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Market cashier takes names to heart

Carmen Louie has memorized more than 7,000 customer names

Two-and-a-half year old Keenan lit up when he saw his favourite cashier at Donald's Market.

Carmen Louie, the bespectacled object of his affection, gave the little boy a hug and with a warm, gap-toothed smile greeted grandma and mom by name. Moments later, Louie greeted an elderly woman in Mandarin, then corrected herself and called the pleased woman "grandma" in Cantonese.

Another customer tried to teach Louie a bit of Arabic by paying her a compliment. "I made your day, right?" he said to Louie. "You made my day first."

Louie didn't know the man's name, which is rare because Louie has memorized more than 7,000 of Donald's customer's names in the nearly eight years she's worked at the grocery store on East Hastings near Nanaimo. "My pastor said it's not work any more, it's more like a vocation," Louie said. "I said Amen, brother."

In March 2004, a customer asked Louie how many shoppers' names she knew. She recorded all the names she could recall on her lunch break and counted 32. "Then I said maybe I should set a goal."

She aimed for 100 names by April, 200 names by May, and 300 names by June. She saw how much joy feeling known gave her customers and carried on with the project. "In the beginning, I [studied] maybe five hours a week, or more," Louie said.

She'd think of their names while gardening, washing dishes and lying in bed. Her husband and three sons think she's crazy. But her obsession has won her legions of fans. Louie was dubbed "Cashier with the longest lineups and the most friends" by the Georgia Straight and praised in a review of Donald's Market on the online review site Yelp. Mike McCardell of Global BC wrote about Louie in a chapter entitled "Feel-Good Folks" in his book The Expanded Reilly Method. Composer Peter Hannan wrote a song called "Saint Carmen" for his fourpart Happiness Index work that premiered at the Vancouver International Dance Festival in 2009.

Louie records new names by numbering them and including associative memory cues on receipt slips then transfers them into slim notebooks. She stores the original slips for backup.

The latest entry in her fourth double-sided note pad reads, "7076, Jude, sing The Beatles 'Hey Jude.'"

A former Catholic village girl from the Philippines who first spoke Ilocano then Tagalog, Louie uses her power for good, cajoling customers to drop pennies in a "Keep Kids Safe" collection can. She once amassed $1,200 in four months. When she went on holiday for a week in 2010, the store posted a sign to explain that she was away after so many customers asked about her whereabouts.

The Hastings-Sunrise resident, who also works at the nearby CIBC bank, teaches Sunday school and serves lunch to seniors at the Burnaby North Baptist Church, said her connection with Jesus feeds her joy. "I come to work, I pray, I say Lord bless me today and let me shine for you, for these people."

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Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi