To Hamilton Rousseau, soda's not just a drink; it's a community-builder
By Halimah Abdullah, Staff Writer for the Dallas Morning News
Mid-afternoon sun sets the altar of soda bottles aglow. The red, blue and purple concoctions, stacked three shelves high in the front window, dance in the light.
D.O.A., a lemon-orange drink flavored with jalapenos, promises to be a hit. Afri Cola and Ramune suggest faraway climes. Outside, customers stare for a moment, pressing palms against the window, then they step inside. The sodas lure them indoors. Hamilton Rousseau keeps them there.
"This is kind of a laboratory for me," the shop owner says. "I have random people walk in at random times for random reasons. I probe to find out what kind of things they're thinking."
Mr. Rousseau is an enigmatic, engaging presence in the Bishop Arts district in Oak Cliff [Dallas]. He is a tall, wiry man who can twist off a bottle cap, chat about the isolating effects of technology, then serve a cup of sugary fizz with a smile.
At Ifs Ands & Butts, he sells a motley mix of goods: regional, old fashioned and imported sodas, and imported cigars and cigarettes, and tobacco accessories.
Mr. Rousseau left a fast-paced high-tech career and in 1996 used savings and credit cards to open his own version of the old-fashioned country general store of his youth. He wanted to help his customers reconnect in a society where, in his view, many feel disconnected.
Today, he sells more than 125 different soft drinks from around the world, surfing the Internet and driving to a bottling plant in Dublin, Texas, to pick up regional brands.
"I decided to open the shop because I couldn't hack retirement, " he says. "I've been career-oriented all my life, and [after retirement] I was kind of isolated."
Mr. Rousseau hopes to be the man to whom people open their hearts. But despite his business's popularity, Mr. Rousseau admits the shop hasn't netted any close friendships.
"I've never been very much of a social animal," he says. "Most of my friends were co-workers. When I found myself detached from that . . . " His voice trails off. "Life today is very different from how it was a while ago. People are so wrapped in their own lives, just trying to keep up."
He opens shop at noon because, at age 53, he figures, "I deserve the right to coexist with my body clock."
When customers stop by, he breathlessly dispenses bits of trivia in an ongoing banter that helps them find respite from their busy day. Mr. Rousseau believes his sodas comfort them and make them feel part of something larger.
Sodas cost $1.99. The conversation is free.
"I need caffeine," a petite brunette says one afternoon, rushing up to the counter, clasping a bottle of blue soda.
"Well, that doesn't have any caffeine in it," Mr. Rousseau says, studying the bottle closely.
"Yep, just a plain ol' cream soda," he says, popping the top and filling a tiny plastic cup with soda. He presents and pours the soft drink as if it were a fine wine, urging his customer to take a sip.
"Blue cream soda goes back quite a ways," he says as she gulps, then decides to buy the soda after all. "Sodas used to be extremely colorful. . . . " Mr. Rousseau fell in love with the soft drink as a boy visiting his aunt and uncle in the South Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He'd run barefoot down the road to Cooter' s, a weathered wooden country store, and buy a Bee Gee fresh from the cooler.
He grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., and dropped out of the University of South Carolina his first year. He worked, enlisted in the Navy, then later marketed consumer products and communications technologies for a series of advertising agencies.
In 1979, he opened his own consulting firm and proposed that fiber optics be used to connect the Internet with home TV sets. But that concept never came to fruition, he says. He calls it "the greatest failure of my life."
His firm's "idea was to eliminate the barrier between people," says Mr. Rousseau, who moved to Dallas to work on a project. He set up shop after complications from a chronic digestive disorder forced his early retirement. "There are other ways to establish communities."
His shop fits right in on Bishop Avenue - an eclectic cluster of gift shops, eateries and artists' studios. His store looks as though he decided to open up his living room: An overstuffed couch sits near the soda display. Patio furniture, card games and community newspapers grace the center of the room.
Customers linger in front of a cooler that reads "unusual beverages" as they pick from the selection. Inside the cooler, bottles of Bibi Caffe Espresso mingle with Cheerwine.
Their shapes range from seductive contours to menacing projectiles. A smartly popped top produces a faintly sweet bouquet, mixing with the residue of spicy cigar smoke.
Still, they are no substitute for the real people. He misses the talking, the planning, the dreaming part of his old consulting firm," he says. "This shop is an attempt to re-establish contact with the public and to find people with similar interests."
He is considering offering Friday night soda tastings. He hopes that between sips of fizz, people will find new friends. Jim Watts and his son John, 12, who live in the neighborhood, stop by the shop once a week just to say hello. Well . . . to chat and work on finishing off the soda stock.
The father and son have guzzled down 113 of the 125 flavors.
"Me and my son, we decided we would try every one of them," Mr. Watts says. "The Abita root beer is the best."
John likes the Mental Trick and Sioux City Sarsaparilla. Mr. Watts likes to bring his son by every week after picking him up from the nearby bus stop.
Inevitably, they end up staying longer then they planned.
"We talk about the neighborhood, his travails of finding soda pop and other things," Mr. Watts says of Mr. Rousseau. "He's an interesting guy, he's very friendly. And he always has something to say."
On a recent sun-splashed day, children cluster near the cooler, plucking the frosty bottles from the shelves. A mother stands nearby, listening as Mr. Rousseau rattles off each soda's properties.
"And over here is the Bawls Guarana, " Mr. Rousseau says, handling the bottle's bumpy contours. He tells the group that the drink is made from the Brazilian guarana berry.
The children's eyes glaze over.
"And over here are the cream sodas . . ."
"And over there is the Brain Wash," he says with a wry smile. " It turns your mouth blue when you drink it. Stays that way for about three days."
The boys grin and listen closely.
Â© 1999 The Dallas Morning News All Rights Reserved
Published in The Dallas Morning News, p.1C, March 29, 1999