The Country Store

“The country merchant has friends left, and while he finds his trade curtailed and his business lessened by the wide-reaching mail-order house, he fills a place in the economy of the rural portions of the nation that cannot be taken from him.”


Standing before the door of his long-established but modest emporium, his ample form flanked by windows displaying hoes and pancake flour, boys’ suits and writing-paper, washboards and cigars, while a garish sign, “General Merchandise” creaked above, the pioneer proprietor pointed to a heap of freight the train now disappearing over the plains had dumped on the depot platform.

“More work of the catalogues,” he commented bitterly. “Three sacks of ’em came to the post office last week, — now the folks are sending for the goods. Think they are saving money, I suppose.”

“Perhaps they are?”

“Not much. If they will give me all their orders and pay cash as they have to do with the catalogue mail-order houses, I’ll get ’em just as good stuff, and just as cheap. Some things they may buy cheaper, but they’re cheaper goods.”

“Why do they do it, then?”

“Because it’s the city, — it sounds better, somehow; and the catalogues make everything look so fine. Why, the other day a farmer came here to borrow wrenches to set up a windmill he had sent to Chicago for. Then they expect me to take what’s left, — or when they haven’t the cash to send away. It’s getting so that the farmer can live ten miles from town and even buy his groceries in St. Louis or New York and have ’em delivered without leaving the place. It means that we might as well shut up shop.

Such is the attitude of most small store-keepers in the western states. The rapid progress of the rural delivery route and the farm telephone line have brought new conditions to the section where for forty years the country merchant has attained substantial glory.

The development of the prairies during the past half century has brought rich opportunity to the country merchant. He entered with the forefront of the tide of emigration from eastern homes. Scarcely had a settlement been formed when his square-gabled store was set up and his team was hauling varied cargoes of merchandise overland from the railroad, a score of miles away. He became postmaster and notary. The town hall—of “opera house,” as it was most frequently called—was in the second story of his building; the first preaching service was there; the first lodge established a mysterious tabernacle in its ample space. The store became the centre of the community life.

Some of these early country stores drew trade twenty miles in every direction, and their owners, investing their savings in the rapidly growing settlement around, became wealthy. The fortunes of many of the capitalists of the middle West were laid in such establishments, where the sugar barrel jostled the lace counter and boots mingled frankly with the tinware.

Prosperity brought competition; rivals appeared, dividing the countryside trade; but usually the business grew correspondingly, so there yet remained enough. Later, as new railway lines came, and as farms took the place of ranches, other country stores were started to repeat the old experience and absorb yet more of the business. The creamery industry brought about the establishment of thousands of small stores, one at each station to which the farmers carried their milk.

Such was the record of the country store, until, with the final opening of Oklahoma, the frontier passed away, and more settled conditions were manifest in the prairie West.

Then rural mail delivery wagons began their twenty-five-mile journeys from the county seats; farm telephones entered prosperous homes, and daily papers, which had been only for the townspeople, were read before noon ten miles from the railroad. The influence of the central settlement—usually the county-seat town, because the largest in the county and the point from which radiated the rural routes and telephone lines—was resumed, after having been lost in the scattered trading-points established with the incoming immigration.

This, however, merely changed the plan of the trading; it did not remove it from the locality. The merchant who had been in business at the isolated crossroads creamery station changed to a small town, went to farming, or perhaps moved on to newer fields. The convenience of communication stimulated trade.

“This is Mr. Harvey,” came over the telephone one February morning, and the groceryman recognized the voice as that of a farmer living ten miles away. “I see in the paper that you advertise some fresh lettuce, — I wish you would send out a quarter’s worth by the carrier, — and what else have you that is nice?”

To the order were added other extra-season eatables suggested by the dealer. Had there been no telephone there would have been no sale of that bill of goods. Multiply the incident by hundreds in every town, and the result is the impetus given to the farmer’s life by modern conveniences. They have stimulated business, and have created wants before unknown. The necessity of a trip several miles over bad roads or through storm gave good reason for foregoing many purchases that are made gladly under easier conditions.

It is fair to presume that these conveniences, by adding to the pleasures and comforts of the farmer’s life, will increase the rural population and so make a larger patronage for the business men.

Substantial conditions have succeeded the experimental period of early days. In towns of practically unchanged populations fewer stores usually are doing business to-day than fifteen years ago. The transient store has passed away. It takes more capital to succeed now than then; it takes better goods and a larger stock. Brick buildings have succeeded the frame square-gabled structures. Only in the villages or in newer portions do the old forms appear. Land has doubled in value in half a decade; the farmers are well out of debt, and are seeking the luxuries as well as the necessities of modern life. They recognize the saving grace of a bathroom and understand the good points of a furnace.

Into the fair field entered the mail-order house with its persuasive eloquence.

For the asking, it sent bulky catalogues containing over a thousand pages each, illustrated with as many pictures of every article that the average family of moderate means could possibly desire to purchase. These catalogues go largely to country people, — the mail-order houses do not seek city trade. The goods are selected for country people, and the prices are made as low as the buying of immense quantities can force them. It is often true that articles are sold thus for less than the modest country merchant can buy them of his wholesale jobbing houses. But that does not mean that they are the same articles in every particular, or that everything in the bill of goods the farmer orders is equally a bargain. Supposing one can save a cent a pound on ten pounds of dried prunes, what profits it if half the prunes spoil before so large a quantity can be used? It saves freight to buy large quantities of the distant store, and the bills are generous, — more liberal frequently, than the circumstances warrant.

Then there is not a cent of credit, — not even personal checks will be accepted. Everything is paid for when it leaves the store, and if the buyer five hundred miles away is not satisfied, he has double transportation to pay in getting an exchange. Little wonder that there is an advantage over the country merchant, with his perpetually accommodating good nature, and his many trifling accounts which often are not paid for months.

A few weeks ago I visited the largest mail-order store in Chicago, where millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise is sent out every year. Its dozen floors are crowded with goods and employees—and some customers. Few of the latter are from the city. At the door stands a clerk who carefully inspects every visitor.

“From out of the city, sir?”

If the answer be “No,” you may enter or not as you please, — little does the well-trained employee care.

“Yes, — form Iowa,” and how the hand goes out in greeting!

“Glad to have you come in; look over the store, — and here is a ticket for the elevator to the tower.”

The ticket is marked “25 cents,” and you are told it costs that sum to a resident of the city. The store caters only to out-of-town visitors. Of course you go to the tower, — you had paid gladly to reach lesser heights elsewhere. In the elevator you find people who are evidently strangers to the big town; some are farmer folk making their first visit to the metropolis. “We bought all Kate’s house-furnishings from here,” is overheard as a group is pressed against the iron railing at the top. They are overcome by the wonders spread out far below them, and will go back home with marvelous tales of the greatness of the city and of the magnitude of this supply-house in particular, the bestower of a free elevator ride.

When the rural delivery routes were started in country communities, the mail-order houses were quick to see their advantage. They secured an order from the post-office department that the names of all patrons of the routes should be posted publicly in the lobbies of the post offices from which the routes started. In a short time they had a magnificent list of names to which to address catalogues. This order was recently rescinded.

It is probable that there is in prosperous farm life an influence that tends toward an assumption of independence of the towns. In the development period the townspeople are generally supposed to lead an easier existence than do those who are breaking the rough sod and founding homes on the new lands. When the soil has bestowed riches,, the farmer becomes independent and looks at things from a new point of view.

A representative Midwestern farmer addressed his state’s agricultural society recently, making this plea for buying wherever he pleased: the farmer is able to sell as well as can the man of whom he buys, and he sells for cash; hence he is entitled to buy where he can buy cheapest. He went on: “Your nearest merchants claim the right to buy where they can buy the cheapest, whether it be of you, from Kansas City, or New York; it is also true that they exercise this right, for one day I happened in one of our home stores just as town lady was buying some cabbage. The merchant was, of course, praising his wares, and would use his set form of speech by saying that those cabbages he had had shipped in from Wisconsin. Knowing that there were plenty of cabbages for sale by farmers, we put in our oar to the extent of asking why he did not buy his produce from those who bought goods of him. ‘Well, you see,’ he explained, ‘we can get Wisconsin cabbage laid down in our store for the same as we have to pay for home stock, and these,’ — giving the crate the vegetables were shipped in a kick with his foot — ‘are solider than any we can buy here.’ How hollow their cry, ‘Buy of your home merchant, the man who takes your products,’ sounded to us after hearing this bit of talk from the dealer himself.

“But does the merchant you pay money to for goods keep it at home any more than you do when you send to Kansas City or Chicago for what you want? Let us see. Suppose you want a sack of granulated sugar. Your home merchant sells you a sack for six dollars, puts a dollar of it in his own pocket for handling it for you, and sends the rest to the sugar trust in the East to pay for the sugar. On the same day you buy the sugar from your home dealer, let us suppose you sent to some mail-order house for another sack of a like grade. You send away $4.75, and when the sugar comes you pay fifty cents in freight, making it cost you $5.25, and saving you seventy-five cents. The reason we quote no freight charges against the home dealer is because all dealers usually buy on a basis of ‘delivered at your store,’ but the freight charges have been added, and the consumer has to pay them, no matter where the goods originally came from. You have seventy-five cents instead of the merchant having one dollar.”

This is a typical argument of the mail-order house’s farmer buyer, but it does not include the legitimate outcome of such a proceeding extended to an entire community. It is probable that few of the farmers who exploit so glibly the process by which seventy-five cents is kept at home would care to have their county towns come to the natural result from universal adoption of this policy. Instead of streets of brick blocks where thriving business houses bring the attendant features of modern town life, there would be only a railway station, post office, blacksmith shop, doctor’s office, and grain elevator. The lawyers would have their offices in their homes or in the court house; there would be no need of storerooms, and the county newspaper, which would contain no advertising except mail-order house announcements printed on its “patent inside,” could probably occupy one end of the commodious freight depot which would be necessary to care for the many shipments of goods. The rural districts of the nation would be very dismal places were this the situation and were all the local places for distribution of the needs of the home wiped out.

It is also interesting to note the magnitude to which the central establishments for furnishing goods under such conditions would attain. They would overshadow the mightiest emporiums of the present. The railroads would be burdened with small shipments to individuals, and the mails would be heavy with orders. The few large cities would contain these great dispensing centres, and the remainder of the commercial life of the country would be practically nothing, being confined to the minor trades and needful professions. The country store would be a thing of the past; business would be centralized beyond any conditions now existing.

Some gloomy prophets seem convinced that such is to be the outcome. Her is the dark prediction of a dweller in western Nebraska: —

“The future of the ordinary merchant in the country towns is very discouraging, as the mail-order business is constantly increasing, while they are on the decrease, and our citizens are building up the large centres.

“The mercantile interests largely make the conditions of the town, and conditions of the town generally regulate the value of the real estate. Land sells near this town from seventy to one hundred dollars per acre, while several miles out it sells for fifty to sixty dollars per acre, and yet this has no material consideration for those who are looking for immediate bargains in merchandise.

“I predict that in a few years’ time all the business the small merchant will get is what coffee and sugar he can trade for stale butter and doubtful eggs, as the large commission houses will get the good eggs and the creameries the cream. He may possibly sell a little to some, on ‘after harvest’ terms, when they have not the money to buy the money order form the rural mail clerk.”

Were this true, the outlook for the country merchant would be sad indeed; but there are some things to be said on the other side.

To go back to the genesis of the country store: from the beginning, as the nucleus of the settlement life, it has become one of a dozen struggling enterprises desirous of securing the trade of the surrounding country. As the town grew and reached its permanent position among the municipalities of the state, the pioneer store, if it was managed with intelligence, retained its general character, but, branching out, took on the nature of a department store on a small scale. It yet sold washboards and millinery, but it did so in the different departments, each with a head and corps of clerks. The probabilities are that its owner has become a “mercantile company,” meaning that the originator has taken into partnership some of his helpers in order to get more faithful service. These stores, of which nearly every county seat has two or more, are to the country communities what the great emporiums are to the city trade. They occupy full pages in the county weeklies, and their advertising, prepared by some bright clerk or bookkeeper, does not suffer in comparison with that of high-priced “adsmiths” who give professional service in the announcements of the city department stores. Smart delivery wagons make prompt and accommodating disposal of goods at customers’ houses. Frequent visits of the proprietors to the large cities keep in evidence through carefully arranged display windows a touch of the world’s newest designs.

The strength of these stores is this, — they carry large stocks; their owners are often interested in mills or elevators that buy the farmer’s grain; they take all the eggs and poultry brought to town, — being the feeders for the commission houses of which the Nebraskan complains, — and they meet the prices of the mail-order houses as closely as possible. Many of them keep standing in the local papers such announcements as this: —

“We will duplicate the price of any article advertised in a mail-order catalogue.”

Such a statement does not secure all the trade, but it goes a long way to convince the buyers of the value of their home store.

The vividness of the illustrated advertising done by the mail-order houses, compared with that done by the country merchants, is held by many to be responsible for the success attained in securing trade, and it is probably a most important factor. The bulky catalogue introduces its readers to hundreds of articles never before dreamed of as possibilities of the home; it pictures these goods in all their imagined beauty and describes them in terms of eulogy. The reader sees therein an opportunity for supply a want never before suspected, — the country merchant had never suggested this line of thought to him.

Herein lies a lesson for the country merchant of to-day. The latter, with his proximity to the buyer, his acquaintance with the community needs and abilities, his weekly access to the homes through the country paper which is read from first to last column by every member of the family, his lessened freight rates on large quantities instead of single orders, has an advantage over the city merchant which he ought to utilize, and which, in many places, he is seizing as a lever for trade-bringing.

The country papers which get no local advertising form the mail-order houses (many will not admit it to their columns) help along this home buying sentiment by vigorous sermons on the value of standing up for home industries. Here is a sample of their argument: —

“When your baby died, did the mail-order house send its sympathy? When your crop failed, did it offer to carry you a while? When your daughter was married, did it send a present? Has it helped build the churches, the schoolhouses, or the bridges of the community? Stand by your home merchant who has done all of these things. Help home industries and home people.”

The country department store that uses modern methods in trade and advertising cannot be broken up. Its business is so interwoven with the industry of the people that it grows as the community grows; but there is not room for many such stores in a given town, not so many as there would be if the mail-order house and the city department house with its mail-order division did not exist.

Then there is the grocery store, — no mail-order house can destroy that. It is true that the master of the household may order sugar, coffee, prunes, canned goods, and oatmeal sent by freight; but the majority of the eatables must be seen by the mistress of the home before being paid for. Likewise the men’s clothing store, — little that men and boys wear can be bought satisfactorily at a distance of five hundred miles. So with the hardware and implement house; the farmer may order a windmill or a lot of binding twine by mail, but he gets his nails, stoves, building hardware, and implements at home. So with drugs, millinery, harness, and furniture stores, — there is a local demand for them because their articles are such that most people want to examine the goods before the order is given.

But all these lose some trade to the city. In every community many people visit the nearest big town once or twice during the year, — and those who go oftenest are usually the most generous spenders. On every trip some purchases are made, often the principal ones of the family or individual for the season.

This city buying is naturally most common in towns within short distances of the metropolis. With the frequent train service that enters the city depots the temptation to buy in the greater markets is irresistible. For fifty miles outside of St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, and other large cities, there is little life visible in the business streets of the towns. Deserted store buildings are common, paint is needed, — many of the towns look as if the very life-blood had been sapped out of them. There may be beautiful residence streets and fine homes, but prosperous stores are few.

It is, naturally, impossible to put a stop to personal expenditures in the city by those who visit trade centres, except as public opinion may discourage it; but the country merchants through their business organizations endeavor to compel jobbing houses to cooperate with them in the protection of trade.

If the purchase be made of a firm that has also a wholesale department serving a merchant in the buyer’s town, that home merchant is not worrying; he will get a check for the amount of his margin on the goods sold. The profit comes as surely as if he had made the sale. A good deal of public sentiment exists in the small town against city purchasing trips, and very little publicity is sought by the buyers concerning them. Everybody likes to keep up an appearance of loyalty to the home merchants, whether it be practiced or not. In one western town the leading daily paper undertook a movement to compel home buying by publishing each day the names of shoppers who went to the large city forty miles away. It was an heroic measure, and the paper soon discontinued it because of the enemies it made among subscribers, — but while the tactics continued they kept many a buyer from leaving town.

The retail trade associations—and the country merchant generally agrees with them—look with great disfavor on the parcels post, considering the scheme as another menace to their trade. “If,” say they, “the rural delivery carrier is to become a hauler of express, we may as well go out of business, — the farmer now is compelled to come to town after most goods he orders by mail; then he may remain on his farm and have them brought to his door.” The up-to-date country merchant, like his competitor, is utilizing the rural delivery. In many countries half the people can be reached by it. Being nearer to the people, he is finding ways to combat the foreigner, and is including modern methods and better system as prominent features in his campaign.

If a wholesale dealer sells ploughs to a grocer who proposes to put in these as a side line, the officers of an association, with a thousand or more retail implement dealers as members, ask him for an explanation. If he does not wish to be blacklisted by the legitimate trade, he must regain good standing. Such is the country merchant’s protest against the transference of trade from himself to the city dealer and for the specialization of business within certain bounds.

So the country merchant has friends left, and while finds his trade curtailed and his business lessened by the wide-reaching mail-order house, he fills a place in the economy of the rural portions of the nation that cannot be taken from him. He is close to the heart of the neighborhood. He may be harassed by rivalries and annoyed by the freight shipments from the city, but he is certain to be a factor in the community life, and it is probable that he will, as he accepts the new conditions and learns how to adapt his business to the modern ways, become even more influential. There is more business to be done now than of old, and he can spare a large portion of it and yet have in his hands the making of a comfortable living. His success depends on his own aggressiveness and his own grasp of modern conditions.

Vivid in the memory of the passing generation is the old-fashioned country store. To-day, though 56,000,000 of the 84,000,000 people of this nation live outside towns of 8000 population and over, and hence are more or less patrons of country stores, they find these business houses influenced by the advancement of the times and despoiled of much of the picturesque individuality that formerly made them such cheerful resorts, such sympathetic features of the villages.

The country store we shall have always with us. Though the old-time variety is found only here and there, and has for its keeper some aged gentleman or curl-wearing gentlewoman who seems a ghost of the past among the flesh and blood of the present, the type remains. The country store shares the development of the times; it sells syrup in bottles instead of from a keg; it disposes of butter in paper packages, and of dried beef in tin cans; the cracker barrel and the open coffee sack are seldom seen; breakfast-food boxes succeed the bulk oatmeal supply. It encounters the perils of city competition and combats new business conditions, — but it is yet the nearest and most intimate commercial affair for hundreds of thousands of homes. It may not be so great a factor in the life of the people as it once was, but the country store is certain to remain an essential element in our existence.