Elegy of the Country Storekeeper

THE history of the small-town store is arbitrarily the story of the small town, that most vital and picturesque of America’s institutions, retaining more than any other the sturdy independence and individual effort with which the nation’s beginnings were wrought. Perhaps the future will evolve something better, but it seems doubtful. One can only mourn the almost inevitable passing of the stores along Main Street, knowing that, as the small town is itself the backbone of the great American public, so the small-town store has been the support to which has clung with failing strength the old-fashioned spirit of village life. With neither apology nor hesitancy I present the conviction that the death of storekeeping along Main Street will affect nearly every life in the country.

Probably three out of every five American adults treasure, tucked away in their minds, wrapped in sentiment and bound with old ties of friendship, memories of some small town somewhere in these United States. The details of the picture vary, — sometimes there is a white-spired Vermont church against green Vermont hills, sometimes Main Street is in the deep black shade of magnolias and chinaberry trees, — but the memories are otherwise strangely alike. The memories are incorrigibly sentimental, veiled by time into softness and vagueness. They make comedy scenes for dramatists and popular hits for song writers. The pseudo-sophisticates have taught their audiences to laugh at Main Street, but somehow it is never a whole-hearted laugh; behind it is a strange nostalgia.

But, aside from the sentimental interest we all may have in the small storekeeper’s losing fight for existence, there is also a deeper significance. The history of the Main Street stores all over the country offers substantial food for thought to economists and business men as well as to the homesick wanderer. Perhaps not the least remarkable feature of the situation is the ironic fact that the tragedy is unnecessary.

I remember being greatly impressed in my childhood by a sentence with which a teacher illustrated the misuse of the auxiliary verbs ‘shall’ and ‘will.’ The example runs like this: ‘I will drown, no one shall save me!’ To my young eyes it brought a dreadful picture of a drowning man fighting off his rescuers. And often in these days as I meet and talk with small merchants I am forcibly reminded of that schoolroom experience, almost expecting to hear from their lips the defiant words, ‘I will drown, no one shall save me!’

I

The condition is intricate. To understand it we must go back to the days of the early nineteenth century, when towns had become for the first time really cohesive, and small-town businesses had acquired entities of their own. Until then, while settlers and colonists far from cities were still each supplying his own family needs or individually ordering articles sent out from England or elsewhere, there were no small-town merchants and few enough in the cities. A ship’s captain was the real trader then, inviting the public to inspect his merchandise cargo collected from his various ports of call. It was a familiar sight, when a ship had dropped anchor in the harbor, to see sailors bearing on their backs large signs — considerably like the twentieth-century sandwich man — informing the town that a packet was in, laden with Oriental silks and French damasks, barrels of Jamaica rum, and India spices, and other items calculated to catch the prosperous citizen’s eye. A crude but highly efficient forerunner of to-day’s retail advertising.

By the time of the War of 1812, however, the storekeeper had become a prominent figure in the life of every small town. The limitations of transportation and communication accomplished two things: they confined the storekeeper’s activities to his immediate community, and they restrained the members of that community from diverting their business away from their home towns. The conditions worked together admirably to benefit the small business man. Those early merchants who replaced the sea captain traders and itinerant peddlers became important persons, sharing with the ‘cloth’ and the banker the respect and reverence of the populace. They were shrewd and vigorous, and the world prospered them.

The simple principles of primary economics were unobscured in those days by noise and numbers. A storekeeper was well aware that, for him to succeed, not only must people buy his goods, but, first, they must desire them, and, next, they must possess the purchase price. Consequently, we find those early merchants leaders of affairs and projects whose ultimate object was to put money into the pockets of potential customers, and eventually into their own.

I have before me the diary of a man born in New England in 1786. He relates how, at the age of eighteen, he and a friend availed themselves of a water privilege in a dense forest and erected with their own hands a machine shop. Here they set up a turning lathe and manufactured bedsteads, chairs, and wagons, with ‘such other articles as the settlers could be persuaded to order.’ Later we find him enlarging his activities, inventing and patenting machinery for woolen mills. In 1816, when many merchants were overstocked with woolen goods bought at the high rates provoked by the War of 1812, he was inspired to embark in the mercantile business himself, buying woolen goods from abroad at rates so low that he was able to supply his customers at prices below the wholesale costs of his competitors.

