Read CHAPTER VIII of The Complete English Tradesman, free online book, by Daniel Defoe, on


Since I have given advice to tradesmen, when they fell into difficulties, and find they are run behind-hand, to break in time, before they run on too far, and thereby prevent the consequences of a fatal running on to extremity, it is but just I should give them some needful directions, to avoid, if possible, breaking at all.

In order to this, I will briefly inquire what are the ordinary originals of a tradesman’s ruin in business.  To say it is negligence, when I have already pressed to a close application and diligence; that it is launching into, and grasping at, more business than their stock, or, perhaps, their understandings, are able to manage, when I have already spoken of the fatal consequences of over-trading; to say it is trusting carelessly people unable to pay, and running too rashly into debt, when I have already spoken of taking and giving too much credit ­this would all be but saying the same thing over again ­and I am too full of particulars, in this important case, to have any need of tautologies and repetitions; but there are a great many ways by which tradesmen precipitate themselves into ruin besides those, and some that need explaining and enlarging upon.

1.  Some, especially retailers, ruin themselves by fixing their shops in such places as are improper for their business.  In most towns, but particularly in the city of London, there are places as it were appropriated to particular trades, and where the trades which are placed there succeed very well, but would do very ill any where else, or any other trades in the same places; as the orange-merchants and wet-salters about Billingsgate, and in Thames Street; the coster-mongers at the Three Cranes; the wholesale cheesemongers in Thames Street; the mercers and drapers in the high streets, such as Cheapside, Ludgate Street, Cornhill, Round Court, and Grace-church Street, &c.

Pray what would a bookseller make of his business at Billingsgate, or a mercer in Tower Street, or near the Custom-house, or a draper in Thames Street, or about Queen-hithe?  Many trades have their peculiar streets, and proper places for the sale of their goods, where people expect to find such shops, and consequently, when they want such goods, they go thither for them; as the booksellers in St Paul’s churchyard, about the Exchange, Temple, and the Strand, &c., the mercers on both sides Ludgate, in Round Court, and Grace-church and Lombard Streets; the shoemakers in St Martins Grand, and Shoemaker Row; the coach-makers in Long-acre, Queen Street, and Bishopsgate; butchers in Eastcheap; and such like.

For a tradesman to open his shop in a place unresorted to, or in a place where his trade is not agreeable, and where it is not expected, it is no wonder if he has no trade.  What retail trade would a milliner have among the fishmongers’ shops on Fishstreet-hill, or a toyman about Queen-hithe?  When a shop is ill chosen, the tradesman starves; he is out of the way, and business will not follow him that runs away from it:  suppose a ship-chandler should set up in Holborn, or a block-maker in Whitecross Street, an anchor-smith at Moorgate, or a coachmaker in Redriff, and the like!

It is true, we have seen a kind of fate attend the very streets and rows where such trades have been gathered together; and a street, famous some years ago, shall, in a few years after, be quite forsaken; as Paternoster Row for mercers, St Paul’s Churchyard for woollen-drapers; both the Eastcheaps for butchers; and now you see hardly any of those trades left in those places.

I mention it for this reason, and this makes it to my purpose in an extraordinary manner, that whenever the principal shopkeepers remove from such a street, or settled place, where the principal trade used to be, the rest soon follow ­knowing, that if the fame of the trade is not there, the customers will not resort thither:  and that a tradesman’s business is to follow wherever the trade leads.  For a mercer to set up now in Paternoster Row, or a woollen-draper in St Paul’s Churchyard, the one among the sempstresses, and the other among the chair-makers, would be the same thing as for a country shopkeeper not to set up in or near the market-place.

The place, therefore, is to be prudently chosen by the retailer, when he first begins his business, that he may put himself in the way of business; and then, with God’s blessing, and his own care, he may expect his share of trade with his neighbours.

2.  He must take an especial care to have his shop not so much crowded with a large bulk of goods, as with a well-sorted and well-chosen quantity proper for his business, and to give credit to his beginning.  In order to this, his buying part requires not only a good judgment in the wares he is to deal in, but a perfect government of his judgment by his understanding to suit and sort his quantities and proportions, as well to his shop as to the particular place where his shop is situated; for example, a particular trade is not only proper for such or such a part of the town, but a particular assortment of goods, even in the same way, suits one part of the town, or one town and not another; as he that sets up in the Strand, or near the Exchange, is likely to sell more rich silks, more fine Hollands, more fine broad-cloths, more fine toys and trinkets, than one of the same trade setting up in the skirts of the town, or at Ratcliff, or Wapping, or Redriff; and he that sets up in the capital city of a county, than he that is placed in a private market-town, in the same county; and he that is placed in a market-town, than he that is placed in a country village.  A tradesman in a seaport town sorts himself different from one of the same trade in an inland town, though larger and more populous; and this the tradesman must weigh very maturely before he lays out his stock.

Sometimes it happens a tradesman serves his apprenticeship in one town, and sets up in another; and sometimes circumstances altering, he removes from one town to another; the change is very important to him, for the goods, which he is to sell in the town he removes to, are sometimes so different from the sorts of goods which he sold in the place he removed from, though in the same way of trade, that he is at a great loss both in changing his hand, and in the judgment of buying.  This made me insist, in a former chapter, that a tradesman should take all occasions to extend his knowledge in every kind of goods, that which way soever he may turn his hand, he may have judgment in every thing.

In thus changing his circumstances of trade, he must learn, as well as he can, how to furnish his shop suitable to the place he is to trade in, and to sort his goods to the demand which he is like to have there; otherwise he will not only lose the customers for want of proper goods, but will very much lose by the goods which he lays in for sale, there being no demand for them where he is going.

When merchants send adventures to our British colonies, it is usual with them to make up to each factor what they call a sortable cargo; that is to say, they want something of every thing that may furnish the tradesmen there with parcels fit to fill their shops, and invite their customers; and if they fail, and do not thus sort their cargoes, the factors there not only complain, as being ill sorted, but the cargo lies by unsold, because there is not a sufficient quantity of sorts to answer the demand, and make them all marketable together.

It is the same thing here:  if the tradesman’s shop is not well sorted, it is not suitably furnished, or fitted to supply his customers; and nothing dishonours him more than to have people come to buy things usual to be had in such shops, and go away without them.  The next thing they say to one another is, ’I went to that shop, but I could not be furnished; they are not stocked there for a trade; one seldom finds any thing there that is new or fashionable:’  and so they go away to another shop; and not only go away themselves, but carry others away with them ­for it is observable, that the buyers or retail customers, especially the ladies, follow one another as sheep follow the flock; and if one buys a beautiful silk, or a cheap piece of Holland, or a new-fashioned thing of any kind, the next inquiry is, where it was bought; and the shop is presently recommended for a shop well sorted, and for a place where things are to be had not only cheap and good, but of the newest fashion, and where they have always great choice to please the curious, and to supply whatever is called for.  And thus the trade runs away insensibly to the shops which are best sorted.

3.  The retail tradesman in especial, but even every tradesman in his station, must furnish himself with a competent stock of patience; I mean, that patience which is needful to bear with all sorts of impertinence, and the most provoking curiosity, that it is possible to imagine the buyers, even the worst of them, are or can be guilty of.  A tradesman behind his counter must have no flesh and blood about him, no passions, no resentment.  He must never be angry; no, not so much as seem to be so.  If a customer tumbles him five hundred pounds’ worth of goods, and scarce bids money for any thing ­nay, though they really come to his shop with no intent to buy, as many do, only to see what is to be sold, and if they cannot be better pleased than they are at some other shop where they intend to buy, it is all one, the tradesman must take it, and place it to the account of his calling, that it is his business to be ill used, and resent nothing; and so must answer as obligingly to those that give him an hour or two’s trouble and buy nothing, as he does to those who in half the time lay out ten or twenty pounds.  The case is plain:  it is his business to get money, to sell and please; and if some do give him trouble and do not buy, others make him amends, and do buy; and as for the trouble, it is the business of his shop.

I have heard that some ladies, and those, too, persons of good note, have taken their coaches and spent a whole afternoon in Ludgate Street or Covent Garden, only to divert themselves in going from one mercer’s shop to another, to look upon their fine silks, and to rattle and banter the journeymen and shopkeepers, and have not so much as the least occasion, much less intention, to buy any thing; nay, not so much as carrying any money out with them to buy anything if they fancied it:  yet this the mercers who understand themselves know their business too well to resent; nor if they really knew it, would they take the least notice of it, but perhaps tell the ladies they were welcome to look upon their goods; that it was their business to show them; and that if they did not come to buy now, they might perhaps see they were furnished to please them when they might have occasion.

On the other hand, I have been told that sometimes those sorts of ladies have been caught in their own snare; that is to say, have been so engaged by the good usage of the shopkeeper, and so unexpectedly surprised with some fine thing or other that has been shown them, that they have been drawn in by their fancy against their design, to lay out money, whether they had it or no; that is to say, to buy, and send home for money to pay for it.

But let it be how and which way it will, whether mercer or draper, or what trade you please, the man that stands behind the counter must be all courtesy, civility, and good manners; he must not be affronted, or any way moved, by any manner of usage, whether owing to casualty or design; if he sees himself ill used, he must wink, and not see it ­he must at least not appear to see it, nor any way show dislike or distaste; if he does, he reproaches not only himself but his shop, and puts an ill name upon the general usuage of customers in it; and it is not to be imagined how, in this gossiping, tea-drinking age, the scandal will run, even among people who have had no knowledge of the person first complaining.  ‘Such a shop!’ says a certain lady to a citizen’s wife in conversation, as they were going to buy clothes; ’I am resolved I won’t go to it; the fellow that keeps it is saucy and rude:  if I lay out my money, I expect to be well used; if I don’t lay it out, I expect to be well treated.’

‘Why, Madam,’ says the citizen, ’did the man of the shop use your ladyship ill?’

Lady. ­No, I can’t say he used me ill, for I never was in his shop.

Cit. ­How does your ladyship know he does so then?

Lady. ­Why, I know he used another lady saucily, because she gave him a great deal of trouble, as he called it, and did not buy.

Cit. ­Was it the lady that told you so herself, Madam?

Lady. ­I don’t know, really, I have forgot who it was; but I have such a notion in my head, and I don’t care to try, for I hate the sauciness of shopkeepers when they don’t understand themselves.

Cit. ­Well; but, Madam, perhaps it may be a mistake ­and the lady that told you was not the person neither?

Lady. ­Oh, Madam, I remember now who told me; it was my Lady Tattle, when I was at Mrs Whymsy’s on a visiting day; it was the talk of the whole circle, and all the ladies took notice of it, and said they would take care to shun that shop.

Cit. ­Sure, Madam, the lady was strangely used; did she tell any of the particulars?

Lady. ­No; I did not understand that she told the particulars, for it seems it was not to her, but to some other lady, a friend of hers; but it was all one; the company took as much notice of it as if it had been to her, and resented it as much, I assure you.

Cit. ­Yet, and without examining the truth of the fact.

Lady. ­We did not doubt the story.

Cit. ­But had no other proof of it, Madam, than her relation?

Lady. ­Why, that’s true; nobody asked for a proof; it was enough to tell the story.

Cit. ­What! though perhaps the lady did not know the person, or whether it was true or no, and perhaps had it from a third or fourth hand ­your ladyship knows any body’s credit may be blasted at that rate.

Lady. ­We don’t inquire so nicely, you know, into the truth of stories at a tea-table.

Cit. ­No, Madam, that’s true; but when reputation is at stake, we should be a little careful too.

Lady. ­Why, that’s true too.  But why are you so concerned about it, Madam? do you know the man that keeps the shop?

Cit. ­No otherwise, Madam, than that I have often bought there, and I always found them the most civil, obliging people in the world.

Lady. ­It may be they know you, Madam.

Cit. ­I am persuaded they don’t, for I seldom went but I saw new faces, for they have a great many servants and journeymen in the shop.

Lady. ­It may be you are easy to be pleased; you are good-humoured yourself, and cannot put their patience to any trial.

Cit. ­Indeed, Madam, just the contrary; I believe I made them tumble two or three hundred pounds’ worth of goods one day, and bought nothing; and yet it was all one; they used me as well as if I had laid out twenty pounds.

Lady. ­Why, so they ought.

Cit. ­Yes, Madam, but then it is a token they do as they ought, and understand themselves.

Lady. ­Well, I don’t know much of it indeed, but thus I was told.

Cit. ­Well, but if your ladyship would know the truth of it, you would do a piece of justice to go and try them.

Lady. ­Not I; besides, I have a mercer of my acquaintance.

Cit. ­Well, Madam, I’ll wait on your ladyship to your own mercer, and if you can’t find any thing to your liking, will you go and try the other shop?

Lady. ­Oh!  I am sure I shall deal if I go to my mercer.

Cit. ­Well, but if you should, let us go for a frolic, and give the other as much trouble as we can for nothing, and see how he’ll behave, for I want to be satisfied; if I find them as your ladyship has been told, I’ll never go there any more.

Lady. ­Upon that condition I agree ­I will go with you; but I will go and lay out my money at my own mercer’s first, because I wont be tempted.

Cit. ­Well, Madam, I’ll wait on your ladyship till you have laid out your money.

