“Never do anything you don't want to explain to paramedics.” – A slogan on the sign in front of Phil Pearce's party store.
MARQUETTE, Mich. — He was always off someplace, doing God knows what, while everyone looked for him and waited at his little store for him to come back. He had a dozen odd jobs, a tendency toward distraction and a schedule known only to him. But he'd always return at some point.
This time, sadly, he's truly gone.
Phil Pearce, the legendary owner of Phil's 550 party store in Marquette, died Wednesday after a short and sudden battle with brain cancer. He was 64.
Few people might've ever heard of the owner of a tiny store on the edge of the northern Upper Peninsula, but Phil became world famous for no reason other than his personality, and the fact that someone put his face on a T-shirt that spread around the world.
His shack of a store offered little more than beer, wine, fishing bait, hunting licenses and some canned food, but the real draw was Phil and his personality, exemplified on the store's roadside marquee where, instead of advertising what he sold, he'd put funny, silly, sometimes suggestive messages for no other reason than to give drivers on this rural road something to chuckle at.
“The best way to a fisherman's heart is through his fly.”
Friends often stopped at the store to buy something just as an excuse to see Phil, because despite his seemingly cantankerous personality, he was able to make people laugh and cheer them up. Strangers came to meet the world-famous face from the T-shirt. Customers mailed him photos of themselves wearing the famous T-shirt in places all over the globe. And passersby could get a dose of Phil from the ever-changing message on the sign out front.
“Roses are red. Wine is red. Poems are hard. Wine.”
Phil was born in Marquette, but moved to the Virgin Islands as a teenager, where he spent years working at hotels before coming back years ago to the harsh winters of Marquette because he missed home. He bought an old party store he'd seen as a kid, and soon became famous not just for his outsize personality, but also for his generosity toward his Yooper neighbors.
“He was innately kind,” said Deb Pearce, 63, his wife of 32 years. “He didn't even think twice about doing something to help somebody, even if he didn't care much about them. He was naturally kind without ulterior motives.”
“I don't have a dirty mind. I have a sexy imagination.”
In 2017, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The store makes very little money, so a cousin launched a fundraising webpage to help defray his astronomical medical bills, and well-wishers made it a success. Last summer, some young musicians who lived across the street from the store held an event called Philstock, a block party to celebrate Phil's life, and it drew half a dozen bands, hundreds of people and more donations to help with the medical bills.
“They put the whole thing together to honor Phil, and he said it was kind of like getting to go to your own funeral party,” Deb said. “It was a beautiful day.”
“Alcohol and calculus don't mix, so don't drink and derive.”
He was the subject of several documentaries and news stories over the years, including in the Detroit Free Press last winter. He was such an Up North icon that his cancer diagnosis warranted a number of stories on TV newscasts and in newspapers Up North this spring. And in his death, it's happening all over again.
“Go home winter, you're drunk.”
Phil died at home Wednesday with his wife, a cousin, his brother, a friend and his cat Bean at his side. There will be no funeral. “He's not an organized religion sort of fellow, but he does like a party,” Deb said. “He said in lieu of that he'd like to have a celebration of life on the beach in the summer.” Details to follow.
Phil was a true character, a funny guy and a good man who looked after others and made people happy. And he will be missed not just by those close to him, but countless others whose names he never even knew.
“He was kind of like the local bartender,” Deb said. “That's kind of what the feel of that place was. He was a caring guy in a rough, gruff way, but people took to it for some reason. They just liked him.”
Click here for the original article about Phil's 550 store.
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John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep