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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Merchant of Bellingham

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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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.


Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

42 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Merchant of Bellingham”

  1. Kerry, I love your stories. They are real, honest, and touching. This one was particularly heart-warming. Thank you for being genuine.


  2. I read every issue of Kerrying On and often think about commenting on the value and “Focus on Important Issues” effect these often have on me. But, then work or other matters interfere with my intention of commenting. However; This time, “The Merchant of Bellingham,” stuck such a cord with me that I had to step away from the overdue actions on my plate to take the time to say Thank You!

  3. Story reminds me of my father & grandfather….as well as the “Merchant of Canterbury”….my neighborhood grocery store at the end of Canterbury Street where I grew up in East Peoria, Illinois. Willard, the merchant store owner extended credit, offered advice, treated children as if they were adults teaching them many life lessons, and made all laugh who visited his “merchant kingdom”. The sad part is that he was robbed while tending the store, and while trying to disarm the young man who was robbing him, was shot to death protecting his “service & life mission” to our neighborhood. It seemed as though the death of Willard (in the 60’s) was the beginning of the end for the “neighborhood merchant and oh how I long to return to those days when you walked into a store and there was no doubt that you were a “Customer”.

  4. Reading this reminded me of the stories I heard about my maternal grandmother. She passed on before I was born, so I never met her. When she was in the hospital near death and family members were traveling to get there, she told my mother “you need to get to the store and pick up some soda, chips and ice cream. All the kids will be here soon and they like that stuff. So go.”

  5. What a humbling and touching story. I wish he lived in my neighborhood growing up- Thank you for this most inspiring story about your grandfather- a very wise man. For God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble- and whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted- I am sure your grandfather is being exalted!

  6. Awww, thanks again Kerry for sharing another wonderful, heartwarming story. It’s so comforting to read your stories of the “older days”. It’s a time that I hold dear to my heart, especially in today’s world where things are so different. There are so many life lessons to be learned.

  7. Ah, what really matters in life — relating to others, taking care of others and ourselves through that service. Sweet and Smart. Thank you for sharing your “Pop” with us and reminding us of what life is all about.

  8. Thank you for your stories. They are heartwarming, always. I really enjoy reading about the everyday life laced with kindness, purpose and decency. Thank you for sharing, and please continue inspiring. I hope you don’t tire of doing what you do.

  9. How blessed you (and the neighborhood) were to have such a role model in your life. What a wonderful legacy your grandfather left for us all to learn from. Thank you.

  10. Thank you so much. A bright sopt in my day. We all have these stories, hopefully, but those who take the time to write them and share them will be blessed! God bless you today and thanks for blessing me.

  11. Bullseye. This arrow from the past goes straight to my heart and reminds me how to set my sights on the future. Thank you.

  12. Seriously?!? You’re killin’ me, Kerry! I wasn’t planning on crying this morning, but then I read “The Merchant of Bellingham.” You have got to be the best storyteller of all time. I always enjoy reading your “Kerrying On” pieces (even if they make me cry sometimes). Thank you so much for letting us in on your memories.

  13. I enjoy your stories and do not usually comment, however this time I felt compelled to write. Your story reminded me of the family owned stores in the neighborhood where I grew up. Your Grandfather sounds like he was a very caring man and had much to offer; however, it bothered me that he missed your speech. The first time I attended my son’s public talk, I was so proud and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. In my childhood neighborhood, family came first. If the owners had a family function or a family emergency, they would place a sign telling people when they would return or have a picture of a clock for those who could not read. Life is too short to miss the special moments in our loved ones lives.

  14. Kerry, you have no idea the nerve you touched with this story. My father was a grocery store owner as well. He too called himself a merchant. I grew up experiencing many of the very same attributes you grandfather exhibited. My father too extended credit to many of the local farmers and immigrant farm laborers. He did this knowin full well he would never see the money. It was the right thing to do. He and mom would prepare balogne sandwiches for the hobbos that came through town. He too had the caring and servitude relationship with the entire small town we lived in. Thanks for resurrecting some very treasured memories.

  15. What a touching story. I had a smile on my face the whole time and tears in my eyes at the end. What a gift it must have been to have such an incredible man as your grandfather.

  16. Thank you for sharing this story. So deeply moved by it.we have moved away from a close knit society to where even neighbors don’t even know eachother’s names.It’s the stories like these who keep us centered in our lives in this day and age and teach us to respect eachother and respect differences.God bless you.

