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Sonoma Market’s Joyce Parsons offers small bites and big heart


If you want a true taste of Sonoma, pop into Sonoma Market, stop by the food sample table, and chat for a few minutes with Joyce Parsons.

Along with your nibble of brie or bite of barbecue you’ll experience Joyce’s hometown friendliness and kindness of spirit. A lifelong Sonoman, she exemplifies why so many love living here and many a tourist is tempted to stay.

“Everybody comes in and tells me their story. They know I care. Sometimes I put my arms around people who are absolute strangers,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m a person with a food table. I feel like I’m sharing life.”

She provides free samples of three foods a day, chosen by managers from different departments. “Sometimes more if I can slip it in,” says Joyce.

Whatever she’s offering sees an immediate rise in sales, perhaps because it’s delicious, or maybe it’s the customers’ payback for the joy of Joyce. She’s there Monday through Friday for 40 hours a week, standing not far from the entryway, with a welcoming smile for customers she’s known forever and those she’s never met.

“I love the children that come in. I’ve watched so many of them grow,” she says.

Sitting at a picnic table on the Plaza as dusk descends after a recent 9-to-6 shift, Joyce reminisced, sharing memories and a secret or two.

“I played in this park as a child. My kids played in this park,” she says.

Born in Berkeley in 1941, and moving here when she was 3 years old, the Walling family lived in a tent on a large property on East MacArthur Street, while her father slowly but surely built a permanent home on the site. He hand-dug a well and she remembers taking baths in a galvanized tin tub. “I had a great childhood,” Joyce says. “I loved everything about it.”

Joyce started first grade at Sonoma Grammar School then moved on in fourth grade to the brand new Prestwood Elementary. She graduated from Sonoma Valley High School and worked for a while at a local bank, before marrying 38-year-old Don Parsons, when she was 21. “We’ve been married for 54 years and we had two great children and three wonderful grandchildren.”

Joyce worked at the family-owned Parson’s Hardware on Highway 12 most of her life, except for the years at home raising their son Don, and daughter Debbie. When they went off to college the Parsons sold the store to Alan and Helen Medina, but Joyce continued to work there, mixing paints, selling lumber and chatting with customers.

Tragedy struck in 2006, when Joyce’s daughter Debbie died at age 39 after more than two years battling an inoperable brain tumor. After helping care for her daughter, Joyce stepped in to help Debbie’s husband Tony care for their 3-year-old grandson, Tanner.

It was during this sad time that Joyce stopped into Sonoma Market one day and noticed that the previous sample person was nowhere to be found, and was told she left two months prior.

“Maybe I should do it,” she mentioned to a checker she knew well, and the next day Sonoma Market manager Al Minero called and asked her to apply. He told her she could work her schedule around the days that she took care of Tanner.

Starting out at three days a week, she moved to full time when he was older, and it has now been 11 years.

When Joyce is not at the store, she is her own mini charity organization, delivering food and used clothes and furniture to those in need.

Years ago a friend put a little box with money in it under her Christmas tree with a card that read, “I know you look after pets and people and I wanted to help with that.” Now Joyce runs what she calls the “Helping Hand Account” and almost every evening she sets about doing good deeds after work. The account has grown over the years, as those in the know contribute, and those in need receive.

“I hear about people who just need a little help. It’s a small account that has met a lot of different needs over the years,” she says with an air of mystery.

“I love my life,” Joyce says. “I have a great family and the best friends and I have no time to sit around. I’m never idle, that’s just not who I am.”

She enjoys working around her home, caring for her three yellow labs Kobe, Sugar and Frankie, and polishing her 1963 Airstream. She never watches TV, with the exception of sometimes catching the “Rachel Maddow Show.”

So how long will she be the shining light at Sonoma Market?

“I wonder that everyday. But I have no plans to leave. I love everything about the store. When I walk in it feels like home. I have my own family and I have my store family,” she said. “It enriches my life and I hope that sometimes it enriches other people’s lives, too.”

A stop at Joyce’s Sonoma Market sample table brings not just a nibble, but a kind word, a warm smile and maybe even a hug.