By Christine Staples
Paul (Phouthalak) Raxakoul, longtime co-owner of Country Cheese on San Pablo Avenue and Country Cheese Coffee Mart on Hopkins in Berkeley, died in his Berkeley home on Thursday, Dec. 27, surrounded by his close, loving family. Paul was 41 years old and had been living with colon cancer for 2 ½ years.
On most days, you could find Paul holding court at the deli counter at the back of Country Cheese on San Pablo, where he chatted and gave out free samples to everyone. He was a super friendly, generous guy, non-judgmental and kind.
“What I hope people will remember about my brother is what a loving person he was,” said his older brother, Pete (Phithak).
“He cared about everyone. He didn’t care whether or not you had money — he treated everyone with respect. Homeless people come into the shop all the time; he was always patient and kind to them; he fed them.”
Paul, the second of five siblings, was born in Vientiane, Laos on July 17, 1971. The family came to the United States as refugees in 1979. Fleeing Laos in 1977, they spent the next two years in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“We sold everything just to have enough money to pay someone to get us across safely into Thailand.” recalls Pete. “We were fortunate that we came to the United States with the full family intact.”
Lacking even basic English, a friend of his father’s took them in when they arrived; for six months the seven Raxakouls shared a studio apartment with the friend and his wife. They then moved to Hayward, where the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church took them into the fold. Church members taught the kids how to read and write, cook, and showed his mother how to take the bus and other life skills. The kids attended elementary school in Hayward, and attended the Good Shepherd’s middle school. Eventually the family was able to buy a modest home in San Pablo, and Paul graduated from De Anza High in El Sobrante, where his parents still live.
After mother Khamyong spent nine years working as a clerk at Country Cheese, the Raxakouls arranged to buy the business in 1991; the previous owners were so supportive of the purchase, they carried the loan. Eight years ago, the family decided to expand and purchased the shop on Hopkins. Initially, Paul ran the San Pablo store while Pete ran the Hopkins store. However, after Paul’s diagnosis two years ago, Pete began spending more time at the San Pablo store again, while Pete’s wife, Shirley, ran the Hopkins store, all with the continued help of the extended family.
On good days, in between chemotherapy treatments, Paul would spend the day at the store and catch up with his many friends. He and his family moved within walking distance of the store so that he could pop in anytime he felt well, and so that his boys could attend Berkeley public schools. Son Sebastian is currently a kindergartener in a BUSD elementary school, while Stefan attends a Berkeley pre-school.
Paul is survived by his wife, Sirinporn Khamtalob, sons Sebastian (5 ½) and Stefan (4), parents Khamyong and Phengkiao Raxakoul, brother Pete, sisters Mairie, Mirra and Mola, numerous cousins, nieces and nephews, and hundreds of friends. A vibrant and generous member of our community, he leaves a space that will be hard to fill.
Services for Paul will be held Friday Jan. 4 and Sat. Jan 5 at the Civic Center Chapel at the Wilson & Kratzer Mortuaries, 455 24th St., Richmond. There will be a viewing Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The funeral is Saturday at 1 p.m.
If you would like to make a contribution to support the boys’ education, please follow this link to Paypal: https://www.paypal.com/home, and then follow the instructions to make a payment to this account: firstname.lastname@example.org
Checks can be made out to Mirra Raxakoul (the trustee for the boys’ account) and sent to Country Cheese, 2101 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA 94702
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