A sharp young man, obviously. He did well, according to his own record, until 1821, when his business began to decrease alarmingly, because ‘the attention of the local farmers was directed generally to the raising of grain, of which there was a large surplus so that it might not be disposed of at remunerating prices.’ How familiar the sound of this passage is, written though it was to describe a situation over one hundred years ago! However, at his suggestion and under his direction, the farmers turned their attention to dairy pursuits, to which their land was well adapted. He inaugurated an annual ‘Cheese Fair,’ at which time as much as two hundred thousand pounds of cheese was brought into town and marketed to buyers from the cities. He offered prizes for both quality and quantity, and planned and worked throughout each year to make the event a financial success. On one of the yellowed leaves of the diary appears the following entry: ‘The new industry contributes largely to the wealth of the farmers and is not without a greatly beneficial effect on my own.’

Twenty years later the son of this man, writing to a friend at the time of his father’s death, says of him, ‘He was emphatically the architect of his own fortune, a self-educated, practical, sagacious, and prudent merchant, having risen unaided and by dint of his own perseverance and industry to enjoy a competence of this world’s goods. For many years past he has avoided accumulating property, preferring to give away all his income over and above the economical and reasonable wants of his family.’

Here is a perfectly sketched portrait of the early American small-town merchant, an example, and not an isolated one, of what the small town could boast in its infancy. From the standpoint, however, of an inquiry into the causes of the rise and fall of the Main Street retailer, the outstanding, noteworthy facts in this simple story are two: first, that he led, never followed, his market; second, that the only lasting prosperity in any community is founded upon the general prosperity of all its members. To exert his ardent efforts to create income for those whose resources had failed must have added hours of hard and trying labor to his already well-filled days, yet that it paid in hard cash as well as in affection and honor we may find recorded in many places.

II

The annals of most small towns show that throughout the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries the Main Street merchant was a figure of dignity, of power, of leadership in his community. We find banks being organized by storekeepers; we hear of factories backed by storekeepers, of schools fostered and protected by the same men. Even the owners of those outposts, the general stores at the ‘four corners,’ were modestly well to do, lending money on mortgages, buying farms, and installing tenants. But the most vital characters were those county seat merchants whose little shops grew with the spreading population centring about the county seat, and whose merchandise, even with the changing times, held its own against all outside competition for nearly a hundred years. Transportation was still too uncertain and difficult even so late as 1905 for the average rural or small-town family to visit personally the more sophisticated city shops, and to order by mail was so unsatisfactory as to be rare indeed.

But as the hand of prosperity touched the large rural population, and cash began to appear freely in transactions, the shopping trend changed. Pioneering days were over, and in the Victorian eighties and nineties the feverish necessity for conquering the soil and bringing it to heel had ebbed. Farmers and small-town folk alike could relax and enjoy the fruits of their labors. And it is exactly at this point that we remark the first definite dividing of the ways for the storekeepers.

Two paths there were to follow, one an easy, let-well-enough-alone passage, the other a laborious, experimental climb. It is difficult to estimate just what proportion of our country storekeepers went to the left and what to the right, but a study of the back files of country newspapers affords very plain evidence of the division. As an example, consider the old issues of a little newspaper which for one hundred and ten years has never failed to bring out its weekly edition. There are frequent mentions of the town merchants through its pages, and its advertising alone tells a fascinating story of retailing along Main Street. But to an observing reader it is curiously saddening to remark the diminishing importance of certain of the merchants’ names as the pages turn, until, as the eighties swing along into the procession, their advertising has shrunk to that monotonous bane to retailing success, the ‘business card.’ There is evident a slow but steady downhill course for some, and a definitely growing upward trend for others. By checking over all the data I have at hand I am inclined to believe that the proportion must have been almost two down to one up.

This particular country newspaper to which I refer is of especial interest here because it is not only the perfect representative of its kind, but also the organ of expression of an equally typical rural community. Furthermore, its unbroken continuity throughout those fluid years of growth and quickening nationalism presents an intricately woven but remarkably clear panorama of small-town history in the making. Looking through the issues of 1825, for example, we see a total absence of news of local or national life. And the advertising is of that sturdy variety which stands firmly on two honest feet and says, ‘I, John Blake, do offer fine leathers and harnessings made by mine own hand and that which I know to be of excellent workmanship. I therefore do myself guarantee you of pleasure in your purchase an you so choose to favor your obedient servant.’

