(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my grandparents ran a general store in rural Iowa in the 1930's and 1940's. They didn't get rich off of it. World War 2 killed the store by limiting the amount of stock on hand (rationing) and by sending Grandpa to a factory 150 miles away, six days a week, to make bombs and shells for the Navy. They ended up going back to farming for a living while raising eight kids and doing a fair job of both.)
Dry goods shipped in from other towns and bulk purchases of daily needs were to be found at the general store. Since electricity wasn't common outside of large towns and cities, the general stores usually had tall ceilings with shelves all of the way up in order to pack as much as possible into a small footprint (easier to heat and light). Ladders on tracks were commonly used to let the shopkeeper get to any stock stored on those high shelves -- keeping expensive and fragile things off the floor made sense in the often-crowded aisles in order to minimize theft and accidents. Tall windows were needed to let in as much daylight as possible, and also served as a way to display the store's selection of goods. However, glass was expensive to have shipped in, so most of the counters were wood with perhaps a glass front.
|Image credit : author'soriginal work|
The variety of goods to be found in an old-school general store varied by what was available and what was desired by the customers. If a town was situated in an area with abundant supplies of fruit, you probably wouldn't find fruit in the general store (although you might find preserves and jams/jellies, as well as jars and lids, for storing fruit over the winter). No refrigeration meant no fresh milk, but cheeses and salted butter were there. Flour, baking powder, spices, salt, and other kitchen supplies that were shipped in filled the shelves. Coffee beans and tea were a staple, as was tobacco in various forms for smoking, chewing, and other uses. Processed or preserved food was available after the invention of tin-lined steel cans (ca. 1812), since metal cans stood up to the rigors of shipping better than glass jars.
|Image credit: Public domain through Wikimedia Commons|
If there was no "Chemist" or Pharmacist in town, the general store would sell a wide variety of medicines like Heroin (a trademarked name for Bayer's form of morphine), Aspirin (another trademarked name), various "patent" medicines of dubious formulation and effects, and a selection of chemicals that would allow people the ability to make their own concoctions at home. Since medical facilities were rare and many diseases not well understood, treatment of most maladies consisted of numbing the pain until you either healed up or died. Life was tougher back then... and may be again.
|Image credit: Public domain, courtesy US Government|
Most of their stock would be what were known as "dry goods", meaning things that were shelf-stable with a very long shelf-life: bolts of cloth, buttons, and needles for making clothes; blankets and bedding; nails and bolts shipped in wooden kegs; rope and wire; and pretty much anything else that could be bought in bulk and sold in smaller parcels for a profit. Firearms and ammunition didn't require special paperwork until 1968, so there was usually a selection of them to choose from. Pots and pans, lanterns, candles, lamp oil, soap, dishes, and just about anything else that would be needed to keep a household going could be found somewhere on a shelf or ordered from a warehouse and delivered in a few weeks (or months).
Paying for purchases was a bit different in the days before credit cards. Credit existed, but at the whim of the store owner. A person's reputation determined how much credit he was eligible for, not some mysterious algorithm in a bank's computer. Personal credit was needed because very few people worked jobs that paid weekly or monthly; farmers and ranchers got paid when they sold their crops or herd, and that usually only occurred once a year. Townspeople would either pay with whatever served for money (gold, silver,or bank notes) or barter their goods and services in exchange for supplies from the store. Prices were often negotiable or variable, depending on the store owner's mood and past dealings with people. Having a virtual monopoly on the supply of some goods made it easy to charge whatever the market would allow, leading to high prices. The law of supply and demand was what determined prices in most cases.
In the case of a "company town", one that is built or exists specifically to serve one company or industry, the general store was often a "company store". My mother-in-law grew up in a cotton mill company town in South Carolina. The mill owned everything- the houses, the roads, the schools, the stores, the police, and the barber shop. Literally everything in town. Purchases from the company stores and rent were deducted from a worker's wages, and that often led to virtual slavery since the prices could be raised to the point that a worker could never earn enough to pay his bills and therefore always owed the company and couldn't leave until his debt was settled. This practice has become history in most parts of the US, but it is possible that it could return.
|Image credit: my original work|
Another option (for those living outside of town) was the traveling salesman, immortalized in limericks and jokes. With a wagon, a horse or mule, and a small inventory, a person could make a meager living trading with the farmers who didn't want to travel into town. Some of the wagons, like the one in the picture, were built specifically for the trade; others were just buckboards pressed into service. Sleeping in barns and haylofts, the traveling salesman usually ate his meals with his customers when he could. The above picture is the only one of the batch taken at a local museum that actually came out usable, but you can see that the wagon has a sloped roof (covered with tin) to shed rain and snow, doors on all sides to allow access to the supplies, and a rail around the top to hold larger or bulkier items. The bright color was to make sure people saw him coming and knew to put out an extra plate for dinner and also get their trade goods in order... and possibly lock up their daughters.
Being a shop owner is a tricky business. Being able to barter and give credit requires a well-developed ability to communicate and work with others. If you can "read" people pretty well, know how to keep a good set of books (accounting), and have the room to set up shop, you might be able to make it as a store owner. Knowing where to find supplies to sell and having contacts in other areas that can help find what your customers need would come in handy. Be aware, though, that other than the bank and possibly the saloon (later articles), the general store is going to have the most money/ things of value in town during the rebuilding of society. You will be the target of thieves and robbers. You will also have to build into your prices the distinct possibility that any credit you extend may not be repaid for a number of reasons: people die, crops fail, cattle are rustled. Too much of this and you'll be left with nothing but a book full of numbers.. so plan accordingly.