  17. I too have often thought about commenting on your wonderful stories, Kerry, but haven’t done so until now. Thank you for sharing this story -and your grandfather – with your readers. Like others have said, I was reaching for a Kleenex with this one! I often bring your stories home to my family and this one will be no exception. Your Grandpa was a special man and he would be proud of how you share your amazing gift for storytelling, humanizing a sometimes impersonal world.

  18. You have done it again! For a few moments I was transported back in time to an unforgettable place. Bellingham! I want to go there… Make me a time machine, please. Thank you for sharing in your own special way. What a blessing you are to us.

  19. I felt like I was reading about my own Grandpa in this story, just change the store name to Victory Grocery and the merchant name to Mr. B. He was also a very kind hearted, gentle man that had all the time in the world for everyone and extended credit to families in need. I spent many hours at Grandpa’s store and especially loved going to visit on Remembrance Day when he would put on his war medals to sell bread and milk only. Your story brought back many memories and a couple of tears, thanks for sharing with us.

  20. Kerry – I love your stories; keep them coming!!! You have a way of inspiring others. I love the work I do with the aging population and you just helped me to appreciate the privilege to serve them even more. Thank you!

  21. Kerry-I thought the story was a wonderful way to show that everyone matters. I often get to caught up in everyday life and forget to be grateful of all I have gotten out of life. I work in population based public health and sometimes don’t realize the impact I could have if I really do my job well. You help me remember that and I like the “Merchant of Bellingham” would like to be devoted to life as he was every single day. Keep moving don’t stop. He didn’t .

  22. Kerry,
    I am such an admirer of your work. The personal and professional growth that I have experienced with your (and your team) help has been amazing. Thank you for this lovely story about someone who clearly made a difference every day. It gave me goosebumps. I am reminded how important it is to let the key people in my life and organzition know they make a difference in my life.
    Thank you!

  23. Kerry – Thank you for another great story from Bellingham. My grandfather and yours were about the same age and both lived in Bellingham. Mine had a business called GPK candies. He created pound boxes of hand dipped chocolates. I am sure your grandfather and my grandfather knew each other. My father grew up in Bellingham and probably knew of your father. When I was born (in Bellingham) we moved to Mt Vernon where I grew up. I went on to become an electrical engineer and ended up working for a company where I took a course in Crucial Conversations where I got connected with your website and email letter. After reading your talk, I looked up your grandfather’s obituary. I was shocked to find out that one of his daughters was one of our good friends in Mt. Vernon who lived around the corner. I ended up working with her husband in my early years at my work where I recently retired. Please continue with your stories. It means a lot to me.

  24. Kerry, I appreciate reading what you write so much. It always touches my heart and reminds me that when we are parents or grandparents, teachers or neighbors there is a message we are sending out and others are learning from us. I think about that as I am living my life.

  25. I always enjoy your stories. They remind and reinforce the values that are so important in life. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Kerry,
    Such wonderful memories. How fortunate you were to have such a fine example of what it means to be a person of the world and for the world. And, it was a member of your own family.
    Thank you for sharing such a touching story!
    You are indeed rich to have a memory like that to fall back upon.

  27. I have been faithfully reading your articles for several years now and with each one, I find myself experiencing multiple emotions – from laughter to tears. You have an incredible gift – your writing speaks from the heart to the heart. Thank you for sharing your gift!!!

  28. Kerry – I think the Merchant of Bellingham still lives through you, the “Merchant of Life”. He would be very proud of you!

  29. Kerry,
    I look forward to reading your articles.
    We need more “Merchants of Bellingham” in our lives, especially in these times.

    Thank you for sharing your incredible stories.

  30. I am trying to think of something to write that hasn’t already been said. Basically, you have such a heartwarming way of writing that I make sure I have a moment of solitude in my work day to savor your writing. The small stores still exist (my neighborhood has two, along with a beloved bakery/coffee house) and this is the main reason I chose to live in NE Olympia. Community is a vanishing treasure, with time in our lives packed each day with supposedly important stuff. We need to pay attention to those who make our lives richer, even though it may be as small as a smile and a hello. You are definately one of those people who many have the pleasure of sharing your way of saying “hello” to us with “Kerrying On! Many thanks, as always.

  31. @Missy
    We have a small market (by supermarket standards) not far from my home and the owner and checkers have name tags. For the first few months I visited the store, I called them by name and introduced myself (no name tag to help them.) They now greet me by name as I come through the line and I call them by name as well. There’s something about having the people at the local store call you by name. It’s not quite as flamboyant and everyone shouting out “Norm!” at Cheers, but it is heartening nevertheless. I purposefully introduced myself until we all knew each other, and I’ve now enjoyed the personal touch for almost two decades.

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