bookstore, bookshop

Most ordinary kinds of stores and shops (e.g., grocery stores, auto body shops) do not have the dignity of a one-word designation. Purveyors of books have not one but two. Of course, that is a privilege of being a favoured haunt of those who plant, grow, and harvest words – the lexiculturists, the word gardeners and the wordyard owners, the noun brewers and verb distillers.

But while having two words is a luxury, it is not absolutely redundant. Just as two bottles of wines from neighbouring vineyards or different years of the same vineyard are different, so are two synonyms.

So… What is the difference between a bookstore and a bookshop?

Actually, the better question is, What is the difference between bookstore and bookshop?

The first difference is of course the shape and sound. The book is the same in both, a staple word in English; shop on the page is more angular than store, and so it matches book more forthrightly. Store has a sound as of a hobbyist’s rocket going off: small hiss, éclat, then a fading roar. Shop is more like a sliding door, for instance on the starship Enterprise: a rich hiss and then a stop.

But words are known by the company they keep, and these two words – store and shop – keep different company.

We see store more with ordinary commercial establishments: grocery store, department store, convenience store, hardware store, general store, liquor store, corner store, quartermaster store; it has a utilitarian tone and an image of massing set by the verb store, and you think of shelves laden with dry goods in storage (and then there’s cold storage), and you know – or don’t know – what’s in store.

On the other hand, shop has different aspects. It can be a machine shop or auto body shop, or it can be one of those great old staple focused establishments: butcher shop, barber shop, flower shop. That air of the old fashioned results in its getting the faux-archaic spelling in places such as chocolate shoppe and antique shoppe. Higher-toned establishments like it; a place like Body Shop is not a discount store. It seems to encourage spending; after all, who doesn’t like shopping? (Obviously a thrift shop is a bit of an exception.) While a store is a place you go to get stuff, a shop can be a place to go to be in and interact – definitely true of a coffee shop. (It is a coincidence, but a nice one, that it has an old homophone in scop, an Old English storyteller, poet or minstrel.)

Would you like to make a guess as to which of these two comes from old Germanic roots and which from Latin? Newer loans tend to be more precise and less value-toned, while words that have grown up with the language tend to have richer meanings and associations and more nuances of use. So it should not be so surprising that on the one hand we have a clipped-down mutation from Latin instaurare “restore” and on the other we have a word that in Old English meant about the same thing but was written sceoppa.

So, faced with a word on one side that smacks of tore and star and perhaps Boxster, and one on the other side that could make you think of butcher and chop and make you see books hop, but given those associations, which do you prefer?

Twenty years ago, I worked in a bookstore. Well, it was actually a Classic Bookshop, but I usually referred to it as a bookstore. It was in West Edmonton Mall; it was a large store, with lots of variety, but not that cozy, friendly feel you may expect from a bookshop. Nonetheless, when I wrote a little piece about it, I decided I liked bookshop better. Here’s what I wrote. You decide whether it’s a bookshop or a boosktore – or suitably either.

A Bookshop

by James Harbeck

The books are arranged in rank and file on the shelves, row upon row, some turning a shoulder to the customer in deference, others exposing themselves to full view. Many new ones stand eagerly in place, shining, ready to be taken home and read; elsewhere, veterans lounge in less tidy condition, their pages separating, their backs swerving, on top of them a fuzz of dust for blowing off into a ghost of a cloud, or sometimes even requiring wiping with the finger. The shelves accumulate dust, too, especially the lower ones; one may, in many places, use the bottom edge of a book to scrape a little roll of it, and blow it back onto the floor whence it came.

