchase within seconds, at any moment. Amazon can deliver a package to our house within days for free, and this convenience is exemplified by book deliveries, its flagship service. So why then do we still go to book stores to buy books? This simple answer is that we don’t; we go for the experience. The more complicated answer involves our relationship with books and our emotional responses to seeing them, browsing them, the wholly deliberate de-commodification we enact by treating books as something slightly more sacred than most of the other objects we buy. Bookstores evoke a complex web of interconnected desires, sensations, and visceral satisfactions, all of which can be more or less articulated as the smell of books. As services like Amazon out-supply big-name stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble with its unlimited capacity and as sleek e-readers pose as practical upgrades to thousand-page tomes, an independent bookstore like Flyleaf Books continues to thrive because it is an important member of the community for which simple convenience could never substitute.
While visiting Flyleaf, the store itself immediately engages in dialogue, as, walking through the door, you encounter a table arranged with Notable Books, each with a handwritten card detailing its contents and the thoughts of the staff member who filled out the note. You then begin to notice these penned columns peeking out of various books all over the store, inviting you to take a look and to perhaps share an experience. It’s easy to get distracted with all of the tables pulling you from island to island of books and bookshelves lining the walls drawing your eyes in countless right angles. Even on my most focused visits to go pick up one specific book, I’ll still find myself aimlessly browsing, almost by accident. And that’s exactly the point. Flyleaf Books isn’t simply a location that facilitates transactions; it’s a place to be, to savor, a “third place.” In other words, the books are for browsing as much as for buying.
The interior almost seems designed to facilitate a sense of discovery and opportunity. After meandering through the front area, browsing the newest releases and staff favorites, the staff-curated poetry section and various fiction and non-fiction sections, you are inevitably drawn towards the back of the store to discover the—again, curated—children’s section. The space is semi-contained by half- and full-sized bookshelves and resembles a play area. To the other side, an entrance opens up into a large, spacious room containing the used books section. This space serves as a reflection of the front, with bookshelves lining the walls and tables set up in the middle. This is also the space where the community engages itself in the events hosted by the store.
Community events are undoubtedly an important part of what makes a store like Flyleaf so vital. By hosting readings and similar community-oriented literary engagements, the store becomes a living part of the social process. It becomes a locus for the public engagement with ideas, facilitating and realizing the community’s literary body as a coherent, conscious entity. With its mix—and equal promotion—of local and non-local authors, Flyleaf grows alongside and through the community in more ways than one. Jamie Fiocco, Flyleaf’s owner and general manager, noted that she found herself to be a staunch supporter of free speech through organizing and managing the readings. She noted that there have occasionally been readings which attracted protesters, and that these tend to be opportunities to resolve conflicts. This is exactly what makes a space like Flyleaf so important. It is more than simply a place to buy books; it is a place to come together.
Even from the beginning, Flyleaf has been shaped by necessity. The owner of the building had the space and knew he wanted it to become a bookstore, however, following the financial crisis in 2008, there was trouble finding someone to fill it. The owner knew Jamie through the publishing industry and eventually convinced her to head a new business. By November 2009, Flyleaf was ready to open its doors. Despite the unforgiving economic climate, the store persisted, and after spending some time in it, it’s easy to see why.
Flyleaf is clearly managed by people who care about what they do. Over the course of interviewing her, Jamie stopped several times to personally make sure that people in the store had help if needed. When speaking about the store, she mentioned that, growing up in Chapel Hill, she had always wanted someone to open up the kind of bookstore Flyleaf has become. One can’t help but think of Toni Morrison’s advice to write the book you want to read; the same can be said of the stores that sell them. It certainly isn’t the largest bookstore in the area, but with its carefully managed selection, that hardly matters. Each section is constantly curated, and Jamie joked that five different people touch each book before it makes it to the shelf. When browsing the selections, that level of care is obvious. Jamie worked to find the right mix of people to help her manage the store and noted how happy she is with the staff group and culture.
It’s about more than making a living wage selling books: it’s about creating a positive work environment, about making books available, about enriching the community. Jamie noted how, today, there is a place for independent bookstores like Flyleaf to succeed. That place is located in the space between the publishers and the people who read their books and involves forming relationships with each. It involves filling that bookstore-shaped absence in the community. It’s about serving the community while being part of it. Flyleaf isn’t going anywhere because it provides something that cannot be replaced: a third place for anyone who loves the smell of books.
Von Wise is an assistant editor at Regal House Publishing, and an MFA student at Florida International University, where he studies creative writing. His work has been previously selected for the Donna Grear Memorial Award for poetry. He currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he runs a writing workshop.