Shops and Shopkeeping

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SHOPS AND SHOPKEEPING. In the late seventeenth century, it is estimated that there were about forty thousand shopkeepers in England and Wales, most of them based in towns. Though identified as grocers or drapers, they operated what were, to judge from their inventories, general stores, selling whatever they could. So understood, shopkeeping is a form of retailing: the selling of merchandise in individual units or small lots by a business established for that specific purpose. In the broader sense of a full-time mercantile activity, its history reaches into the past to peddlers hawking their wares and marketplaces drawing sellers and buyers together. In the narrower senseretailing carried out in a specialized, permanent structureits history is relatively limited.

Whichever sensenarrow or broadis preferred, the origins of shopkeeping are unknown. The first shopkeepers to sell from permanent structures, thus competing with marketplaces and fairs, were probably artisans. Producers sold their products from the windows of their workshops in the intervals between market and fair days. Such sales are probably as old as artisanal production itself. Most European cities reveal traces of this activity in their topography. Shopsand, therefore, the trade in certain goodstended to cluster in particular neighborhoods, leaving traces in the architecture and names on the streets. Baker Street and Tanners Alley are not uncommon examples.

The first true shopkeepers appear somewhat later, perhaps as early as the eleventh century. They were not producers but rather middlemen of exchange between producers and consumers, who confined their activities to buying and selling. Throughout the Middle Ages, shopkeeping was distinct from other forms of retail. Peddlers walking the streets or vendors setting up stalls in marketplaces carried out the majority of retail selling. According to the 1296 City Law of Augsburg, for example, the sale of goods that "one must weigh with a scale," apart from the annual markets, was open only to shopkeepers operating out of permanent shops. This law captures a tension that was present and that created conflict in all towns and cities in the Middle Ages as well as the early modern period, the distinction and competition between shops and marketplaces on the one hand and between specialized and nonspecialized shops on the other hand. Being bound to stable structures in fixed locations separated these merchants from itinerant peddlers and other vendors. Market vendors were allowed to erect their stalls only in areas designated as marketplaces. Certain trades, for example, bakers and smiths, congregated in particular neighborhoods, often located on the edge of the city, for safety reasons or because such locations made it easier to get needed supplies. Shopkeepers, in contrast, scattered freely, and opened their doors anywhere and everywhere in the city.

Their shops offered a variety of goods to a variety of customers. Some sold necessities of limited value, catering to the needs of a poorer clientele. It is thought that the well-to-do of medieval cities visited local markets to purchase from foreign merchants, who could supply higher-quality goods in larger quantities over longer periods of time. Some shopkeepers, however, imported wares of various sorts: spices, wax, metalwares, faience, and silks. Their shops tended to be general stores that offered luxury commodities to wealthier patrons. The tremendous variation in quality and quantity of wares led to a no less tremendous variation in income and status among the shopkeepers of any given city. In Augsburg, once again, analysis of tax records from the early seventeenth century indicate that shopkeepers were distributed evenly across the economic scale, from 13 percent reckoned "have-nothings" to 11 percent reckoned wealthy. A similar range of income distribution has been identified for shopkeepers in seventeenth-century Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, as well as mercers in eighteenth-century Paris. It stands to reason that shops providing luxury goods to elite customers would be more profitable than their common counterparts, trading in daily or popular items. Nor would such distinctions be limited geographically.

Given the wide variation in degrees of prosperity among shopkeepers, it is not surprising to find hierarchies developing among them. Nor were these limited to their wealth or the quality of their wares and patrons. Unlike many craft and trade guilds, shopkeepers were a diverse group. Economic development during the late Middle Ages and early modern period created ever more distinctions based on ever-greater specialization. In general, there was a clear line of demarcation between shopkeepers and grocers, retailers who trafficked in foodstuffs. Shopkeeping tended to resolve itself further into various subspecialties based on types of commodities: those who trafficked in herbs and spices, in cloth and clothing, or in iron and metal. They began to discriminate among themselves according to sale by weight as opposed to measure. Further divisions arose between those who sold new and those who sold used goods. This internal differentiation, which becomes visible in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, eventually separated the various specialty shops from one another, ironmongers from apothecaries and so forth. The tendency toward specialization should not distract from the general observation that most early modern shopkeepers, whether rich or poor, sold whatever they could.

Generally speaking, however, whether a shopkeeper was impecunious or prosperous, his wares cheap or expensive, his customers poor or rich, his specialty one thing or nothing, he was not allowed to sell locally produced goods, a ban that preserved the rights of local producers to sell their own products. This prohibition was commonly placed on shopkeepers and indicates the near universal competition between local producers and retailers, a competition that led to frequent conflicts in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. The necessary engagement of some shopkeepers in the import trade, to say nothing of the relative prosperity some achieved, has led some scholars to postulate the origins of international commerce in domestic shopkeeping. Superior shopkeepers, acting for themselves or as factors for consortia of shopkeepers, visited foreign marketplaces and fairs to buy goods wholesale while other household members minded their shops.