There are all kinds of customers: men in comfortable grey business suits who plop down a management book onto the counter next to their cellular telephones, and pay with a credit card; women, some of them younger than you would think, wearing Zellers’ blue shirts over early cellulite buildups and stacking $2.79 romances like pancakes; computer jockeys in a wide variety of attire, either earnest-looking young men, intelligent in aspect and unmoderated in enthusiasm, often casually dressed, or men in their forties, who bring the books up like one doing a duty, but either way, it’s one book at a time, almost always by credit card, and it’s always men – more women buy Playboy than buy computer books; young mothers, happy but tired, or sometimes just plain fed up, usually buying a few inexpensive hardcover children’s books and one or two easy paperbacks for themselves – and their children always want to ring the bell; tourists, all shapes and sizes, and once in a month or two one will get to speak French or even have to try one’s rusty German; people who plunk down ponderous piles of bargain-priced books, ranging from the quiet, greybearded gentleman who sorts through the “hurt” paperback bin, list in hand, to the occasional 12-year-old boy buying a gift for his father in the form of a very large and very inexpensive book, who cares what about; boys from 13 to 30 who inspect carefully the contents of the science fiction section, and girls of the same ages buying all nature of serialized, romantic and intriguing material; future – or present – Miss Marples (and the odd Sherlock wannabe, but no V. I. Warshawskis), with one or two carefully selected mysteries; and so on and so forth, most polite, many pleasant, only one or two in a year so rude as to make one beat a hasty exit to the back room for a vent-out and cool-off session. The rude ones are generally people of unclear thought and expression, who seem to expect a sort of E.S.P. on the part of a clerk and who automatically assume that this tie-bedecked specimen peering confusedly at them through glasses is an inferior sort of being.

There are kinds of pollution here, too, even aside from the omnipresent dust which can tend to ingrain itself into one’s fingertips. There are wax paper soft drink containers left sitting, used, on the shelves and displays; there are odd bits of gum (a curse on the placers!) and small wrappers; there was, once, the lady who used the previous day’s newspapers to clean up her child’s mess; and there is noise pollution. The roar of the fountains, 15 feet out from the storefront, is omnipresent, to the extent that, when they are inoperative, the store seems wrapped in an eerie, almost oppressive stillness. There are voices, too; rarely is one treated to the crisp chocolatey tones of whispered conversation, so common in libraries. On occasion, infants too young to know better – or not – scream incessantly. And then there is the bell.

The bell, like the bookstore, is big, a good six inches in diameter and four inches high. It looks like any other counter bell, but overgrown. It’s shiny but fingerprinted and a bit smirched, and it sits slightly askew on its black base. Behind it is the latest in a long line of signs, a cardboard rectangle bearing a request, neatly lettered in black with pink, to PLEASE RING THE BELL FOR SERVICE. (Few people who do not work in the store see the less tidy legend on the back: BELL SIGN DO NOT THROW OUT, and, in different lettering, RING THIS.) And ring it they do: from timid tings to wrestling-bell bings (accomplished with a rolled-up newspaper). Its tone is nice, not louder, as most expect, but simply lower than average. The amount of fiddling, bending and bolstering which has been enacted upon it by sedulous clerks in order to facilitate such sound – for its internal workings were faultily construed – is never appreciated by those who ring it.

A note on the ringing: it is mostly done when not necessary, frequently while purchases are being run through. If a clerk is actually unable to see the customers as they stand at the counter, the customers will often wait up to half a minute before following the instructions so tidily displayed before their eyes. People are less shy when a clerk is actually there, although most prefer merely to comment that it’s the biggest bell they’ve ever seen.

Every day, except weekends, two or more trolleys loaded with brown cardboard boxes come trundling down the wide left aisle and deposit their loads in a small area of cleared carpet near the back, and once a week a very large trolley, a sort of manually operated forklift, rumbles imposingly straight to the back room, stacked six feet high with cardboard cubes containing bargain books. These boxes stay in the back; the smaller daily loads usually return severally, in twos and threes, to the front, where they are dealt with next to the cash registers. Twice a week, also, boxes stuffed with magazines are trafficked, and once a week, a large, heavy package wrapped in brown paper is pounded onto the floor with the boxes of books: the British magazines.

A special method has been developed by one clerk for the unpacking of large boxes of paperbacks: a clipboard is placed over the open top, the works are inverted and the books are unmolded into four or six neat stacks as the cardboard is lifted away. Not all procedures are so tidy, though, especially if involving a box with an unsealed bottom. More than once, a hapless clerk has found his feet surrounded by heaps of books which have chosen the back way out. But the sound of falling books is usually met with restrained laughter.

