Their business was family

TACOMA – Bouquets of garden-grown flowers grace the homemade yellow bench where everyone sat. Cards of condolence are pinned to the wall nearby. One more mom-and-pop grocery is about to close.

Pop, Pat Yoder, died in 1999. Mom, Dee Dee Yoder, passed away June 1. She was 77. Neither of them cared much about business.

It was always more about the people.

Dee Dee Yoder lived to the last in a small home behind a doorway inside the store, Dee Dee’s Grocery, at S. 72nd Street and Waller Road. That’s where she raised a daughter and a son.

“She was waiting on customers until the day before she died,” son Scott Yoder said.

“I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a nonfamily member in the house,” Scott said. “We tried to close on Christmas Day, and we couldn’t.”

If Dee Dee was in the living room, customers would ring up their own sale.

“I don’t care what time you came in, they were always friendly,” said Alice Crandall, a customer for the 43 years the Yoders had the store.

“They would give my son licorice, a cookie,” Crandall said.

“If you were having problems with your marriage, your family, Dee Dee would talk to you,” said the Yoders’ daughter, Leasa Jacobsen.

“They called her the Grandma of Waller Road,” said daughter-in-law Michelle Yoder. “Everybody here was her family.”

“It didn’t matter to them how much money they made,” Jacobsen said. “If she didn’t make 50 cents, it could still be a good day.”

“They never got robbed,” Scott Yoder said.

Well, there was the time a man tried to carry the pop machine away.

Pat Yoder’s pistol misfired.

“My mom hit the floor and the guy took off for Puyallup,” Scott Yoder said.

Or the time another man came in wearing a mask.

“I’m not going to wait on you,” Dee Dee said. She started to laugh. The man left.

Other people just came to talk. “They always knew the door was open,” Michelle Yoder said.

Sometimes they asked for bus fare. They borrowed money.

Cleaning out the store, Scott Yoder found an old cigar box filled with IOUs. Old grocery tabs marked with names and promises to pay. He has no way of knowing whether they were ever honored.

“They never balanced the till,” he said. “Whatever was there, was there.”

Trying to help, he once constructed a balance sheet showing profit and cost.

“I said, ‘You have to mark things up more,’ ” he said.

Dee Dee just nodded.

“It went into the garbage,” Scott Yoder said.

“She didn’t care about money,” Jacobsen said. “Laughter was money.”

Dee Dee always had a pot of coffee going in her kitchen, where people would gather. The store was known, in years past, as a makeshift precinct of the sheriff’s department. Shift workers from a chicken farm up the road would often stop by. These visitors wouldn’t offer money, but they’d bring in some fish after they’d gone fishing. They’d offer some venison after a hunting trip. Those with gardens would bring vegetables.

They’d sit in the kitchen and chat. When Dee Dee made dinner, she made it for everybody.

“If there wasn’t anybody to go to, people would just come here,” Scott Yoder said.

“Mom would cook ‘em something,” Jacobsen said.

Once, Pat played a game with a friend. The two men sat at the register and made a bet about how much they could get away with charging a stranger for a pack of cigarettes. He also enjoyed flipping a customer double-or-nothing for the cost of groceries.

“There was never an ounce of ‘How can we make this business grow?’ ” Scott Yoder said.

In the beginning, there was a gas station alongside the grocery.

“It was old even then,” Yoder said.

And now it’s closed, has been for years. Now the grocery, too, is about to close. The family will donate the stock left on the shelves to a local food bank.

The paint on the white picket fence is chipped. The Coca-Cola sign out front has faded.

People come by to pay their respects, some to a memory or an idea, but mostly to Dee Dee.

“We had a kid on a bicycle,” Jacobsen said. “He was there just sobbing. He used to sit here and visit with her. He couldn’t have been more than 13. He was just heartbroken.”

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