COUNTRY STORE. Beginning in the colonial period, country (or general) stores served as a source of goods for people far removed from the urban markets of the Atlantic seaboard. They Also, however, played a critical intermediary role in fostering and promoting exchange relationships among the mostly farm households located in the isolated interior of the young nation. Indeed, as agricultural settlement pushed westward in the early nineteenth century, enterprising frontier merchants represented a vanguard of the so-called American "market revolution."
Many owners of country stores started as itinerant peddlers, only establishing permanent locations once they had accumulated capital (two thousand to five thousand dollars' worth of inventory could suffice) and found an advantageous crossroads (many towns took their names after store owners). It was a precarious existence, however. Most rural merchants found it necessary either to barter their wares for produce or to sell on credit to their cash-starved farm clientele. Annual buying expeditions to the wholesale and auction houses of northeastern cities, especially New York, could take longer than six weeks and were fraught with difficulties. More successful store owners might stake their kinfolk in near by branch operations or move from a wooden to a brick building in a budding town; the less successful simply went out of business, often pulling up stakes and seeking their fortunes elsewhere.
Country stores assumed particular significance in the economy of the post–Civil War South. In the regional system of sharecropping and widespread tenant farming that characterized postbellum cotton production, the number of stores grew tremendously. The rural "furnishing" merchant played a pivotal role as a provider of seasonal credit, annually provisioning families with supplies, often at exorbitant rates of interest. Underpinning this credit was the crop lien, an agreement by which the merchant established a legal claim to future crop proceeds. For more than half a century, the lien system placed the merchant at the center of class conflict in the region—attacked on the one hand by planter-landlords who contested the priority of their claims on the crop and on the other hand, and, more importantly, by small farmers
whose independence was threatened by debt at a time of declining world prices for cotton. Although the isolated market of the southern country store has led some to condemn its operations as a "territorial monopoly," in fact rural merchants were themselves hard-pressed, not only by local competition but also by creditors, absconding debtors, and the same fickle cotton market they shared with their critics.
The expansion of the railroad network in the late nineteenth century, especially in the Midwest, meant that buying trips became more frequent and convenient, and if they purchased their stock from the growing number of traveling salesmen and "drummers" (wholesalers' agents), store owners never had to leave home at all. By the early twentieth century, however, the emergent national system of retail distribution (mail-order houses; chain, department, and specialty stores; brand-name products) and its associated urban and transportation infrastructure began to render general stores economically superfluous, although a few persist even now, mostly as "convenience stores." To this day, few institutions can evoke folk nostalgia among old-timers as much as the country store, a sentiment that helps confirm its importance alongside school, church, and courthouse as a focal point of community life in rural and small-town America.
Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991. Scattered throughout this ambitious account of midwestern development are keen descriptions and insights regarding the key role of country retailers in facilitating nineteenth-century "commodity flows."
Marler, Scott. "Merchants in the Transition to a New South: Central Louisiana, 1840–1880." Louisiana History 42, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 165–192.
Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. 2d rev. ed. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Originators of the disputed "territorial monopoly" thesis, their work is based on painstaking archival research.
The Country Store as Social Institution
What one eminent historian wrote of the southern country store holds no less true for most rural and small-town retailers elsewhere in the United States:
The country store in a way was far more symbolic of the southern way of rural life than were other institutions. Even the church and the school were administered as much from the store as from their own buildings. The storekeeper was all things to his community. He served as school trustee, deacon or steward, railway agent, fertilizer salesman, social adviser, character reference, politician, lodge master, and general community "obliger." His store was the hub of the local universe. It was market place, banking and credit source, recreational center, public forum, and news exchange. There were few aspects of farm life … which were uninfluenced by the country store.
SOURCE: From Thomas D. Clark, Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1944; repr., with a foreword by John D. W. Guice, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989, pp. x–xi).