Two of my fictional characters operate general stores.
Lydia Longlow, the love of Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman in a two-book series, runs a general store started by her father in the fictional community of Arahpot, Pennsylvania. And Ellen Kauffman is proprietor of a similar establishment in my latest novel, Something So Divine.
In the 19th century, the time period of both novels, general stores were the center of rural communities. Not only did they supply food and other necessities for the community, they also served as a central meeting place for gossip and business and, often, as post office, polling place and even courtroom.
But I realize younger readers more familiar with shopping centers and specialty stores might not realize the importance of these mercantile operations to our ancestors.
Unlike the spacious, orderly and convenient stores of today, these emporiums were generally cramped, cluttered and dark. An array of shelving took up wall spaces and boxes, barrels, crates and other containers crammed the floors. A main counter for dealing with customers would hold the cash register, coffee grinder and scales for weighing various items.
The air in the store would be heady with a mix of scents, both pleasant and unpleasant--ripening fruit, various spices, teas and freshly ground coffee beans, cheeses, honey and molasses, soaps, toiletries and patent medicines, cigars and tobacco, not to mention human body odor and possibly animal manure tracked in by customers who failed to wipe their feet at the door.
The average store would have a supply of any of the various items that might be needed by town-dweller or farmer, from food and wearing apparel to tools and agricultural implements, sometimes including luxury items not otherwise available in rural areas.
Since money was often scarce in such locations, storekeepers usually ran a line of credit for regular customers as well as sometimes engaging in barter for items they might sell to others.
As a youth I accompanied my father to country sales where he purchased antiques and curios, some of which he refinished and sold to dealers and other collectors. We sometimes stopped for refreshment at country stores which served the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in our area of Pennsylvania. Because I was familiar with these old-fashioned stores, it needed little research to create such establishments for my fictional characters.