Party store owner becomes cult figure

This Nov. 11 photo shows Phil’s 550 Store in Marquette. Like a lot of Yoopers, Phil Pearce works several jobs to get by. But Phil’s main job is simply being Phil. He used to be just a regular guy who owned a party store. Then his face appeared on a novelty T-shirt that somehow made its way all over the world. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press photos via AP)

MARQUETTE (AP) — Where’s Phil?

That’s what everyone always asks. And everyone was asking now, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Gretchen Speckin didn’t know what to tell them. The Northern Michigan University freshman was minding the store for her boss, the namesake behind Phil’s 550 Store. She was standing behind the counter by all the cigarettes and hunting licenses and boxes of rifle ammo as a space heater warmed her feet.

It was a cold afternoon. Phil Pearce was due back at his general store awhile ago. But Phil’s unpredictable. He could be anywhere. He could be welding something, someplace, since he’s a lifelong welder. He could be notarizing documents for someone, since he’s a notary public. He could be performing a wedding, since he’s an ordained minister. He could be draining the chemicals from a junked refrigerator, another side job. He could be plowing snow, because he does that, too.

Like a lot of Yoopers, he works several jobs to get by. But Phil’s main job is simply being Phil.

A photo of the owner of Phil's 550, Phil Pearce, on a novelty T-shirt. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press photos via AP)

Phil used to be just a regular guy who owned a party store. Then his face appeared on a novelty T-shirt that somehow made its way all over the world. He became a cult figure, for no real reason other than he’s an interesting character; a sometimes jolly, sometimes cranky old hippie known to enjoy beer. And suddenly he had a whole new career foisted on him — just being himself.

“He’s quite the guy,” the 18-year-old Speckin said, giggling. “He’s literally indescribable. There are no words.”

Phil is an example of how someone can become famous for no reason other than sudden momentum, when their notoriety snowballs and everyone wants to be in on the joke. There have been short movies made about Phil. News articles published. A book written. There’s even a Phil jigsaw puzzle. For a time, there even were women’s panties sold with his face on them.

All for nothing that he’s actually done, other than exist — and appear on a shirt with a silly look on his face.

In a way, it’s because Phil is a quintessential Yooper. He exemplifies traits associated with the Upper Peninsula — a good-time spirit, a woodsy toughness, a persistent resourcefulness. There’s actually a book about him and his store, “An American Landmark — Phil’s 550 Store,” which describes him as “a hard-working, deal-making, down-to-earth Renaissance man, a friend to all, who spreads the ‘can-do, will-do’ Zen of the northern frontier to all comers.”

Phil shows the face he's notorious for, thanks to the T-shirt. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press photos via AP)

With an image like that, no wonder he’s a legend.

“He’s become an icon for people stopping at this little store, just to see Phil,” said Kathy Enright, 40, who has spent 16 years minding the store when Phil is off somewhere. “It’s always the question of the day — ‘Where’s Phil?’ I always said I could be rich off that question at just a nickel a question.”

There’s a rumble outside of tires on gravel, and here comes Phil, gray haired and grizzled, bothered and cantankerous, getting out of his rattletrap, beaten-up truck that he’d backed up to the store.

This is the unlikely world-famous legend: thick-fingered hands grimy and crooked at the knuckles from a life of labor, wearing a soiled hoodie that often doubles as a rag, puttering around in worn jeans and scuffed shoes — the unofficial uniform of a hardworking man. The kind who at 63 has a dozen jobs.

“The store doesn’t make enough money to support itself,” he explained. “We barely make it along here. The things I do on the side keep this store open. A smarter man probably would’ve closed this store and turned it into an apartment. But it’s a labor of love.”

He bent over a slab of wood in his rusty truck bed, trying to cut it to size to fix some hole in the house across the street that he rents to college kids. Landlord — another job.

“It’s an economically depressed area from here toward Big Bay, and it gets worse the farther you go up. But it’s not all bad. It’s a great area. This is the best place in the world to live.”

Phil gave up decades of life in the sunny, Virgin Islands to be back here — in this “best place” as he calls it — in the cold and snow, where he grew up. As a teenager, he followed his mom to her job in the islands, where he worked as an engineer at a hotel for years before getting homesick and moving back to Marquette and buying a little general store he’d visited as a toddler.

Phil’s 550 is the lone stop on the long, narrow road out of Marquette heading north toward Sugarloaf and Big Bay. The store is a ramshackle place with beer and wine, fishing bait, toiletries, canned food, some used paperback books and other random general store stock.

“It’s a crummy little mom-and-pop store, your basic convenience store, or something,” Phil sort of explained. “I sell Marlboro Lights and Mountain Dew in the morning, and Marlboro Lights and Busch beer in the afternoon — to the same people.”