After this discourse they drove away to the mercer’s shop where the lady used to buy; and when they came there, the lady was surprised ­the shop was shut up, and nobody to be seen.  The next door was a laceman’s, and the journeyman being at the door, the lady sent her servant to desire him to speak a word or two to her; and when he came, says the lady to him,

Pray, how long has Mr ­’s shop been shut up?

Laceman. ­About a month, madam.

Lady. ­What! is Mr ­dead?

Laceman. ­No, madam, he is not dead.

Lady. ­What then, pray?

Laceman. ­Something worse, madam; he has had some misfortunes.

Lady. ­I am very sorry to hear it, indeed.  So her ladyship made her bow, and her coachman drove away.

The short of the story was, her mercer was broke; upon which the city lady prevailed upon her ladyship to go to the other shop, which she did, but declared beforehand she would buy nothing, but give the mercer all the trouble she could; and so said the other.  And to make the thing more sure, she would have them go into the shop single, because she fancied the mercer knew the city lady, and therefore would behave more civilly to them both on that account, the other having laid out her money there several times.  Well, they went in, and the lady asked for such and such rich things, and had them shown her, to a variety that she was surprised at; but not the best or richest things they could show her gave her any satisfaction ­either she did not like the pattern, or the colours did not suit her fancy, or they were too dear; and so she prepares to leave the shop, her coach standing at a distance, which she ordered, that they might not guess at her quality.

But she was quite deceived in her expectation; for the mercer, far from treating her in the manner as she had heard, used her with the utmost civility and good manners.  She treated him, on the contrary, as she said herself, even with a forced rudeness; she gave him all the impertinent trouble she was able, as above; and, pretending to like nothing he showed, turned away with an air of contempt, intimating that his shop was ill furnished, and that she should be easily served, she doubted not, at another.

He told her he was very unhappy in not having any thing that suited her fancy ­that, if she knew what particular things would please her, he would have them in two hours’ time for her, if all the French and Italian merchants’ warehouses in London, or all the weavers’ looms in Spitalfields, could furnish them.  But when that would not do, she comes forward from his back shop, where she had plagued him about an hour and a half; and makes him the slight compliment of (in a kind of a scornful tone too), ‘I am sorry I have given you so much trouble.’

’The trouble, madam, is nothing; it is my misfortune not to please you; but, as to trouble, my business is to oblige the ladies, my customers; if I show my goods, I may sell them; if I do not show them, I cannot; if it is not a trouble to you, I’ll show you every piece of goods in my shop; if you do not buy now, you may perhaps buy another time.’  And thus, in short, he pursued her with all the good words in the world, and waited on her towards the door.

As she comes forward, there she spied the city lady, who had just used the partner as the lady had used the chief master; and there, as if it had been by mere chance, she salutes her with, ’Your servant, cousin; pray, what brought you here?’ The cousin answers, ’Madam, I am mighty glad to see your ladyship here; I have been haggling here a good while, but this gentleman and I cannot bargain, and I was just going away.’

‘Why, then,’ says the lady, ’you have been just such another customer as I, for I have troubled the gentleman mercer this two hours, and I cannot meet with any thing to my mind.’  So away they go together to the door; and the lady gets the mercer to send one of his servants to bid her coachman drive to the door, showing him where the fellow stood.

While the boy was gone, she takes the city lady aside, and talking softly, the mercer and his partner, seeing them talk together, withdrew, but waited at a distance to be ready to hand them to the coach.  So they began a new discourse, as follows: ­

Lady. ­Well, I am satisfied this man has been ill used in the world.

Cit. ­Why, Madam, how does your ladyship find him?

Lady. ­Only the most obliging, most gentleman-like man of a tradesman that ever I met with in my life.

Cit. ­But did your ladyship try him as you said you would?

Lady. ­Try him!  I believe he has tumbled three thousand pounds’ worth of goods for me.

Cit. ­Did you oblige him to do so?

Lady. ­I forced him to it, indeed, for I liked nothing.

Cit. ­Is he well stocked with goods?

Lady. ­I told him his shop was ill furnished.

Cit. ­What did he say to that?

Lady. ­Say! why he carried me into another inner shop, or warehouse, where he had goods to a surprising quantity and value, I confess.

Cit. ­And what could you say, then?

Lady. ­Say! in truth I was ashamed to say any more, but still was resolved not to be pleased, and so came away, as you see.

Cit. ­And he has not disobliged you at all, has he?

Lady. ­Just the contrary, indeed. (Here she repeated the words the mercer had said to her, and the modesty and civility he had treated her with.)

