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Country Shopkeepers:
An Ethnological Study of an Economic Activity

Lars Kaijser
Ethnology Department
Stockholm University, Sweden
May 2001

This study questions how everyday life is formed, organized and maintained. My primary aim is to examine how the work of country shopkeepers is carried out in a field of competing ideas about retail trade. I am particularly interested in how their work takes shape and acquires its character under existing circumstances. I discuss perceptions of retail trade and economic activity, rural life, and the organization of modern society. By focusing on one small and marginalized participant in this competitive field, I address the organization of everyday life on a more general level.

Country shopkeepers do not just compete within an economic market, but also within a field of ideas and notions about how trade should be conducted. They are placed in an area of struggle in which the actual form and ideals for carrying out their profession are negotiated.

The material for the present study was collected between 1990 and 1997. The core data consist of a field study in a rural part of Sweden. I did participant work in eight shops, where I assisted the shopkeepers in their daily routines and, at the same time, collected information concerning how their work was carried out. I talked to customers, employees and salespeople and tried to learn how the local market was constituted. These data were supplemented with material from 12 periodicals in the trade press from 1991 to 1993, as well as from local newspapers from the same period. I was therefore able to put into context the work of the shopkeeper on both local and regional levels.

I work with two overall categories specifying the social circumstances on which the work of the country shopkeepers takes shape. The first is the local market, with a clientele which has certain wishes and a way of life rooted in the countryside. The second are the large distribution chains, with their range of products and their ideals of trade.

The experience of working in a rural setting is the basis on which the country shopkeepers perceive their possibilities and limitations. The assessments by which they perceive the local market has developed as a result of the shopkeepers living with and being a part of the local circumstances. The shopkeepers, with occasional exceptions, are also part of organized retail trade. The distribution chains give a social affiliation, one in which the shopkeepers are offered not only goods but also information and know-how in the form of courses and ample printed matter. The world of organized retail trade forms a context of fundamental ideas about the form of retail trade and the modern ideals regarding order, forms of work, and modes of expression. This context, however, is not without its tensions. The rationality of efficient economies of scale clashes dramatically with the nearness to the customer that characterizes small shops.

Through their work, the country shopkeepers find themselves mediating between the domains of the local market and organized retail. The shopkeepers try to satisfy their customers’ wishes, but they do so within the limits of their perception of proper trade. In this respect, the country shopkeepers are not just the intermediaries through which goods are channeled, but are also links joining the local market to the value system of retail trade.