There are plenty of falling books to be heard, too, for some demonic designer decided to construe shelves for this store which, while versatile, rest at an acute angle to their backing wall. Gravity thus feeds the bottoms of books into the tight corner formed, and the volumes, no longer being perpendicular to their shelves, lean forward and somersault onto the rug. More spectacular mishaps are managed by the bargain displays, which are in the form of pyramids: the volumes standing on the top, if unbalanced, will fall onto the next level, and, combining with the books there, will proceed to the next, and so forth, producing an almost-lethal avalanche of reading material. The closest customers will either guiltily attempt a hurried tidying of the mess, or remove themselves from the scene instantly.

Fallen books are always replaced eventually, if not always with great dispatch; when they’re on the floor, after all, they’re not going anywhere, are they? And sometimes employees will glance in passing at a dislocated book, but leave it untouched for an hour or more. They almost always have something else to do.

The employees may be seen: walking in between two points; encouraging the concise arrangement of their product; on occasion, surrounded by huge stacks of books and looking ruminatively at a bare pyramid, deciding how to build it; or standing, clipboard and pencil in hand, gazing at the shelves, looking for that one book out of the 35,000 in stock, the existence of which they must verify. If you approach them, they will be characteristically modestly polite, sometimes quite helpful, sometimes unenthusiastic. Their minds are to the task at hand, liked or hated. And if the till is the responsibility of a clerk, he or she will, at the ring of the bell, post with dispatch to the cash desk. This is usually the time when customers seem to stop them on their way, requiring some obscure title; the phone seems to ring more often at this point, too. Things happen in clusters around here. Breaks to the back room are always welcome.

In the back room ,which is smaller than your living-room but likely a bit bigger than your bedroom, the manager and assistant manager take up residence among the array of boxes, shelves and heaped books. A desk, a filing cabinet and various necessary papers, messily piled, may also be found. The clerks who take refuge there from time to time will read, eat, or, more often, swap rude jokes and irreverent insights. Conversation ranging from the benign to the potentially extremely offensive is slightly muffled by the door bearing the legend EMPLOYEES ONLY. Its open or closed state depends on the degree of secrecy desired by those within, on the frequency of traffic in and out of the room at that time, or on the amount of heat accumulated from the large electrical transformer which sits under a makeshift counter. The back room is the inner sanctum, where marketing secrets are kept, attitudes are let into the open, the odd cigarette is smoked. And it is here, with the door closed, that employees will take cartloads of paperback books, lifted of late from the shelves and the dust puffed away from them, and, bending the card-paper back, will grasp the books in two hands and rip, denuding them of their covers, and consigning glued packets of naked pulp paper by the hundreds to reused boxes, to be taken out to the trash compactor.

5 responses to “bookstore, bookshop

  1. In New Zealand (probably Australia too) we are inching towards the state of affairs that you describe, but I can remember a very different one, well into the 1970s and changing only very slowly in the subsequent decades. “Store” was pretty well confined to department stores and general stores; and when a dairy (i.e. convenience store) or a general store happened to be on a corner it was invariably called the corner shop. Your grocery store was our grocer’s shop. Not so any more; we seem to have largely adopted the North American pattern, including a tendency to prefer (or maybe reclaim) “shop” where smallness, specialisation, or maybe just cuteness, is perceived as an asset. Books are still mostly sold here in shops — though I’ve noticed a trend towards calling them bookstores when they happen to be, well, chainstores.

  2. Worked my way through college with a GI Bill, work/study job in the college media room and a part time job at the bookstore, Waldenbooks in the mall, wonderfully surrounded by books. It was a dizzying time, but remembered fondly. My BFF worked down the mall at BDalton’s and we would share store gossip and homework notes. Then came Hastings and the two smaller stores faded away. There were two or three shops in town, very specialized, but the store eventually took over. Nothing against Hastings, but I liked the personability of the shops and our smaller chain stores. And that I could dumpster dive back then for all the books with ripped covers. Only way I could afford to read.

  3. “Bookshop” is a cozy word, but I’ve never used it here in New Jersey. I’m not against it; I would vote for it, but I’ve always gone to the book “store,” where, especially in my youth, I spent uncounted hours. Nowadays I buy my books from Amazon, which does the job well, but has no soul.

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  5. Pingback: library | Sesquiotica

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