“Good day” the country merchant would say upon each customer’s entry into his store. For in 1830 the term “hello” was not yet in common use. The country store–the term general store wouldn’t become popular for another couple of decades–was the hub of life in a town. It wasn’t just a place to buy goods, but also the post office and a gathering spot for town’s folk to learn the latest news and gossip.
The country store was run by a merchant or shopkeeper and his entire family. Work in the store was unending. It would open early in the morning and close late at night, six days a week. The storekeeper spent his days serving customers. His wife would help with customers and bookkeeping. His children would do chores before and after school and all day Saturday. They would be given jobs such as sweeping the floor, stocking shelves, polishing brass, grinding coffee and sugar, weighing items, and wrapping purchases. When he left for buying trips into the city, typically twice a year in the fall and spring, his wife would take over his responsibilities.
The store was a well kept place. It was typically a large open room, with a smaller back room used for bookkeeping and storage. Long wooden counters stretched along both sides of the store, with base cabinets and upper shelves extending to the ceiling, lining the back walls and displaying the merchant’s wares. The counters would show off expensive items such as pens, perfumes and jewelry contained in glass cases. In the center of the store, large wood bins sitting on the floor would hold such items as spices, ground sugar, coffee, flour and seeds. Filling the room were the smells of spices, leather, coffee and kerosene.
The items sold in a country store could be classified into four categories: groceries, dry goods, house wares and hardware. Groceries included items such as tea, coffee, sugar, and spices. Dry goods were the largest selection if goods and included items like woolen broad cloth, cotton textiles, linens, silk, head ribbons, bonnets, ready made clothes, women’s shoes, books and paper goods. House wares, also popular, included everything from dishes, flatware and china, to pots and pans, brooms and mops. And finally, hardware would offer items such as tools, window glass, shot (for guns), garden seeds and dyestuff. Purchased items were sometimes packaged in wooden barrels and cloth sacks, though most often customers supplied their own containers.
Unlike today, in 1830 cash was not a common means of exchange. Most town folk were farmers who didn’t earn wages, and only about a quarter of a country store’s customers paid in cash. Instead, the much more common means of payment was the trade and barter system. Customers had very little money, but they had valuable crops and livestock that they could trade for goods. The shopkeeper would trade his goods for a variety of items such as butter, cheese, produce and even palm leaf hats, turkeys, and knitted socks. What the shopkeeper didn’t need for his family he brought to Boston or New York and sold for a profit. Also very common to the time, many customers received store credit. Each time a farmer made a purchase, the value of the items would be subtracted from the total credit in his account. At harvest time the numbers would be calculated, the accounts would be settled, and the whole process would begin again.
The country store was more than just a store, but by the late 1800’s it was slowly being replaced. Department stores were starting to appear, making items cheaper to purchase, and the introduction of mail order catalogues made many items easier and quicker to obtain directly. While the old country store has disappeared, you can still find remnants of its spirit in some small town corner stores today, where everyone knows each other and gossip is still exchanged within its walls. As the merchant would say, “I bid you a good day.”