The note he strikes emphasizes that unique asset of every honest smalltown merchant, then as to-day: the personal endorsement of merchandise by the dealer, backed by his integrity and earned reputation. It is a point to remember, because as we trace the downfall of storekeeping along Main Street we discover that that priceless factor is left more and more often to gather dust on the shelf along with other first principles of merchandising. The mushroom growth of great city department stores has, by removing the merchant himself to an increasingly remote background and by substituting impersonal corporations and organizations, automatically debarred the city store from the use of this warm, vital contact with its customers. But to the end of the chapter it might have been the splendid, unbeatable asset of the small-town man. Bitterly enough, it has been stolen from him first by his indolence, and last by his ignorance.

During the middle century and until the beginning of the eighties, practically all the advertising approaches the reader from this so-called ‘you-me’ angle. But shortly after the Civil War there begins to be a little more emphasis on style rather than quality alone, and by 1885 a number of progressive shops in the little town begin to announce the return of the proprietor at intervals of six months or so from the nearest large buying centre, bearing the latest fashions and those fearful innovations, ready-made ‘Mother Hubbards.’ Until that time no ready-made clothes had ever been sold through small-town shops, except occasional rough work clothes for men. Piece goods and trimmings were all that a dry-goods merchant stocked; the banker’s fine black broadcloth and his good wife’s fine black silk were alike bought in the piece and constructed (no other word seems so perfectly to fit the process) by a journeyman tailor or seamstress. The invasion of ready-made merchandise was indeed the immediate rock upon which the storekeepers split, some clinging, as we have noted, to the familiar items long upon their counters, grieved at the defection of their customers who were following after new gods, and the others, the minority, accepting the exhilarating challenge of innovation and change.

From 1890 to 1910 was surely the golden age of Main Street stores, those, at least, which had taken the upward trail. Comparative wealth had descended upon a few landowners, farmers who bought and worked many farms, bankers who saw deposits and investments growing, small self-contained manufacturers supplying local needs. And moderate means were the lot of many. Physical barriers to easy traveling still maintained cohesion for the storekeeper’s clientele, cash was liberally present, luxury was the order of the day. It required only the exercise of intelligence and energy for a merchant to hold his ‘carriage trade.’ His most efficient prestige builder was his biannual trip to the big city, and a long and tiresome journey it generally was, too. But the merchant shrewdly knew where lay his best interests, and his philosophy of life was built upon the belief in the rightness of earning his profit.

A delightful era, this, of leisurely, careful buying, of high standards of quality and fair dealing, of ungrudging payment for both.

III

But the tempo quickens, the subtle recession of placid Victorian days and the equally inconspicuous rise of twentieth-century changes are finally complete; and as the old order passes away it carries with it many of those fine and splendid citizens, the successful storekeepers along Main Street. Their span has reached from the middle years of the old century to the first decade of the new, and they, with their knowledge of hard-won pioneer accomplishment removed but one generation from the grim reality, with their own sturdy independence and integrity contributing a proud chapter to the country’s history, have gone to sleep one by one beside those churches in which they believed and which they so loyally helped to sustain.

And now, in quick succession, new elements enter the picture between 1905 and 1915, the old regime inevitably overlapping the new and the transition being from the bottom up rather than from the surface down. The first of these new facts to be felt was the change in ownership of the small-town stores. Sons inherited from fathers, other men’s sons bought out businesses from owners too old and tired to carry on. Gradually, in all parts of the country, we find behind the store counters men just beginning their adult careers. Too often, with that tender fallacy of the self-made man, the fathers of these newcomers had passed on to them along with their prosperous businesses neither training nor experience, much less responsibility and energy. For many years life had been a smooth and pleasant path for the sons. They had seen only the hardwon success of their elders, with none of the shrewdly vigorous campaigning of their fathers or the desperate struggle of their grandfathers. They saw merchandise arrive in the store, and saw it sold. That was the beginning and end of storekeeping to their indolent minds. They had looked at the finished product and never seen the long and painful work of construction. Successful storekeeping was to them a simple matter of stocking one’s shelves with merchandise and opening one’s doors to customers.

The next new face in the picture is that of the ubiquitous traveling salesman. It is not actually his first appearance, but it is the first time he acquires importance. To the earlier generation of storekeepers the salesman was less an emissary of the manufacturer than a sort of oral digest of current events. News of the world he brought vividly if inaccurately to Main Street, and for that he was welcomed. But to buy to any large extent from his samples was against the principles upon which that early merchant did business. He preferred with shrewd wisdom to do his own looking and buying, trusting his own instinct and experience as he was never willing to trust the smooth story of the traveling man. Where cautious trial proved a salesman reliable, many storekeepers found it practical to order staples in this manner, but the orders were restrained and every shipment critically scrutinized as it appeared. Even upon such little things as good needles and thread the small merchant had built his reputation, and jealously he guarded it.

But the sons of these men founded a new dynasty, with the traveling salesman as the king’s familiar. He offered a method of procuring merchandise so perfectly fitted to the new generation’s policy as to appear a miraculous solution to all their problems. No longer need the storekeeper bother with a long and tedious journey to buy his goods in person, no longer need he puzzle over changing dress styles or innovations in housewares; the salesman told him what to buy, when to buy, and presented him with ready-made advertising, window displays, and self-selling counter racks. With a sigh of relief the young storekeepers abandoned all individual effort, trusting the salesman’s judgment implicitly, and contentedly proud of their own progressive efficiency. Inevitably, as longer and longer intervals passed between the small-town man’s contacts with the outside merchandising world, he came to lean with increasing heaviness upon the unofficial oracles, and, as he learned less and less by personal observation, so, in the same ratio, he accepted as truth whatever the salesman found to say.

This dependence was heady flattery to the hitherto inconsequential traveling man. It meant a tremendous accession of power to personalities previously commonplace and submerged. For the salesman who covered Main Street in those days was not a commanding figure, nor was he intended to be. Small-town markets were until then too unimportant for a manufacturer or jobber to waste good ammunition upon. The old-time merchant had raised so hearty a resistance to the drummer that making the rounds of the Main Street stores was merely a matter of routine. But as soon as the quality of the storekeeper changed, the salesmen would have been less than human if they had failed to take advantage of the unquestioning and lazy confidence of the merchant. They were, after all, neither missionaries nor altruists, but commercial travelers out to sell as large a bill of goods as possible.

IV

What began to happen to storekeeping on Main Street then was behind the scenes, silent except for faint whisperings, invisible except for gentle ripples in the back drop. The founders of these small stores had built so well, their names and their characters were so firmly interknit with their business dealings, that the fabric was too stout to be easily destroyed. It resisted sturdily for years the corroding influences of careless buying, indifferent selling, and store properties permitted to run down into shabbiness and confusion. But slowly, surely, these very stores which should have been fighting with alertness the new enemies creeping daily over the horizon were actually preparing the minds of their ‘carriage trade’ for the discovery that shopping in city stores and by mail was both practicable and profitable. Almost overnight they had been presented with new roads, hard-surfaced, with more and better railroad facilities, and, above all, with motor cars to render each family independent of distance or time. The natural obstacles which had preserved the home markets for the old storekeepers were gone. The rural consumers who made up the carriage trade were free agents and gloried in it.

The World War affected Main Street but slightly. Yet during its course the mischief continued to be worked with the stores’ accustomed trade. And when the war was over we find one great change complete: the best of the trade — best in the sense of the largest spenders — had finally and wholly deserted the home-town stores.

The unmistakable effect of this defection upon the accounts of the merchants’ bookkeeping might then have been a sufficient shock to startle them into awareness of impending disaster but for three things. It was not to any jobber’s or salesman’s interest to have the little storekeeper see clearly what he was doing or where he was going. Main Street had become a valuable outlet for all the merchandise the jobber could not sell to larger, better stores; if the country merchant should suddenly discover what he ought to be buying and demand it, this would entail a complete reorganization of distribution. That eventually it would have paid enormously in future business for manufacturer, jobber, and salesman, they were too shortsighted to see.

Aside from this condition, however, two things prevented the storekeeper’s understanding his situation. Two nation-wide forces followed with great rapidity upon each other’s heels. One was the post-war depression, which offered a convenient hook upon which to hang the blame for those disturbing bookkeeping totals, and the other was the Great Era of Prosperity, which so swiftly wiped out memory of those totals with a fast and furious profittaking that most storekeepers found opportunity for but one thought — a smugly complacent self-assurance that their original estimates of successful storekeeping were more miraculously right than ever.

