BEMIDJI -- By his own calculations, Richard Norvold has about four years left before he can retire.

At 87 years of age, he runs Norvold Auto Sales out of a small gazebo on Bemidji’s south side, and he has no immediate plans to slow down.

“He even worked on the Fourth of July,” said Richard’s sister, Linda McGuirk. “He sold a car, then he came over here to a family gathering after he closed up.”

It all started when Richard was 10 years old. His father sold used cars, and the youngster helped out by cleaning them up and getting them ready for sale.

“That’s where I got the passion for cars,” Norvold said, “because my dad would buy and sell some used cars and I would clean them up.”

His interest in cars continued while he was a student at Bemidji High School.

“They had an on-the-job training program, and I got a job at Saar Motor Co. (a Plymouth/Dodge dealership in downtown Bemidji). I started cleaning cars in the used car lot. The next year they brought me over to the main garage and put me on the grease rack. From there I went to light mechanical, then to the body shop for a while. I got the whole works.”

Richard has been in the business ever since, except for a three-year stint as a newspaper agency manager in Grand Forks.

“I won some awards, because I was very aggressive,” he recalled. “But I didn’t like it. I just had the desire to go back into the car business.”

Norvold went to work as a salesman for a car dealer in Grand Forks, but the high-pressure sales tactics were not to his liking.

“It just didn’t fit my personality,” Norvold said.

Richard Norvold talks about his years in the used-car business in his gazebo on July 2. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Richard Norvold talks about his years in the used-car business in his gazebo on July 2. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

He went home one day and told his wife, Ruth, that he wanted to join a different dealership in town, one that had a more toned-down sales culture but also more competition among its salesmen.

“I had to give it a try," he said. “They let me sell the way my personality worked, very soft sell. And in six months I was in the top 10 of 20 salesmen by doing it my way. Man, they were fun times.”

At a one-day used car sale during Richard’s 10 years there, he sold 19 cars, a record that still stands today. “That’s my best ever,” he said.

He went on to manage a dealership in Langdon, N.D., for three years, then bought a Chrysler dealership in Crookston in 1973 when the economy went south. Norvold Main Street Motors in Crookston was the first dealership he owned, but he was only able to keep it going for a year and a half.

“It was tough to handle,” he said, “but we came back to Bemidji licking my wounds and I started working for Dave Walters,” a Chrysler dealership where Bemidji Chrysler Center is today.

On March 3, 1983, Richard started Norvold Auto Sales. Some 37 years later, after moving locations a couple of times, Norvold scans the cars in his lot outside the gazebo on Washington Avenue South and reflects on a long career that has produced many friendships and loyal customers.

“Richard enjoys what he does, and he enjoys people,” said longtime customer and former employee Tom Casto of Bagley. “I think that’s why he’s still at it. He was a good boss.”

“Sometimes we’ll just stop in and visit with him, and it kind of makes his day and it makes our day,” added Tom’s wife, Trudy.

Asked what he does for fun, Norvold looked out at his cars and said, “This.”

“When I get to be 92 I’m going to retire, or at least slow down,” he said.