Cit. ­Well, Madam, I assure you I have been faithful to my promise, for you cannot have used him so ill as I have used his partner ­for I have perfectly abused him for having nothing to please me ­I did as good as tell him I believed he was going to break, and that he had no choice.

Lady. ­And how did he treat you?

Cit.-Just in the same manner as his partner did your ladyship, all mild and mannerly, smiling, and in perfect temper; for my part, if I was a young wench again, I should be in love with such a man.

Lady. ­Well, but what shall we do now?

Cit. ­Why, be gone.  I think we have teazed them enough; it would be cruel to bear-bait them any more.

Lady. ­No, I am not for teazing them any more; but shall we really go away, and buy nothing?

Cit. ­Nay, that shall be just as your ladyship pleases ­you know I promised you I would not buy; that is to say, unless you discharge me of that obligation.

Lady. ­I cannot, for shame, go out of this shop, and lay out nothing.

Cit. ­Did your ladyship see any thing that pleased you?

Lady. ­I only saw some of the finest things in England ­I don’t think all the city of Paris can outdo him.

Cit. ­Well, madam, if you resolve to buy, let us go and look again.

Lady. ­’Come, then.’  And upon that the lady, turning to the mercer ­’Come, sir,’ says she, ’I think I will look upon that piece of brocade again; I cannot find in my heart to give you all this trouble for nothing.’

‘Madam,’ says the mercer, ’I shall be very glad if I can be so happy as to please you; but, I beseech your ladyship, don’t speak of the trouble, for that is the duty of our trade; we must never think our business a trouble.’

Upon this the ladies went back with him into his inner shop, and laid out between sixty and seventy pounds, for they both bought rich suits of clothes, and used his shop for many years after.

The short inference from this long discourse is this:  That here you see, and I could give many examples very like this, how, and in what manner, a shopkeeper is to behave himself in the way of his business ­what impertinences, what taunts, flouts, and ridiculous things, he must bear in his business, and must not show the least return, or the least signal of disgust ­he must have no passions, no fire in his temper ­he must be all soft and smooth:  nay, if his real temper be naturally fiery and hot, he must show none of it in his shop ­he must be a perfect complete hypocrite, if he will be a complete tradesman.

It is true, natural tempers are not to be always counterfeited ­the man cannot easily be a lamb in his shop, and a lion in himself; but let it be easy or hard, it must be done, and it is done.  There are men who have, by custom and usage, brought themselves to it, that nothing could be meeker and milder than they, when behind the counter, and yet nothing be more furious and raging in every other part of life ­nay, the provocations they have met with in their shops have so irritated their rage, that they would go upstairs from their shop, and fall into phrensies, and a kind of madness, and beat their heads against the wall, and mischief themselves, if not prevented, till the violence of it had gotten vent, and the passions abate and cool.  Nay, I heard once of a shopkeeper that behaved himself thus to such an extreme, that, when he was provoked by the impertinence of the customers, beyond what his temper could bear, he would go upstairs and beat his wife, kick his children about like dogs, and be as furious for two or three minutes as a man chained down in Bedlam, and when the heat was over, would sit down and cry faster then the children he had abused; and after the fit was over he would go down into his shop again, and be as humble, as courteous, and as calm as any man whatever ­so absolute a government of his passions had he in the shop, and so little out of it; in the shop a soul-less animal that can resent nothing, and in the family a madman; in the shop meek like the lamb, but in the family outrageous like a Lybian lion.

The sum of the matter is this:  it is necessary for a tradesman to subject himself, by all the ways possible, to his business; his customers are to be his idols:  so far as he may worship idols by allowance, he is to bow down to them and worship them; at least, he is not any way to displease them, or show any disgust or distaste at any thing they say or do.  The bottom of it all is, that he is intending to get money by them; and it is not for him that gets money by them to offer the least inconvenience to them by whom he gets it; but he is to consider, that, as Solomon says, ’The borrower is servant to the lender,’ so the seller is servant to the buyer.

When a tradesman has thus conquered all his passions, and can stand before the storm of impertinence, he is said to be fitted up for the main article, namely, the inside of the counter.

On the other hand, we see that the contrary temper, nay, but the very suggestion of it, hurries people on to ruin their trade, to disoblige the customers, to quarrel with them, and drive them away.  We see by the lady above, after having seen the ways she had taken to put this man out of temper ­I say, we see it conquered her temper, and brought her to lay out her money cheerfully, and be his customer ever after.

A sour, morose, dogmatic temper would have sent these ladies both away with their money in their pockets; but the man’s patience and temper drove the lady back to lay out her money, and engaged her entirely.