I feel like I need to preface this review with a disclaimer: the author of this book, Jon Spira, is a (long-suffering) friend of mine. Having said that, I pride myself on approaching such things with absolute objectivity to the point where many writer friends quiver in their boots at the thought of me reviewing their work (that may or may not be an exaggeration). So, I leave it up to you to decide how objective this review is, but let me be clear, I do not give positive reviews lightly. And this is going to be a bloody positive review.
‘It was frustrating beyond words. Little did I know then that this feeling is, essentially, the working experience of most adult human beings until they are granted the brief mercy of a late retirement and collapse thankfully into their graves.’
Over the past few decades, we have seen massive shifts in how we consume culture. Formats have changed along with our spending habits. In the course of Jon’s lifetime, the VHS paved the way for public access to almost any film ever released before the format was buried by the DVD, then streaming. The general public went from rarely being able to see a film that had not just come out at the cinema to having almost every film ever made available to them at the click of the button. With these rapid changes came the birth and death of an industry: the video store.
Having already been a burgeoning film nut, the advent of the home video recorder and ‘video libraries’ as Jon tells us they were then called (I mean, I’m far too young to know such things…), turned a young boy into a full-blown film geek with a passion for video stores. Why video shops you may ask? Why not? After all, a grand library is a wet dream for book nerds, so it follows that a well-curated video shop would be catnip for the film geek. But herein lay the problem – the corporate bodies that dominated the industry had no appreciation for film. So Jon’s dream became owning his own video store to spread his genuine love for film amongst the local community.
‘That probably sounds arrogant, but I’m ok with that. We were arrogant. Videosyncratic was basically – I might be biased here – the coolest place to work. I only hired cool people and I let them be themselves. It inspired a certain swagger even in those who weren’t narcissists already. There were all narcissists already.’
With an irascible wit and obvious intelligence, I always found Jon an intimidating though fantastic conversationalist. His passion and knowledge for films and the industry he devoted his life to is infectious in both real life and on paper, and his acerbic wit is put to excellent use as he takes aim at the sterility of corporate life at Blockbuster and the public’s contempt for those slogging it out in the service industry. He has a striking ability to conjure startlingly concrete images of the people he interacted with in a few – often harsh but hilarious – words. The characters we meet throughout the book are clearly articulated, even if they appear for only a scene. As such, every scene is immersive and hilarious, while still devoting time to elegise an industry that has been and gone.
You may think that this book’s topic is too niche, but you’d be wrong. This is a tale of passion, hard work, and inevitable failure. It is relatable on every level, entertaining, full of cynicism, and irrepressibly funny. As I read the book late into the night, I could be heard cackling (and snorting – yes, it was that funny) halfway down the street.
‘There were no openable windows in any of the Blockbusters I’d ever been in and, as apparent corporate policy, all branches had those suspended ceilings with polystyrene tiles. So it was like every bad smell that got released in those shops was contained within them for all time. A community fart archive, endlessly heated and re-heated by the light coming in the front window.’
But this is still me, and I do have a few small niggles to complain about. There are a few more typos than I would have liked, a problem I often see in self-published work. Throughout the book, sentences had full stops left off – this happened so often that I felt it may have been a stylistic choice. If that’s the case, I still didn’t like it. Full stops are not optional. Grammar rules are there for a reason! Without them, it would be anarchy!
When Jon heard I was writing a review of Videosyncratic, he could help but pre-empt my harsh takedown of his work with a suggested review of his own. So if you don’t take my word for it, why not trust what the author has to say in my adopted voice? ‘Once in a generation, maybe once in three generations, a book comes along that changes everything. A Bible essential to humanity to allow our species to contextualise our past and build a secure future. Videosyncratic is that book. Buying a copy is not enough. But a copy for each room of your house, then buy a copy for each room of each house of your closest friends and worst enemies. Buy a crate of them and deliver it to your favourite international crisis relief charity that they might spread it around the world to accelerate and end to inequality and a new age of harmonious unity. 10 out of 10.’
Verdict: A snortingly-funny read full of incisive commentary on the birth and death of an industry, what it is like to be an adult, and exactly how to get the world’s largest shit to flush.
Videosyncratic is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon.