Walmart, Kmart and Target are all known as “big box” stores because of the giant buildings that hold all of those different items under one roof. There are supermarkets, electronic stores, pharmacies, home and garden, hardware, automotive and many other “stores” all together and in that one big box of a building.
It seems like an evolution in shopping and something that’s come around just in the last few decades, but the truth is, there were stores that had a wide mix of products long before the big box stores. I’m thinking of stores all the way back to the 1800’s, stores known as general stores or dry good stores, where people could make one stop and pick up all kinds of things they needed under one roof. If you think about it, they were “little box” stores.
The “general” in general store meant a general selection of merchandise. There was a little bit of everything as this might be the only store in town. The store keeper had to have a feel for what was needed and wanted in the area. There would be everything from lamps and lanterns with oil to burn in them to penny candy for the kids. He might carry some cooking utensils as well as bolts of fabric. There would be bags of dried beans and sacks of flour. When canned goods came along there would be canned goods.
But before that, when the season was right, in summer and fall, he would carry canning supplies including the jars, lids and pickling spices needed for folks that grew vegetables. He might also have ammunition for the hunters and some hardware items like nails and hammers. If it was a logging area or one where there were still lots of forests around he might carry axes and saws. If it was a more agriculturally settled area he might have a selection of seeds for the farmers to try out.
Since this was a time before refrigeration, these stores were frequently called dry goods stores. There wouldn’t be a meat department per say although you could buy cured or dried products like hams, bacon and dried beef. In an area like ours where locals grew corn that could be ground to meal flour at places like Prater’s Mill, the stores would carry wheat flour for biscuits, cakes and other wheat based bakery items. And as mentioned before, items like dried beans could be bought in bulk. The food bought at a general store around here back then would have been an adjunct source of food, not necessarily the primary source. Need eggs? You had chickens in the coop in the backyard. Need milk and butter? You had a cow. Need some meat on the table? You hunted or fished in the countryside. But if you needed canned peaches for Christmas, the general store was your place.
Having read about some of the trading posts, which were the general stores of the Colonial and Indian days, I was amazed at some of the items that would have been brought into the area, like at Varnell Station, back in the Cherokee days. Keeping in mind that just about everything had to be brought in by wagon then, there were items like hats from Europe and even champagne to drink. I guess if there’s a demand there’s going to be a supply. You had snake oil salesman pass through but they were literally fly-by-night operators out to sell “patent medicines," make a quick buck and get gone before the hollowness of their claims were discovered. The general store owner had to maintain the customers trust and be a positive part of the community to stay in business.
General stores in television
General stores feature prominently in films and TV shows. On the TV show “Little House on the Prairie” there was Oleson’s Mercantile. It was the only general store in the town and in addition to keeping plenty of items that were regular sellers for the community they would try and have a few specialty items from time to time and could also send off for special order items that locals needed. In the story it was owned and run by a husband and wife and attached to the store was the family home where they raised three kids. The son was frequently shown to swipe some of the candy from the jars when he got a chance. I guess he felt entitled since it was the family business.
Back in those days there was the general store where the “goods” were bought but you’ve got to remember that there was a good chance if you needed something like horseshoes you might not go to the general store for them, but you might go directly to the blacksmith and he would make them for you. They don’t make anything at Walmart, they just have suppliers that send them in the finished goods. I take that back, the bakery makes cakes and other edibles. But the automotive department doesn’t make cars or tires or batteries and the pet department doesn’t make dog food. Or kittens.
On the TV shows “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” there is a general store called “Sam Drucker’s General Store” although everyone calls it Drucker’s Store or just Drucker's. Another fictional example of general stores, there are items behind the counter that Sam usually gets down for the folks or he’ll come around the front and gather up what they’re requesting. One thing featured on these shows that was true of many general stores around the area is that not only were they a store but also acted as local post offices for the mail and was also the local voting precinct polling place (In the old days saloons were also used as polling places). Apart from the postmaster, Drucker was also a constable and justice of the peace, all played for laughs in the TV shows but actually close to the historical truth.
If you watched “The Waltons,” set in the 1930s in the South, you’ll be familiar with Godsey’s Mercantile Store. It was located in the Walton’s Mountain area and was a grocery store as well as a post office, gas station, pool hall and had a real estate office for one of the show’s characters. With the combination of the post office for mail, the gas station for folks passing through and the pool hall for the locals to hang out in, that general store was the center of community communications and the fountain head of knowledge about what was going on and by whom. In a small, tight-knit community it would be hard to be overly private with only a single general store in which so much of the local business was conducted.
Other sides to general stores
There were limitations of the general store, making room for Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck to utilize the postal service and provide a mail-order business. With the publication of thousands of catalogues distributed throughout the country, people could order the kind of things their local general store might not carry or they might be able to get it at a better price. Since many of these general stores were the post office as well, the store owners had to watch as they were frequently cut out of the supply chain loop by the local customer buying from Sears via post. That had to be frustrating.
In countless Western films the general store or dry goods store was featured prominently, perhaps only behind the saloon and the sheriff’s office in frequency. Characters went in to make purchases, sometimes bullets for their six-shooters and sometimes, in touching and funny scenes, one of the cowboys might go in to buy a special something for his lady fair. The toughest hombre in town might be reduced to insecurity and self-doubt when it came to selecting from the women’s side of the store. The general store might also be a place where when the bullets started flying good guys or bad might take cover inside, knock out a front window and start blasting away, the row of goods behind exploding as the bullets hit everything that can blow apart cinematically in closeup. As far as I know, no shootouts of that magnitude ever took place around here.
Even with the big box stores in town now there’s still the need for small, “a little bit of everything” stores that are close by the homes in the community or on the way home from work. One example is Dollar General, which still calls itself a general store. Each aisle has a different group of grab and go necessities and I bet the selections are amazingly similar to a general store of 100 years ago. Household items, some food items, a few seasonal specialties, office supplies and candy for the kids (although costing more than a penny now). And to reduce it even more, the quickie marts that are gas stations now have mainly snacks but if you look close you will discover a shelf full of automotive supplies and usually a selection of over the counter medicines as well as caps to wear and sometimes toys.
The little, neighborhood general store of old is still around and so that means it was a good idea to start with.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.