Gone were doubts and fears, tossed away were any last remnants of caution or hesitation. What did the carriage trade matter, when before a man’s doors was a gathering crowd of excited consumers feverishly anxious to spend? Storekeepers bought madly, wantonly, and their customers responded as witlessly. Like a crazy wildfire the whisper ran, — from manufacturer to jobber, jobber to salesman, salesman to retailer, with advertising lighting the way, — the whisper which played the world’s most colossal joke on the public: ‘They want to spend — never mind what they get for their money. Sell ’em anything and charge ’em plenty.’

Whatever mistakes the small-town storekeeper had made hitherto had been mistakes of ignorance or carelessness, never the mistakes of downright intention to defraud. And very probably no one would be more astonished than the storekeeper himself to hear the small-town merchant accused of deliberate and malicious intent to swindle his customers. Yet what else can one call a process which consistently overcharges for every item sold? To evade naming it is not to evade the stigma attached to it. I do not wish to imply that Main Street stood alone in the rather fearful picture of retailing during the years of the Ten Profits. What went on in the cities and among certain groups of merchandisers was hair-raising enough, but somehow the same things against the background of the small town, with its inheritance of fair dealing between friends and neighbors, look infinitely worse and sorrier.

In many and many a little store these past three years I have found merchandise stuffed under counters, piled in lofts, shoved away into dark corners, all relics of those good old days when storekeepers bought like madmen, reaching out with greedy hands for every possible sale, fearing, with a Midas lust, to lose one single lovely coin. If one day the store up the street sold half a dozen hairbrushes, rush orders went in to jobbers from a dozen little stores for several gross of hairbrushes; if another day the report was circulated that the corner store had sold ten pairs of khaki trousers, within an hour every store in town would have the wires humming with orders for identical khaki trousers. That there might be a saturation point beyond which it was not safe to go occurred to no one. The jobbers, cutting off their noses to spite their faces, encouraged the silliness without thought of the future. Consequently mountains of stock began to pile up in all the little stores along Main Street, and there they are to this very day for anyone to see, a sad memorial to the good old days, the days of the Ten Profits.

V

There seem to be no words adequate for describing the tangle that Main Street swiftly got itself into. The contagion of ‘things one must have’ was virulent, and those previously wellbalanced small-town people who had been content with mild comfort and plenty demanded luxury, ostentation, speed. The home-town retailer delightedly saw his chance, and, just as years before the salesmen had abused the retailer’s trust, so now the retailer, not always maliciously, abused the faith of his townspeople, and made a splendid profit out of fooling his neighbors. These customers, these friends of his, had few concrete standards by which to judge the quality of this new merchandise that represented elegance and luxury to them. The mail-order catalogue is not, after all, a textbook on princely spending, and price was almost their only gauge. By hearsay, by radio, on the movingpicture screen, or in the newspaper they caught the stress on figures — the price of someone’s fur coat, the cost of that one’s furniture, this one’s shoes.

Consequently, when they went shopping, price was their sole measuring rod; a thing must be good because it cost so much. With confidence in the storekeeper fostered by a reputation three generations old, they demanded, let us say, a pair of fifteen-dollar shoes. And they received shoes for which they happily paid fifteen dollars, the same shoes concerning which I hear the storekeepers moan to-day, when they say almost with tears in their eyes, ‘Oh, for the good old days, when I could sell a customer a pair of threedollar shoes for fifteen dollars and have them waiting in line for more!’

It occurs to me that perhaps the balance of the story of the three-dollar shoes which ‘sold for fifteen dollars’ would describe more vividly than a dozen witnesses the next four years, from 1929, along Main Street.

