DOWNTOWN — Farmer Harry Nicholas dons his “pimp hat” to greet customers — a bright purple cowboy model that stands out even among the low stalls at the Downtown Farmers’ Market.

Wearing a weathered blue shirt with a bolo tie, Nicholas, 91, and his loyal customers call him the oldest farmer in the market that takes place every Wednesday on Arizona Avenue.

WW II Veteran Harry Nicholas, 91, has been selling his grapes at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market since it started. (Paul Alvarez, Jr. editor@smdp.com)

WW II Veteran Harry Nicholas, 91, has been selling his grapes at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market since it started. (Paul Alvarez, Jr. editor@smdp.com)

“I just love him,” said one customer at Nicholas’ stand last week as she looked at the grapes he had for sale. Another said he liked Nicholas’ pomegranate juice.

Nicholas, owner of Nicholas Family Farms in Orange Cove, Fresno County, has been growing grapes his whole life. A Navy veteran, he’s known around the market for his variety of grapes that include ruby, Kyoho Japanese and muscat.

In addition to the Downtown market, he makes the rounds of others in town like the Pico Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and the Beverly Hills market on Sundays. His son used to help him, but he passed away last year.

Now, Nicholas comes by himself, packing and unloading his haul. He gets into town Tuesday afternoons and said his favorite market is the Downtown one because a lot of people come to buy vegetables and fruits.

“There are more people here. They all know me here,” Nicholas said.

Some say Nicholas has a sense of humor that draws customers who are loyal and buy his grapes for years and years.

“He’s very friendly, very engaging, terrific sense of humor and since he’s a Navy guy, watching him tie down his load at the end of the day with all those knots, he does all these incredible knots, which I think is pretty fantastic,” said Laura Avery, Farmers’ Market supervisor for City Hall.

Nicholas’ parents immigrated to Orange Cove close to 100 years ago from Lebanon and planted a vineyard. Nicholas was born on the family farm. Nicholas didn’t finish his second year of high school before starting to work.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 to start World War II for America, he wanted to join the Coast Guard, but was told he wasn’t tall enough. Instead, he joined the U.S. Navy where he traveled to Idaho for boot camp, then diesel training school in Iowa and ended up as a motor machinist mate in the engine room. He got to travel to the South Pacific.

In 1944, Nicholas’ torpedo boat was shot up by U.S. Army planes in a friendly fire incident in the Papua New Guinea area. He said three sailors were killed. He got nicked on the leg.

“It was just a scratch,” Nicholas said. “I was lucky.”

After he left the Navy, he went back to farming for his family. He now grows pomegranates, kiwis and persimmons, in addition to grapes.

Esther Sato, who has been coming to the market for more than 20 years, said Nicholas is her “favorite guy.” She ended up behind the counter at his stall last Wednesday, sitting down and catching up.

“I’ve been coming here since his son was coming here [starting in 1981],” Sato said, “because Harry has the best grapes.”

She said she gets all her olives from Nicholas and his son taught her how to cure them.

“I bake for Harry,” she said. “He always shares his life stories.”

Richard Sager, who sits in a stall next to Nicholas and sells snap peas, beans and berries, said they both share produce on market days. Sager comes from San Luis Obispo with his business, 2 Peas in a Pod.

“All the ladies love him,” Sager said.

ameera@smdp.com