Kerrying On: The Merchant of Bellingham
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
To pay homage to the tens of millions of people out there who labor long and hard for all of us (often with little pay and virtually no recognition), today I honor my grandfather, The Merchant of Bellingham.
During WWII, my father worked for Boeing as the team leader of a group of craftsmen. They produced the mechanism that makes it possible to lower bomber landing gear by hand (should something go wrong with the automated equipment). When the war came to an end and there was no longer a need for life-saving bomber equipment, Dad was out of work. That is, until he stumbled on the idea of owning and operating a small grocery store—the kind you could find just about every six blocks in the mid-forties.
As it turned out, Dad wasn’t cut out for such employment (he ended up in apartment management), so Grandpa took charge of the store. He moved in, we moved out, and over the next twenty years, my grandfather (a fiery five-foot-two Irishman with a cigar stub perennially stuck in the corner of his mouth) became “pop” to everyone who stopped by the store to pick up a quart of milk and chat about the weather.
One day when I asked Grandpa what he called himself (I knew what he did, I just didn’t know what to call it), he told me he was a “merchant.” I haven’t heard anyone use that term since then, but when Grandpa claimed the title, it was clear that a merchant was something special. He always dressed in wool suit pants, a white shirt and tie, and a crisp green apron. And whether he was candling eggs, putting away redeemable bottles, or standing patiently as a child picked out five cents worth of penny candy, Grandpa attacked the task with the pride and precision of a physician performing surgery. After all, he was a merchant.
I remember watching Grandpa patiently wait on people of every ilk and disposition. Since his store was located in a rather poor neighborhood, there was no telling who would walk in the front door or what they might require. Several individuals who were learning disabled frequently found their way to his establishment. They’d shyly point at the items they wanted, reach into their pocket, and pull out a handful of crumpled bills and loose coins. Then, without making a big deal of it, Grandpa would pick out the right amount of money, bag the groceries, and send the customer on his or her way with a hearty “thank you.”
One time, a couple of teenage boys who were in the store ridiculed an adult customer who had been unable to count his money, and later that day when the boys returned for a soda pop, Grandpa counseled them on showing respect for all people.
Grandpa had spent the first forty years of his career as a bit of a celebrity in the lumber business. He was such a whiz with numbers that he could walk through an entire lumber mill and keep track of the board footage in his head. He had earned a great deal of respect performing these calculations, so you might suspect that in his senior years, he’d find the task of waiting on people to be beneath him. But he didn’t. Grandpa often told me it was an honor, even noble, to help others meet their needs. After all, he was a merchant.
People counted on Grandpa and Grandpa knew it. After my first year of college, I prepared to travel abroad for two years. One Sunday afternoon, and at the very last minute, I asked Grandpa to attend my going-away speech at church. He replied with a look of utter shock, “I can’t close the store!” (He kept it open thirteen hours a day, seven days a week.) “What if Mrs. Eherenfieldt needs some cheese for her casserole? Or what if Ronnie Kepler falls and skins his knee? Where will Mrs. Kepler get a Band-Aid?”
My father had made precision landing gear that saved whole bomber crews. Grandpa provided cheese and Band-Aids and saw himself as equally important.
And he was.
Along with the cheese and Band-Aids, Grandpa doled out friendly banter and helpful advice. I remember watching him celebrate with a young man who had just been admitted to a prestigious college. Granddad had watched him grow up. A penny-candy kid who excelled in math and who Grandpa saw as one of his protégés. Grandpa had taught him math tricks and study techniques. It was all part of the services rendered at Noonan’s Grocery.
Sometimes, people came to the store, glanced around nervously, and then timidly whispered in Grandpa’s ear. Years later, I learned that they asked for credit. They needed food for their tables and Grandpa would be the one who supplied it. Over the years, I heard some criticize Grandpa for extending credit to people whom nobody else would ever float a loan. Most paid him back, but a lot never came up with the money so at the end of the day, Grandpa didn’t make much of a profit. When I asked him about the practice of making bad loans, he smiled knowingly and explained that his mission covered more than simply making money.
One day, as I stopped by the store to pick up a loaf of bread, two rather somber looking gentlemen in dark suits were exiting the place.
“Those fellows were FBI agents,” Grandpa explained. “They come by every once in a while when one of the locals applies for a Federal job that calls for a background investigation. They talk to me about the candidate. You know, did he steal stuff as a kid? Things like that.”
Grandpa loved being a merchant who sat in the social and commercial center of the neighborhood. Partly because of the nature of the job and partly because he simply loved to work. In 1966, when my folks moved to Arizona, they invited Grandpa to come live with them in the land of sunshine and oranges. Grandpa wrote back that he’d enjoy the change in weather, but that he’d be staying in Bellingham. After all, (and I quote from his letter) “you know how hard it is for a man my age to find a job.” Grandpa was eighty-six at the time and hadn’t realized that Mom was asking him to retire. The thought had never entered his head.
Two years later, while fetching a cold bottle of soda pop for Tim Harmon (a young man with learning disabilities who had grown up hanging out at the store), Grandpa had a stroke and fell to the floor. Tim, not knowing how to operate a phone to call for medical help, ran out the front door and tried his best to flag down a passing car until someone pulled over to lend a hand.
Tim gently cradled Grandpa in his arms until an ambulance eventually arrived. “Pop” had fallen and Tim, loving him like his own grandfather, gently comforted the man who had served so many for so long.
“Call the bread man and ask him to remove the stock from the shelves. It’ll go bad,” Grandpa managed to utter as the ambulance pulled off. “We can’t be selling stale bread. Mrs. Eherenfieldt will never be satisfied with stale bread.”
And such were the last words of the Merchant of Bellingham.