A few weeks ago I borrowed Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise), from the library. I wanted to get a historical perspective on the beginnings and endings of neighborhood retail shops and learn more about the birth of the department store. The ongoing enterprise of transitioning from craft shop and Main Street capitalism to (in the end) market + finance capitalism is personalized by Zola perspicuously. What took me by surprise was Zola’s presentation of craft + artisan shops. He was short on romance. They were tight, small of spirit and vision, fearful, dark and controlling. They were in fighting mode no doubt, but still very different from how they’re dusted off and represented today.
While I’m sharing reads - on topic is another shop portrait I read a while back - We Were Merchants: The Sternberg Family and the Story of Goudchaux’s and Maison Blanche Department Stores,” about the iconic department store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s not an ethnography, it’s a family’s story told by one of the patriarchs but it rolls through + lights up a lot of messy history and gives me many new points of entry….
Please send recommendations for other good shopkeeper reads, thanks!