The elevator doors opened and closed. Unknown to the passengers, a meeting had just been called.
The year was 1977. Jack and Shirley Barker, who now live in Pasco, had owned and operated the Thriftway grocery store in Yakima for upwards of a decade. A town where they’d grown up, a place they loved.
“We were on First Street, the main highway coming in from Ellensburg, the Yakima Firing Center and Cascade Mill down the road,” Jack said as he recalled the constant flow of traffic and shoppers. “We were profitable.”
So it seemed a bit of a puzzle when, after about nine years operating the business, they both started thinking the same thought that had come to mind — one the two didn’t share with each other right away.
“We both felt impressed by the Lord to sell the store,” Shirley said as she recalled the strong feeling.
The store was in a perfect location, and folks who bought groceries there went from acquaintances to friends. Why would they even consider letting a successful grocery store — their livelihood — go? Even an unpleasant moment or two wouldn’t have been enough to consider a sale.
However, there was one incident that still makes them cringe.
“It was getting close to closing time,” Jack said as he thought about the memory that lingers. “We had a lot of elderly widows who shopped with us and one had just bought some groceries.”
No sooner had the sprightly, white-haired senior moved a few steps from the cashier than a masked man appeared demanding money from the cash register; the clerk obediently opening the till. But what the robber didn’t know was that “granny” wasn’t about to stand helplessly by.
“The little old lady hauls off and whacks him with the double half-gallon milk cartons, the ones joined at the top by a plastic handle,” Jack said, describing the makeshift weapon. “And that threw him off balance.”
Following her lead, the cashier leaped in and started hitting the robber while the box boy grabbed a can of soup and hit the thief on the head.
“One shot went through the plate glass window and one went into an overhead beam,” Jack said, shaking his head at the remembrance. “It’s a wonder someone wasn’t killed.”
But “someone” did go to prison. About two years later, Jack and Shirley got a note in the mail from the fella who had attempted to rob their store.
“He wrote a long letter and apologized for trying to steal from us,” Jack said with a smile as he retold the inmate’s words. “He said he’d become a Christian — and he wasn’t a crook anymore.”
The couple, strong in their faith, certainly hadn’t forgotten about the young man, but in a way one might not expect. On their prayer list, he was up close to the top.
But that incident, along with a few others over the years, hadn’t been enough for either to consider giving up their Thriftway market — until their simultaneous spiritual impression.
“It was probably a year that we talked about it,” Jack said, recalling their ambivalence about taking that kind of step without seeing a reason to do so. “We prayed, ‘If you want us to sell the store, send someone.’ We decided we wouldn’t put it up for sale.”
Months passed and the couple kept silent about their mutual prayer. Life was routine as they waited.
In fall 1977, an Associated Grocers conference was held in Hawaii. Members, like Jack and Shirley, were welcome, an opportunity to see what was new and innovative. The couple could combine business with a vacation.
At the conference center, Jack and Shirley found their way to the bank of elevators and stepped inside. An AG member from the Yakima area recognized them and they chatted briefly as the floors sped past.
But a sudden comment stopped them short.
“He said, ‘Do you want to sell the store?’ ” Jack said about the unexpected offer. “And right then Shirley and I knew. We didn’t even have to look at each other because we knew it was an answer to prayer,”
No advertising. Not a word to anyone. Sold in 60 days.
But that’s not the end of the story.
What Jack and Shirley couldn’t see coming in the future was the new Interstate 82 that would one day bypass their grocery store or that Yakima’s largest employer, Cascade Mill, would close, leaving their livelihood in the dust.
And the young man who bought the Thriftway grocery store? He had a food locker and butcher business, so the Thriftway was an aside, not his only means of support. After the freeway went in, he sold the business and the building at a sizable profit, Jack said.
“God has done things in our life that we didn’t realize he was doing at the time,” Shirley said thoughtfully. “When I think back how God has surprised us, ‘Mercy!’ ”
Like the unexpected “meeting” in the elevator.
For this couple who have sent heavenward more than one prayer in their 52 years of marriage, they have learned to trust, believing God sees what’s “going down” in the days ahead.