Mobile Stores: A Lifeline in Rural France

Shortly after we had moved here, we were enjoying a late Saturday lunch at our stone table. All at once, a cheery “Beep, beep!” announced an old-style Citroën van, the sort with a snub nose like a bulldog. It roared up our drive and halted in a spurt of gravel.

Citroën van like Monsieur Lacoste’s. Copyright Sicnag, via Wikimedia Commons

After the customary handshakes, the driver introduced himself as Monsieur Lacoste. We explained that we had recently moved in.

“Would you like some apples?” he said, flinging open the doors. “The previous owner used to buy from me.”

Trays of enticing-looking fruit were piled inside. Yes, we would, we said.

“You have to buy them by the plateau,” Monsieur Lacoste informed us. No careful weighing out of produce here. And we had to pay in cash. No point introducing a pesky detail like les impôts into his accounting.

We handed over a 50 franc note (this was in the days before the euro).

“See you in a fortnight,” he said and drove off.

Monsieur Lacoste’s apples were good, but we couldn’t get through about 40 in 14 days, so some went mouldy. Nonetheless, we bought more every time. We felt duty bound to support local commerce.

Months later, Monsieur Lacoste stopped coming. We asked our neighbours if they had any news.

“He had a heart attack.”

We missed his jolly Saturday afternoon visits, even if we never needed all those apples.

Travelling Traders

An article on a French website about itinerant stores reminded me of Monsieur Lacoste. In the author’s youth (late 1950s) in an Auvergnat hamlet, the weekly visit from the travelling épicerie was an important event.

Auvergnat hamlet

The grocer sold staples like flour, coffee and sugar but also “luxuries” like chocolate and soap. The women and children flocked to his van, parked in the middle of the hamlet, and he sometimes gave the children slivers of saucisse.

Other commerçants ambulants selling bread, meat, fish or clothes plied their trade in the remoter hamlets. Monsieur B le boulanger delivered bread to our neighbours. We sometimes had a visit from Les Magasins Bleus, a company that sells clothes. I was interested to see that Les Magasins Bleus (founded in Brittany in 1943) is still going.

Not only did these mobile shops sell goods; they also purveyed news and gossip. They took the place of the peddlers who formerly travelled long distances to sell everything from hairpins to “cures” for gout.

Peddlers were a welcome source of news, even if they did stretch it to enhance their own prestige. One in particular, on whom I did some research, barely escaped with his life from an Aveyron town when he told the assembled townsfolk that thousands had died of the plague in Villefranche-de-Rouergue. Terrified that he was carrying it, the people hurled sticks and stones at him and ran him out of town.  

Changing social fabric

So the mobile shops were a lifeline to many people in rural areas. In the period after World War II, few French people owned a car, and many women didn’t drive. At least two elderly ladies of my acquaintance never had a driving licence.

I once asked another elderly lady what the most momentous change in her daily life had been. After some thought, she replied, “Everyone thinks the washing machine gave us more freedom. For me, it was when we got a car, and I learned to drive.” The washing machine simply reduced the time women spent on a particular chore. The car gave them the possibility to travel beyond their village.

The hamlet of Flouquet

The advent of the car and the rise of the out-of-town supermarkets dealt a blow not only to town centre stores but also to the mobile ones. They still exist in a few places to serve the more isolated villages, but you are more likely to see them in the local markets.

Most of the stalls in our village’s market have a regular itinerary around other weekly markets. One side of the van opens up, forming a shop window, where the shoppers can see the produce laid out. Alternatively, the stall converts to a trailer that is pulled behind a van, like the one next to the olive stall below. The queue for the cheese stall is always the longest, but people chat happily while awaiting their turn.

Seasonal market stall

Like the lavoirs, or village washing places, where news and gossip were exchanged, the mobile shops were part of the social fabric of rural France. Who knows, maybe they haven’t yet had their last gasp.

Monday mirth

To finish, a little plaisanterie from the same website to brighten up your Monday. Not exactly about mobile shops but related. My translation.

A travelling vacuum cleaner salesman arrives in a remote Cantal village and goes to a small house on the outskirts where an elderly lady lives.

Before she can say anything, he starts his sales spiel. “Madame, I’m going to demonstrate an absolute marvel, the new Cyclone vacuum cleaner. It sucks up everything in a few seconds. Where is your waste bin? In the kitchen? Allow me to fetch it.”

He brings the waste bin into the sitting room and empties the contents onto the floor.

“Don’t worry!” he says.”With the Cyclone vacuum cleaner, I’ll make all this rubbish disappear, down to the last crumb. Furthermore, if anything is left, I promise to eat it.”

“Just a minute, Monsieur. I’d better bring you some salt and pepper. I don’t have electricity here.”

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  1. What a wonderful story – thank you Vanessa!!
    A couple of the bakeries in our village did deliveries to outlying villages and hamlets, but both of them stopped some years ago – I imagine that the labour costs were too high to make it worthwhile… Being in Saint-Chinian, we are very fortunate to have a lot of mobile stores come to our twice weekly markets. There’s everything from fruit & veg, to prepared food, to clothes, shoes, and the odd visits from the ironmonger and the bed salesmen… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely to hear from you, Andreas. I get conflicting reports in the comments: some say they have a thriving bread van, while others, like you, say it has been discontinued. I imagine the costs of running a service like that must be spiralling. The boulangers have to cope with rising energy costs, and the petrol prices on top would make running a van prohibitive.

      We also have a twice weekly market, which attracts different mobile stores, and of course they double in size in the summer. We also get a travelling ironmongers every six months or so, although we are lucky to have a very good quincaillerie in the village.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Vanessa. What a fascinating insight into times past . We had a traveling fish van at our last house-sit and so I could really relate to the points you made. Very telling about how the car made more of a difference than anything else.
    And I loved the joke!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mary-Jane, yes, it seems that mobile shops are alive and well in places, although they seem to have declined around here. I was surprised to hear that some women found the car to be a liberator, but it stands to reason. I also loved the joke when I saw it, so I had to share it!


  3. Dear Vanessa,
    A lovely blog. Thanks. We still get a couple of mobile shops around here in the Bouriane – in fact 2 bakers have their rounds on different days.
    To complement your point about gossiping at the lavoir, I was once told qu’au lavoir les draps sont blanchis et les reputations noicis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Francis. It seems that the mobile boulangers have lasted the course better than the épiceries/bouchers, the latter presumably overtaken by les grandes surfaces.

      Thank you for the lavoir dicton. I must use that sometime!


  4. I love the story of your apple man. Interestingly, the clothing firm you mention called at our house a few years back but I declined. Like many people in the countryside I use the clothing catalogues quite a lot not to mention m and s! 😊
    We have an itinerant butcher still. When we first moved in he told me he used to sell to the previous owner before she went into a home. At that time his parents still ran the main shop in the nearby town. After their retirement he carried on as he found it better financially to run the van than keep the shop open. We often see him on his round when out driving somewhere.
    During covid I used a supermarket drive but went out to buy fresh fish from a van that visits a local car park every Friday. I felt safer in the open air and appreciated the social contact albeit with a plastic sheet between us. Long may they all continue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The clothing firm didn’t bother with me, either, after a couple of fruitless visits. I wonder if these mobile vendors might come back as society changes. Your butcher obviously found it more worthwhile to travel around than to have a shop. Ditto the fish van. As rents increase and the town centres become ghost towns, and also as fuel costs increase, people in rural areas might prefer to buy from mobile vans than going to the supermarket. Pivotal times, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. In 2012, we stayed in gite in the small village of St Beauzire, near Brioude in the Haute Loire. In fact, our gite used to be the epicerie of the village. Each morning at around 9, the boulangerie van would stop opposite and people would arrive for their daily bread, including us a couple of times. Then one afternoon a boucherie van arrived and the ladies of the village came to buy supplies.

    I wonder if this is still happening today or if it is disappearing like a lot of services in small towns and villages. I know it is happening here in Australia in small country towns.

    On the same trip we also noticed in one village lots of cloth bread bags hanging on doors and letter boxes and wondered if they were waiting for orders to be filled.

    I suppose the markets that happen with travelling vendors are that on a larger scale. We enjoy the smaller markets where you find little local goats’ cheese vendors or someone with a table of asparagus in Spring. Looking forward to that in a couple of months.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting that the village your gite was in was still served by mobile stores. I have seen bread balanced on top of a gate in one village, but whether that was the boulanger that delivered it or a helpful neighbour, I don’t know. I suspect this is a disappearing service, though. But I do wonder, as small village shops and boulangeries close down, if their place will be taken by mobile stores again. There are a lot of conflicting trends in French society, which make it difficult to predict how rural life will be affected.

      Most of the markets around here (including the big ones) are a mixture of travelling vendors and small local producers. You’ve still got to have a car to get to them, since public transport is minimal or non-existent.

      I’m sure you’re keenly anticipating your visit. 🙂


  6. Fascinating and thanks. I grew up in a small village in Warwickshire in the 1950s. There were indeed itinerant tradesmen. The two that had a consistent presence were the baker, who drove up from nearby Warwick on a Friday evening; and the ‘oil man.’ The ‘oil man’ had a large van with sides that could be lifted up to reveal the wares. What I recall was that they were not edibles but largely cleaning materials, soap, scouring pads, matches (important for getting the fire going when this was the sole source of heat in a house, as well as lighting the paraffin stove), perhaps small pieces of metalware like a collander or grater. The main trade, though, was in ‘oil’ aka paraffin. Prior to the arrival of electricity sometime in the late 40s, this was crucial for lighting and for cooking. Even after that, paraffin was important, because the spread of electric cookers was quite slow; but by the mid-50s, the ‘oil man’ had disappeared. As for the tradesmen as a source of gossip, absolutely. They got to know their customers on an almost intimate basis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this snapshot of life in rural England in the 1950s. We lived in what is now a suburb of London, but I remember various itinerant tradesmen, including the Kleeneze man, who sold cleaning items. They sell mainly online now, I think. And of course the electric milk float that came early every morning. As for intimacy, the old joke that someone was really the milkman’s child probably had some truth in it!


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