It’s famous for its sign out front, which usually features an off-color slogan. “What’s the difference between deer nuts and beer nuts? Beer nuts are a dollar and a quarter. Deer nuts are under a buck,” is a solid example.

“Police station toilet stolen, cops have nothing to go on,” is a favorite. “I don’t have a dirty mind, I have a sexy imagination,” is a recent hit. The default, though, is “Drink Beer, Get Naked,” an act Phil was famous for, and that is chronicled in many photographs. It’s become the semi-official slogan at Phil’s 550.

Not surprisingly, with this kind of atmosphere, the store’s especially popular with college kids from the university a few miles away, who think a sarcastic old hippie drinking beer behind the store counter is just lovable.

“They like a funky store like this,” Phil said. “We have a good time messing with each other. If they come in and they smell I say, ‘God damn, I could get a contact high from you,’ and they get all sheepish.”

The legend began when Phil was on a bender, back in his hard-partying days.

“Phil was on a three-day drunk that day,” said Tom Buchkoe, 67, a local photographer who was hosting a party. A volleyball net in the yard had come loose during a game, and rather than tip the narrow pole down to fix it, Phil tried to shimmy his way up, for reasons that alcohol made seem sensible.

“Why does Phil do anything? ‘Cause he’s Phil,” Buchkoe explained. “Of course, as soon as he got halfway up to the top, the thing goes over like this and he lands on his head.”

Phil got up with a sloshed look on his face, a photo was taken, and — as a joke — Tom put the image on a T-shirt with the slogan “Have you had your Phil today?” As a further joke, Phil’s wife Deb had extra T-shirts printed up and put them on sale at Phil’s odd little store.

It somehow became a cult item, first among local high schoolers, then with Northern Michigan University students. Soon, the store was selling hundreds of shirts, and it became a thing to be photographed at scenic locations around the world while wearing it.

A whole wall of photos shows the T-shirt visiting places like the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, Ghana, New Zealand, Honduras. A soldier sent a photo of himself wearing one in Saddam Hussein’s conquered palace. Someone took a photo wearing it while standing before the “Mona Lisa.” One guy went to Machu Picchu wearing a Phil T-shirt, and ran into another guy there wearing a Phil T-shirt.

A customer pulled up and saw Phil standing alone by the truck. “It’s Friday. You’re not having your party?” he asked Phil. Almost every Friday night, a crowd gathers at the picnic table in front of the store, drinking beers and hanging out with Phil. It’s a longtime tradition.

Phil shook his head no. “It’s cold tonight. I don’t think much is going to happen,” he said, his breath making steam in the air.

But an hour later, sure enough, there was a crowd of locals with first-name familiarity, shivering and drinking beers, despite the weather and his prediction.

“It’s a chance to see Phil,” said Harold, drinking a beer.

“Better than going to the bar,” said Phil, tipping back a beer.

“This is one of the prettiest places in the Midwest,” said Tom, as the sun sank behind the tall pines. He, too, had a beer.

“It’s the best place in the world to live,” said Phil. His beer was done.

The counter at the front of the store is full of Yooper trinkets like buttons, pins, mugs, magnets and other memorabilia that say things like “You object to logging, try using plastic toilet paper,” and other bumper sticker slogans suggesting that Yoopers like to hang out in the woods, drink beer and shoot guns.

Phil doesn’t argue with that characterization.

“We’re proud of it,” he said. “We embrace it. We love it. You can’t put us down. It’s cool. We make big fun of it.”

It’s a characterization that fascinates visitors, who love these kinds of souvenirs.

“The people in the U.P. are a special type of people,” said Phyllis Berg-Pigorsch, who wrote the book about Phil’s 550. “I’m very impressed with their know-how, their resilience, the way they take care of each other. And Phil actually epitomizes that.”

She’s from Wisconsin, but has a cabin in the area. She met Phil 15 years ago and was smitten.

“He’s a gem. He’s a really good friend to everybody and he helps everybody and does all kinds of things. I describe him as a Renaissance Man. He can do just about everything.”

The beer-drinking group outside had scattered as it got dark. The party was moving down the road to Phil’s cabin along the lake, where they planned to hang out in the woods, drink more beer and shoot guns — a night worthy of a bumper sticker slogan.

“It’s long, cold winters up here,” Phil explained, holding a sub-machine gun in one hand and beer in the other. “You gotta make the best of what you got.”

He headed out the door, past a wall of T-shirts featuring his own face staring back at him, a persistent reminder of his true full-time work — just being Phil.

“I don’t want to harp on myself,” he said. “I just live my life and go on. But it’s a fun thing. I mean, gee, who wouldn’t think this is neat?”