When the bottom fell out of the business world in 1929, the small towns were not immediately affected, physically at least. But there was an intangible result, a rebirth of caution among buyers, a gradual return of common sense and native mental balance. It began once more to matter what one spent — suddenly fifteen dollars seemed a great deal of money. Too much to pay for one pair of shoes, and shoes, mind you, that lasted no longer than cheap shoes. The complacent little merchants, who for several years had been flooding the banks with deposits and had delightedly watched those banks turn their deposits into more money for them on Wall Street, these merchants began to know a sudden feeling of anxiety. Their stores and warehouses were packed with goods bought to sell at high prices, and there had come creeping upon them the preface to disaster. They discovered a thinning of those lines which so short a time before had waited at their doors to buy. Slowly, then with terrifying swiftness, came the change, until there ceased to be any customers for fifteendollar shoes.

With perhaps a pricking of the conscience, and yet a feeling that price would cure all, the storekeeper advertised with great headlines a sale of fifteen-dollar shoes for ten dollars! No one bothered about it at all. In a few months he made another desperate gesture, plastering signs all over his show windows — a sale of fifteendollar shoes for five dollars! Still his public made him no response. They were too absorbed in the spectacle of a world turning upside down to notice one more sale when every city paper was screaming ‘Sale, sale!’ But the little storekeepers were not yet thinking in terms of the relations between their businesses and the world; they were intent upon one thing alone — saving their own skins. So with great mountains of stock, much of it optimistically unpaid for, burdening their stores and their credit, they essayed one more plunge, and with nothing more ingenious than pink sale sheets on every rural doorstep announced the impending stupendous event of a sale of fifteen-dollar shoes for exactly three dollars!

Each storekeeper had the attention of the community then, indeed. But it was an accusing, suspicious attention. They were thinking again, these Main Street folk, and presently, as the full meaning of this series of sales became clear to them, they turned and almost literally ran. Being fooled without knowing it is one thing, but being fooled when you are well aware of it is very much another.

It is in this situation that we find almost all of Main Street to-day.

Four years of depression have depleted those brave bank accounts, the stock is old and shopworn, business is the merest trickle of life through the stores. They are tired, and bewildered, and hopeless, the small-town storekeepers. They feel that life has played a cruel trick upon them and they cannot fight back.

There are a few, here and there about the country, who have never relinquished throughout all the years their shining integrity, their standing as pillars of their communities. They at least have something upon which to build for the future, if they choose to go forward. But the others — I find them as pitiful as willful children who have blinded themselves for life playing a game whose rules no one thought to teach them. I sat recently in a little store while its owner, a man beyond middle age, paced the floor and raged against fate. Suddenly he turned to me and, throwing up his hands in a gesture of despair, exclaimed: —

‘What shall I do? I’m lost! I don’t know which way to turn. I don’t know what to buy — I can’t sell what I have. I’m afraid to move, yet if I’m to live I must do something!’

Can anything be done? Is there a cure? I believe the answer is yes. But the chief difficulty is to persuade the small-town storekeepers to admit that it is they who are to blame for their condition, not the government, or the bankers, or Europe, or the contrariness of their neighbors. Once let a man admit that he has been wrong, and, moreover, does not know in which direction lies the right, and the cure is well begun.

After that there are two things without which no small-town store can ever again be healthy. One is to practise the simple rules of good merchandising, and the other is to regain the trust and confidence of its community. And of the two the last is by far the more necessary.

Concerning the first, there is no place here for a discussion of all the elements which together make up good merchandising, but one thing is certain. There is definite need in the small town for a recognition of storekeeping as a real profession, requiring as much study and preparation as any other, and worthy of the best effort of a man’s mind and body. No one is born knowing how to make storekeeping pay. There are things to learn about it which would fill volumes, and which a whole lifetime of study cannot cover. For merchandising is a constantly changing, developing, advancing profession, never constant, never still. The merchant who succeeds, to-day as always, is the man who leads, not follows.

Concerning the second requirement for success, it must be obvious to those who understand the complicated yet natural layout of small-town life that the storekeeper whose judgment and honesty are unquestioned has a tremendously valuable asset. It is a natural inclination to trust the man who sits near you in church each Sunday, who jumps for the fire hose when your roof is threatened, whose life from his birth has been an open book for all to read. His recommendation carries weight and is too precious to jeopardize either by ignorance or by laziness.

I believe that the road has forked once more for the small-town storekeeper. A new generation is beginning to step out alongside the old, ready to fall in and carry on. The new codes will do much, without doubt, to prevent a repetition of some of the causes of the little merchant’s downfall. But nothing can take the place of honesty, hard work, and common sense, in storekeeping along Main Street.