“Chale” was Carlos Salazar Sr., who died July 2 at 81.
“Our Facebook page just exploded,” says Chale’s son, Precinct 1 County Commissioner Carlos Salazar, Jr.
“Your dad was an icon on the west side,” someone wrote. But it was County Judge David Silva who pronounced it best: “The west side is never going to be the same.”
Only a few days after the funeral,w Carlos is sitting at a table in a makeshift office in the rear of the store. He twists his head toward the empty chair. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” he says. “As far as I am concerned, he’s still here.”
Chale sat in that chair until about three weeks before he died.
The chair is a living-room rocker, draped in a throw decorated with a Santa Claus. Beside it, a floor fan.
“Dad used to stay in that chair and sleep,” Carlos says, “sometimes with a box over his head.”
Chale and his brother, Ben, built the store in 1968. “CBS” stands for “Chale and Ben Store.”
Why a grocery store?
“Father was a migrant worker,” Carlos remembered. “Then he drove a taxi. Then he went to barber school in San Antonio. He had to hitch-hike. A lot of times he only had one meal a day. It had an everlasting effect.”
Carlos remembers always finding numerous small bags of potato chips, with only a few chips left in the package, carefully saved.
“And milk bottles. Sometimes I’d find them with only a quarter-inch of milk left in them, but if I threw them away, I would get in trouble.”
Chale, he says, knew hunger.
From the day it opened, CBS was a neighborhood symbol of generosity.
“If a city crew was out there working on the roads, Dad would take them soft drinks. Anyone who was hungry got cold cuts.
“Do you know that, back when gas was 28-cents a gallon, we were the first place in Beeville to offer self-serve gas? We were.”
In the 1980s, more stringent environmental regulations forced Chale to abandon the pumps.
A quick measure of whether a customer is a regular are the words used to go to the store. First-time customers say “Let’s go to CBS,” but regulars simply say “Let’s go to Chale’s.”
Among his legacies, perhaps the strongest is a Dum-Dum lollipop.
“Every kid who came into the store got a free Dum-Dum,” Carlos says.
A measure of that legacy is lollipop math.
Each box of 120 Dum-Dums would last a week. Fifty-two boxes equals 6,240 a year. Forty-five years equals 280,800 lollipops given away.
Already, west-side youngsters have politely, hesitantly, asked if free Dum-Dums still will be available.
“Everyone has a bad day,” Carlos says. “But Chale never had a bad day. If anybody walked through the door, he had a joke for them.”
They’re still coming.
“We have a customer base of more than 300,” Carlos says. “Ninety percent of them are Hispanic, but we have a number of Anglos, too.”
When CBS opened, it was one of seven or eight similar groceries in the neighborhood.
“This is the last mom-and-pop store around,” Carlos says. “We survived the Walmarts and the H-E-Bs of the world — all on the force of Chale’s personality. It’s one-on-one service. It’s personal here.
“He had no prejudices. He always told us to work hard and to respect everyone.”
Carlos has no doubts about the store’s survivability.
“Dad established a base of customers; we’ll continue to stay in business.”
Carlos remembers starting to work in the store when he was 12, stocking bottles and cleaning up.
“I didn’t get to work the register until I was 14,” he recalls.
His memories are interrupted by two youngsters walking through the area.
“Those are Edward’s kids. They’re the ones who are going to pick up the slack. And Edward! My baby brother (Carlos is 57; Edward is 46) used to run around here in diapers. Now, he’s running the store.”
And the store has adapted to the changing times.
It is less of a grocery store today — much of the transactions are for lotto cards and cashing checks. Still, there are toasted oat cereals for sale, along with a wall-full of Mexican herbs and spices, some sold for medicine; some for cooking.
Computers have replaced older cash registers. Chale decided to let the younger siblings handle the new technology.
“He would help stock and clean,” Carlos says.
“Except for when I was in the service, I’ve spent every day of my life here,” he says. When my father was alive, he would open the store at six in the morning. Now, I open up around 7:30. But, he’s not here.
“When it hits me, I know I’m going to break down.”
He glances at Chale’s chair, half expecting it to start gently rocking.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.