New Worlds: Let’s Go Shopping!

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Shops — in the sense of an actual buildings dedicated full-time to trade — are a fixture of the modern world. While we may occasionally visit farmers’ markets, get our meals from food trucks, or buy tourist souvenirs from someone operating off a blanket, the vast majority of our commerce is conducted in fixed, indoor locations.

Some things have always been sold that way. Shops offer two very great advantages over stalls, carts, and other temporary setups, the first of which is security. Walls limit how many ways people can enter and exit, and doors and windows can be protected with bars, shutters, and locks to keep anybody from damaging or pilfering your goods. The more valuable those goods are, the more important it becomes to protect them: you don’t generally see (real) diamond jewelry being sold on the street.

The second benefit comes into play depending on what you’re selling, and it ties in with other aspects of people’s lives. There’s a very common arrangement, found in many parts of the world, where trade gets conducted on the same premises as production and/or housing for the workers. Depending on the nature of the product, this might take the form of a workshop at the back with goods being sold at the front, a shop on the ground floor with living quarters above, or some combination of both.

Fixed premises become very useful if production of your goods requires equipment that isn’t very portable. Restaurants are a common early example of shops, because while you can sell individual types of food pretty much anywhere, offering a more varied menu requires stoves, ovens, abundant fuel, different ingredients, and so on — good luck moving all of that without a motorized truck, complete with liquid fuel and refrigeration. And since making the food in one place and then transporting it somewhere else for sale means it won’t be as fresh, you’re frequently better off setting up your kitchen and selling directly out of it. In urban areas, where people (pre-modern era) often don’t have the means to cook at home, establishments like this are a vital part of keeping people fed.

As settlements get more urbanized, you see more and more of this sort of thing, stretching across a wide range of goods, including cloth, furniture, jewelry, wheels and carts, hats, printed materials, and more. Eventually you get a countervailing pressure, which shoves certain trades to the outskirts of the city, or at least downwind: noisy ones like forges, and smelly ones like leather tanning, cloth dying, or fulling wool cloth, which make use of urine and other substances you don’t want in your neighborhood. (Part of the reason the West End of London is the fancy end and the East is the poorer one is because the prevailing winds there blow from west to east.) Trades that involve lots of fire, like potters with their kilns, may also be on the outskirts to minimize the risk that they’ll burn the city down.

After a while, two specialized categories of shop start to appear. The first is secondhand shops, which buy goods and then resell them as used. Historically, this trade has thrived around clothing (including items like shoes), because they were so expensive to produce — why throw something out when it’s still at least marginally fit to be worn? That hasn’t gone away, but the easy and cheap production of clothing means your town might have one Goodwill store and a couple of vintage clothing shops, rather than entire streets dedicated to the trade. We also have used bookstores, used car lots, used furniture stores, and the whole world of online sites like eBay, Craigslist, and FreeCycle. At a time when we’re worried about the burden we’re placing on the planet, making new use of old things is a very good idea.

Pawnshops deserve a special mention here, because they’re an odd hybrid of secondhand commerce with banking. You don’t so much sell your belongings to a pawnbroker as offer them up in collateral for a loan — hopefully one you can repay, with the designated interest, before the terms of the loan are up. If you succeed, then you get your belongings back. If you fail, then the pawnbroker is free to offer them for sale to anybody who wants them. How tightly regulated this kind of business is depends heavily on the society; in their ill form, pawnshops demand ruinous rates of interest and/or serve as a great way to fence stolen goods. As a result — and because they usually deal with people in poverty, who can’t access better options — pawnbrokers often have a very negative reputation, closely tied to that of moneylenders in general.

The second specialized category is, perversely, the absolute opposite of specialized . . . and it’s also something of an odd modern invention. Call it a general store; call it a department store; either way, it’s a store that sells many different types of things.

General stores are a response to the same logistical questions that previously gave rise to weekly markets. In rural areas, not everything can be produced locally, and the population isn’t large enough to support dedicated individual stores for items like books, clothing, tools, dishes, and so forth. Instead, a single shop offers a little bit of everything. In the U.S. we associate these very strongly with the expansion of the western frontier, but they show up in many other places starting around the eighteenth century. A cousin to this is the type of store that serves an immigrant community; my local Nijiya is primarily a grocery store, but you can get lots of other Japanese products there, tucked into an aisle or two of non-food goods. Some of these stores may have catalogues you can use to order things not immediately available — Sears, Roebuck, & Co. used to be an extremely famous one in the U.S. — or the store may operate entirely as a catalogue, mail-order business.

Department stores are like general stores scaled up hugely for an urban community. These popped up quite suddenly in the middle of the nineteenth century (or arguably the end of the eighteenth, depending on what you take as the first example). Their name comes from their division into specific departments, each one selling a different type of goods. We tend to particularly associate the term now with clothing stores where the departments are organized around men, women, children, shoes, and so forth, but many of those still sell cosmetics and housewares as well, and the broader kind may also offer sporting goods, hardware, furniture, books, or anything else they think their customers might want. Instead of having to go to many different stores, you could just visit the one and fill many if not all of your needs.

Although organizing that into a single business entity with multiple departments is new, multi-purpose shopping venues aren’t. That’s what a market is, albeit in a more ephemeral sense, and the Middle East is famous for its covered bazaars, where practically anything is for sale. The modern incarnation is the shopping mall or shopping center, with a wide assortment of outlets under one roof. But those have been dying out in recent years as the rise of internet commerce makes the mail-order approach easier and more attractive; the ones that survive often do so by leaning into food and entertainment, making a visit into more of a leisurely and festive experience than a targeted strike.

Which, again, sounds a lot like a temporary market . . . or like a fair. The form these things take may change, but it seems the underlying impulses don’t.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Let’s Go Shopping! — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Let's Go Shopping! - Swan Tower

  2. I miss the department stores that used to be the hubs of our downtown. And they had soda fountains where you could sit at the counter and have a root-beer float and other goodies. Then the mall came in north of town and wiped out the core of our downtown. It’s slowly reviving, but there has been no replacement in the core for those department stores.

  3. Wikipedia says something like Wal-Mart or Target is a ‘hypermarket’ and also basically a less fancy department store, even if not called that or as explicitly divided into ‘departments’.

    Trajan’s Market might have been an early shopping mall.

  4. General stores got started the US because of laws restricting local manufacture. A merchant could buy a variety of goods off a ship and make a living. Much easier to do a specialized store if you make the goods and don’t operate on such a thin margin.