Cigars, cola and conversation

Sun Journal

Store: At Ifs, Ands & Butts, customers can find more than 125 soft drinks from around the world, and, the owner hopes, maybe a new friend.

April 10, 1999|By Halimah Abdullah | Halimah Abdullah,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

DALLAS -- 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 Shirakiku 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."

Rousseau's is an enigmatic, engaging retail presence. 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: imported sodas, premium cigars and cigarettes, and paperback best sellers.

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."

To some extent he still is. But despite his business' popularity, Rousseau admits the shop hasn't netted any close friendships. "Life today is very different from how it was a while ago," he says. "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." Rousseau lives in a loft behind his shop and rents the apartment out back to his 35-year-old friend, Todd Stephens.

When customers stop by, he breathlessly dispenses bits of trivia. Sodas cost $1.99. The conversation is free.

"I need caffeine," a petite brunette says, rushing up to the counter, clasping a bottle of blue soda.

"Well, that doesn't have any caffeine in it," Rousseau says, studying the bottle closely.

"Oh."

"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."

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 -- "to eliminate the barrier between people." The concept never came to fruition. He calls it "the greatest failure of my life."

Rousseau moved to Dallas to work on a free-lance project. Then complications from lupus and a chronic digestive disorder forced his early retirement. So he set up shop, reasoning that "There are other ways to establish communities."

The 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 real people. Rousseau misses the talking, the planning, the dreaming part of his old consulting firm. "I'm dying without human contact," 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.

During the day, Stephens and Rousseau work together, the younger man taking care of the stock, the older one chatting with customers as he rings up sales. Some nights, they eat dinner together, reclining on the patio furniture in the middle of the shop.

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