L.A. Soda Shop Carries All Shapes, Sizes

Galco's Soda Pop Stop first opened as an Italian grocery store in downtown Los Angeles in 1897. John Nese inherited the store from his father and, in the '90s, switched his inventory to often hard-to-find types of soda and beer.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Depending on where you live, a soft drink takes different names. Pop, soda, tonic. If you live in Los Angeles, you won't know soft drinks until you know Galco's Soda Pop Stop. It's in the Highland Park neighborhood, and customers there can pick and choose from hundreds of sodas.

Skye Rohde takes us into this one-of-a-kind store.

SKYE ROHDE: Swinging the wooden doors to Galco's open and step inside to another world.

Unidentified Man: When you say sour cherry soda, you're going to go, oh my goodness, it is cherry cherry.

ROHDE: Take a look around as you squeeze past the two cash registers and around plastic tables, (unintelligible) lotto machine is there on your left. The store is brightly lit; a throwback to its years of an A&E grocery store. They're flat full of glass bottles stacked up to thigh-level. Old produce shops are filled with candies you haven't seen for years. And, of course, there's the proprietor.

Mr. JOHN NEESE (Proprietor, Galco's Soda Pop Stop): My name is John Neese, and you're visiting Galco's Soda Pop Stop. We've been at this location since 1955. We've been in Los Angeles since 1897.

ROHDE: Neese is a friendly man with a big, wide smile and a crisp cotton apron. He likes to greet his customers by the cash registers and roam the aisles of the store to answer questions. He inherited the business from his dad, and he says that 10 or 11 years ago, back when business wasn't so good, he converted the store's inventory from Italian groceries to Soda Pop. He also sells beer, wine and deli sandwiches.

Mr. NEESE: What was happening in the grocery industry back then is the big chain stores were buying up the distribution channels, they just raised the prices and they made sure that no one can compete. So all the little guys went out of business. At the same time, Coke and Pepsi was buying the shelf space in the big stores, and that was the end of freedom of choice, because once they own the shelf space, they could put on anything they want.

ROHDE: But John Neese put what he wanted on the shelf - soda, lots of it. A.J. Stephen's Birch Beer, Nesbitt, Bubble Up, Fentimans Curiosity Cola. You'll see Jamaica's finest Hot Ginger Beer out in pallets on the floor, and Hot, Hot, Hot tucked back on the shelves for those who like it strong. You'll see Orange Soda with little pieces of Mandarin orange pulp in it. There's even Cucumber Soda. And that's not all.

Ms. JENNY GAFF(ph): We're going to do a case of those varied flavors - the grape, the root beer, and the cherry, is that all right for - with you, honey out front?

Mr. JIM ELLSWORTH(ph): Yeah. No problem.

Ms. GAFF: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROHDE: That's Jenny Gaff and Jim Ellsworth. Who drove into Galco's from nearby Riverside.

Mr. ELLSWORTH: Make sure you get one of the cucumber.

Ms. GAFF: I did get one of the cucumber.

ROHDE: Neese buys these obscure brands of soda from smaller bottlers and distributors. Sometimes, they contact him. Like the European guy he heard from one time.

Mr. NEESE: He calls me up and he says, you know, he says, I'm from Romania, you got to carry my soda. We still know how to press the rose petals. And you know what, he was right. His rose soda is so crisp and so clean it just pops.

ROHDE: Galco's Soda Pop Stop has about 500 brands of sodas. And it even commissions specialties. John Neese suggested that Pennsylvania soda maker whip up some root beer, the old-fashioned way.

Mr. NEESE: And as it turns out, his root beer is actually made with the bark of sassafras. He's one of the very few bottlers that does it that way. Everybody else's root beer is very soft and creamy today. And this one is dry and high-carbonated. I had a lady come in from North Platt, Nebraska, and she tasted this and she says, that root beer tastes just like my grandfather's root beer, and she wound up buying a case and taking it home with her. She couldn't believe how good it was.

ROHDE: And did I mention the espresso coffee soda? It's made by a company called Manhattan Special.

Mr. NEESE: It's the first one made by them in 1895. It was not made from an extract. It is not made from a flavoring. It is actually made from coffee.

ROHDE: Customer Robert Giannini(ph) drove to Galco's for sandwiches and soda on a weekend afternoon. He first came here as a kid almost 30 years ago.

Mr. ROBERT GIANNINI: If you walk through the aisles, you'll see stuff that you haven't seen since you were a kid and that kind of brings you back, and you kind of feel like a kid again when you come back here.

ROHDE: And that's part of why Angelinos love Galco's so much. Whether you're 30 or 80, John Neese wants you to give in to nostalgia, or try something new. Buy one bottle if you want, or one dozen. Compare the taste of all the different colas, so you'll know what you're drinking. And maybe, if you're lucky, he'll tell you the secret ingredient in Coke. But that's only after you try a Moxie.

From NPR News, I'm Skye Rohde.

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