Shops and shopkeeping expanded significantly in the early modern period, a reflection of the general development of the economy toward increased production, distribution, and consumption of goods that has led scholars to speak of a retail revolution or a consumption revolution in early modern Europe as a whole. The increasing number of shops was often the most tangible evidence of economic growth and social change to early modern Europeans. In 1606, the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega's observation that in Madrid "everything has become shops" took note of this development. In London, Daniel Defoe observed that "mercers" (sellers of expensive fabrics) had increased "monstrously" from roughly fifty to as many as four hundred in the second half of the seventeenth century. By 1789, excise commissioners reckoned that Britain possessed over 141,000 retail outlets, of which all but 21,600 were located in London. In 1774, Justus Möser cited the increase in the number of mercers in the German city of Osnabrück by a factor of three, while the number of artisans had decreased by half, as evidence of economic modernization, the transition from an economy marked by local self-sufficiency to one of market connection. Similar increases occurred in Holland and France, more specifically Amsterdam and Paris.

This growth has attracted new attention and appreciation among scholars. The growth of the European population spurred a corresponding growth in the European economy. As the supply of goods and the number of consumers increased, retailers recognized the advantages of fixed points of distribution. These made possible longer business hours, stable customer relations, and improved business communication, among other things. As a result, distribution networks became more extensive and the distribution of goods became more intensive. Abraham Dent of Kirkby Stephen in Westmorland, for example, drew goods from 190 suppliers in 51 locations. By so doing, he and his peers throughout Europe provided access to goods and services that would otherwise be available only in major cities. As John Brewer noted, "Shopkeepers linked market towns and local communities to a network of markets that stretched beyond the nation's boundaries and across oceans and continents." Shops and shopkeeping contributed directly, therefore, to the growth of the European economy by providing sales outlets for increasingly efficient forms of production and by promoting consumption even at the lowest levels of society. They provided the necessary infrastructure for a consumer revolution that reached all parts of early modern Europe and linked those parts to a wider world.

They provided another crucial service as well. Shopkeepers were an essential source of credit for individual consumers. Indeed, they existed in a unique credit nexus. On the one hand, shopkeepers received credit from wholesalers, whom they paid in installments for purchased inventories. At the same time, they granted credit to customers, who were forced to run a "tab" between paydays. Living on and off credit made shopkeeping a risky business. Should a customer fail to pay on time, or a distributor demand payment in advance, the entire fragile complex could come crashing down. There is some evidence to suggest that many early modern bankruptcies involved shopkeepers caught in such ruptures. Shops and shopkeeping nonetheless played a crucial role in supplying credit to consumers who might otherwise have been unable to make purchases. By so doing, they further increased the speed and extent of the circulation of goods. Yet next to nothing has been written about it. As important as they are now understood to be in the larger history of European economic development, as crucial as they were in promoting demandthat is, in shaping tasteshops and shopkeeping await a history of their own. Too little is known about the wholesale networks that supplied these fixed points of sale. If these shops trafficked only in imported goods, in order to protect local producers, who were the wholesalers and what was their place in local and regional economies? Too little is known about the expansion of shopkeeping itself. The established explanation reads like the triumph of modern consumption and convenience. Could the rise of shopkeeping have another side?

Shopkeeping was a far easier trade to enter than other sectors of the manufacturing economy. Because it required no artisanal skills, no laborious period of training and certification was necessary, and little start-up capital was needed. Any ground-floor space, including a rented room, might serve, and inventories could be obtained with no money down and payment by installments. And, it required a relatively low level of experience to operate, though a great deal of experience to operate successfully, allowing a shopkeeper's family to lend a hand in a wide range of shopkeeping activities. The efforts of women and children, often extended by the presence of servants in the more prosperous houses, kept the shops running in the all-too-frequent absence of the shopkeepers. Shopkeeping provided, therefore, an important by-employment for many households. In Holland, sailors' families often ran shops to provide income while their men were at sea. Likewise, it provided a source of employment for households headed by females. Studies of eighteenth-century Amsterdam reveal that one in seven households were headed by women, some 30 percent of whom were shopkeepers. Taking these conditions into account might explain why the trade of shopkeeping expanded so rapidly. In a growing economy that displaced so many people, retail selling attracted many economically marginal individuals. They could afford it: they needed no particular skills, no particular resources. That same marginality may explain the extraordinary number of failures. They could not afford it for long without good skills and good fortune: the least bad luck or bad management could drive them into default.

The general rise of shopkeepingwhether the result of economic growth or ease of access or bothmeant that the number of shopkeepers rose in most cities and towns. Numbers gave them a political potency beyond the relative prosperity of individuals. In many cities, shopkeepers, together with members of other trades that involved more specialized forms of retailing, such as the hatters, cutlers, purse makers, lace makers, and brush makers, formed one of the largest and, therefore, most influential guilds. Paris on the eve of the French Revolution was home to no fewer than four thousand mercers. Nor was their political role necessarily limited to guild representation or population size. General stores served a social as well as an economic function. People gathered in them not only to buy but also to meet. They took care of their daily needs and exchanged the daily news. Shops provided a place for a wide range of interaction and exchange, including political discussion. It should not be surprising, therefore, if shopkeepers played a prominent role in the rebellions and revolutions that rocked early modern Europe. The sans-culottes, for example, recruited heavily from among Parisian shopkeepers during the French Revolution. Although the political function of coffeehouses and taverns is well known, a corresponding history of shops and shopkeeping has yet to be written.

See also Artisans ; Capitalism ; Clothing ; Commerce and Markets ; Consumption ; Guilds ; Mobility, Social ; Political Secularization ; Sumptuary Laws ; Trading Companies .


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