By Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Today, village shops are often seen as central to village life and their closure is greeted with alarm because, like pubs, they act as a litmus for the health and vitality of our rural communities.
Yet we know little about the long-term history of village shops: how widespread they were, what they sold, how they traded, who their customers were and how they related to the wider community. This is partly because they have been overlooked by historians of retailing, who are dazzled by the bright lights of the city and the seemingly revolutionary changes wrought by department stores and chain stores, who are seen as ushering in “modern” practise like display, fixed prices and leisure shopping. Rural historians have long focused on the production of the countryside; marketing is of interest only when it comes to selling the produce of farms.
This article rescues village shops from both the neglect of historians and the rose-tinted perspective of nostalgia. It reveals how shopkeepers like Ralph Edge, an ironmonger in late seventeenth-century Cheshire, stocked goods from around the world, including calicos from India, tobacco from across the Atlantic, raisins from the Mediterranean; how Rebecca Course managed the credit of her customers to her shop in early-Victorian Buckinghamshire; and how Hardy Woolley mixed retailing in rural Lincolnshire with writing books of trade hints for his fellow shopkeepers.
We know about these people through their entries in trade directories, often with people listing several trades alongside their shop; their inventories, which tell us about their stock held, shop fittings, and sometimes their by-employments; their account books, which reveal prices, identify their customers and their shopping habits and uncover often complex credit arrangements; their diaries and memoirs, which let us into the lifeworld of a small number of shopkeepers and give us some understanding of their motivations and concerns.
Not every village had its own shop, of course, but most of England’s rural population was within easy walking distance of a shop. Whilst the image of the general store is perhaps misleading, they supplied a wide range of items, bringing the expanding world of goods into rural society. We should not judge them against the contested and problematic standards of urban modernity, but rather as businesses and social spaces that served the needs of their customers. The entries in Charles Small’s mid nineteenth-century account book which record mending baskets and mangling clothes for some of his customers may seem quaint and old-fashioned at a time when department stores were emerging in major cities. And the agonising of Thomas Turner about whether to execute an order for distraining the goods of Mr Darby, who owed him about £18 in shop debts, could be seen as a sign of weak business practice. Yet these men – and thousands of other men and women like them – were running businesses that thrived on customer loyalty and their place within the socio-economic fabric of their village communities. They were in the swing of broader changes in retail practice, but deeply embedded in their localities.
The full article is published in 71:2 of the Economic History Review.