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Early Merchants Knew Their Customers Well

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone. Hope you’re having a good week. I wanted to finish telling about the Kimzey store as it gave a personal touch to the history of the Southern country store.  

Also I had the pleasure of talking to Eva on the phone and I got to tell here how much her input was appreciated and I hoped she would get to take a picture by the Herald to include with this week’s column.  

She told me that her dad farmed, raising cotton, corn and hay. Her ability to pick cotton was about like mine. Neither of us ever got the hang of how to pick cotton. My uncle, Joe Cooper, was supposed to be one of the best pickers of his day and he said the way to be good at it was to straddle the row and reach for a boll, throw it in the sack, and never look to see if you got all of it.  

Eva said she would watch the store and wait on the customers after school. Most of the customers knew where everything was and they would wait on themselves. They had a charge pad on the counter for anyone who didn’t have the money at the time.  She said that they lost very little to bad debts.

Some customers stood out in her mind such as Mr. Nolan Keel who had thirteen children and came in on Saturday to stock up. Mr. Ed Baddley would come by and he and her dad would talk for hours while she waited on other customers.  

I met Mr. C. B. for the first time under unusual circumstances. It was in July or August and I was working for Newman-Gardner and we were burying someone at Sand Hill which was inactive at that time.  

Old people remembering when coffins came stacked with no outside box wanted to put what they called a vault in the grave.  A ledge was left in the grave and after the casket was lowered into the grave boards would be laced along the ledge until the casket was completely covered.  

I was putting the boards in place and Mr. Kimzey was handing them to me. I was about to have a heat stroke and I looked up at him and said, “are we through?” We got  to know each other that day and every time we would meet he would laugh and say, “I remember how pitiful you looked when you asked if there were any more.” Years later I was at a singing at O’Tuckalofa and he still remembered that incident.

Eva, it has been a real pleasure to profile your dad and his store and I appreciated all the information you sent me and I’m only sorry that the constraints of space didn’t permit me to write more.

Just as the relationship between the merchant and his customers was personal, so it was with the merchant and the drummers. Dr. Thomas Clark interviewed Frank Roberts, President of International Shoe Company in St. Louis, formerly Roberts-Johnson-Rand and he said that Eugene Roberts was hired from another company and he called on all of his old customers and sold every one.  

He said that Eugene made only one trip for Star Brand shoes but sold every one on that memorable trip. He said, “Gene died in September 1899 and I followed him as a green drummer in my twenties.

Although they were sorry to hear of Gene’s death, they had bought from him because they knew him but they were going back to their old brands.”  Eventually he gained their trust but he never forgot how personal the business was.  

Up until the early part of the  twentieth century shoes were considered rough merchandise and were not even boxed. They were on a straight last and would fit either foot.  

Customers with a large family would line his children up after  he sold his cotton and take a string and measure the length of each child’s foot and tie a knot in the string.  Apparently they thought length was all that counted and the width would fit accordingly.  It was said that many country children limped around with new shoes because dad had tied the knot in the wrong place or the child had a wide foot.  

A drummer had to know his customers such as which one would take a little nip form his bottle and which one would be offended and quit buying from him if he offered him a drink.  

Drummers could offer a new merchant advice in what to stock and how to set up his books. Merchants had to know the approximate size of his customer’s shoes or shirts or pants as many country people sent a note in by one of his sons ordering clothing without specifying size. Politicians knew merchants had great influence with their customers and many staged rallies near the store on election years. When  I was kid I would hear old people talk about hearing James K. Vardaman and Theo Bilbo standing in a wagon and bellowing to the crowd.  

I know I barely scratched the surface in the history of the country stores but I hope you get the idea how it was.  At the end of WW11 the rolling stores came into being and lasted a few years but better roads and more people with automobiles did in most of the country stores.  However, for eighty years they were a vital part of most rural communities and were the only contact with the outside world for many people.  

Let me her from you at my email address or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week.

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