I am a self-admitted junk-aholic — sugar being my preferred drug — so when I drooled over a rather neutral description from my husband of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, an Italian-deli-turned-heaven, I knew a visit must be a reality for me. A year later and a treacherous hour-and-a-half of freeway time (gotta love that L.A. traffic), my husband Lucas and I found ourselves cruising down York Boulevard in Highland Park, just northeast of Los Angeles — an area known for high gang activity, historic architecture and a growing hipster population. Among the eclectic mix of tacos trucks and trendy shops would be my new jewel, that cute soda store I imagined decorated with shiny bar stools drawn up to a restored soda fountain, all surrounded with the gloriously glistening bottles of cane sugar and liquid delight. How I would frolic like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music among the thirst-quenching treasures that would occupy the bulk of my diet if not for the lingering threat of diabetes.
As we entered the brick building, my goose bumps of excitement quickly vanished with a face slam into reality. Galco’s looked like a soulless meat market. Vacant white walls, unflattering fluorescent lights, vinyl tiled floors reminiscent of grade school, boxes upon boxes sitting in the center of the store without regard to walking room and a mix of ill-dressed and well-dressed patrons who seemed immune to it all. Where was the adoring soda shop I imagined? Where was the bar? Where was… my thought ended even quicker than my goose bumps when my eyes commanded my body toward a showcase freezer filled with not meat, but old sweets like Annabelle chocolate candy, Zagnut, candy dots and others I’d only heard of but never seen. In my head, I became Julie Andrews as Lucas, indifferent to sugary junk, repeatedly bumped into me to shift my concentration toward why we were there.
I fell into utter wide-eyed jubilation when I caught sight of what all those boxes hid: rows upon rows of non-mainstream soda. Vibrant labels with cherries, bubbles, crows, bulls, barrels and hula dancers. Every few bottles introduced a different soda brand and color. As I gazed down the aisles, I realized how much there really was to absorb. “Is there some place we’re supposed to start?” I whispered to my husband, convinced that there must be some method to handling this inventory.
How were we to judge the quality and taste of something we only knew to exist as of three seconds ago? The copywriting and age of the company became the benchmarks of approval. Soon our faded red handbasket brimmed with clinging bottles and a growing heaviness rivaling my financial limit. Aisle after aisle tested my discipline, but there of course were certain exceptions. How could we not purchase a small selection of gourmet root beer? How could I ignore cream soda? What really is the difference between double cola and triple cola? The solution: buy them. Buy them all.
Strolling through every aisle — reading nearly every label like a bookworm in a library — I questioned how easy it would be to drive by this dull brick building and not even consider it worthwhile. Humming to Elvis and Mary Wells misting from a wall speaker, I realized the shop’s complete contrast was what Los Angeles is all about — beauty, lavishness and momentum — despite being within the boundaries of the city. Moments like that I thrive in, knowing there’s a shred of ease and modesty that has survived the crushing weight of this incessant shallowness. With a relieved but hesitant sigh, I headed for the front of the store with Lucas like a chick forced to leave the nest.
Waiting eagerly at the decades-old register, my eyes browsed the impulse buys that awaited a vulnerable sucker. I let out a sudden gasp so excited even the cashier looked back at me. “Big League Chew!” My fingers reached out with the graceful dexterity of a five-year-old. “I’ve had dreams about this lately, seriously.” As I sat in another hour of traffic on the way home, I munched on my Charms candies, glancing in the rearview mirror at a case full of rare sodas waiting to be discovered and appreciated. Though Galco’s Soda Pop Stop had not fit the glamorous depiction I’d assumed, I couldn’t wait to uncover another lackluster jewel in a city adorned in luxury and consumed with appearance.