Well-worn paper signs kindly ask patrons to “please look but don’t touch” the vintage knick-knacks on the Northgate Soda Shop’s wall of shelves — and about all that’s missing is an old-fashioned mousetrap to enforce the rule.
There are other signs: “Beware of Attack Waitress.” “To err is human, to blame it on someone else shows management potential.”
These memes of yesteryear hang behind the bar where Elvis has a spot reserved for his inevitable return.
The sound of Doo Wop music blends with the steady whiff of cooking grease to conjure an era that lies somewhere between a bygone time and just like yesterday.
It’s as if the Cold War never ended and the battle between Coke and Pepsi still matters – because fierce loyalty to Pepsi products has endured here for nearly 70 years.
The Soda Shop – set along North Main Street in the heart of its tree-lined, namesake community – is more than a timeless pimento cheeseburger joint.
It’s a living museum of downtown Greenville’s history.
On the shelves are bricks of buildings both long gone and recently departed – Greenville Memorial Auditorium, Poe Mill, Scott Towers.
Between vintage bottles of Red Stripe and Miller Lite sits a black-and-white photograph of the old City Hall in red brick Romanesque Revival heyday.
The menu of downtown’s former Ottaray Hotel is preserved.
So, too, is an ode to one of the lucky downtown landmarks to survive: A white coffee mug reads “I Helped Save Sirrine Stadium.”
A moonshine still. A pair of ice tongs. A hand-dialed radio.
They’re conversation pieces in a place with endless conversation – between generations of families, workers, local politicians, Bible study groups, kids playing ball in the park across the street and asking their parents for some money for ice cream.
Brass nameplates mark the favorite spots of beloved customers who contributed to endless hours of conversation and whose voices have since departed the ear.
Iris and Ren Bell – the latest owners of the Soda Shop – know the importance of the business they run.
The couple didn’t do painstaking market research when they decided to spend their retirement years running a restaurant that in many ways is more important than the food it serves.
The Soda Shop is what it is.
It’s always been that way.
And, if they have it their way, it always will be.
“I’m gonna die here – I envision that,” Ren said, taking a break from the cash register where he spends every morning into the afternoon. “When you walk in here, it feels like home.”
A cultural gathering spot
Charlie and Thelma Collins opened the business in 1947 in the small complex that acted then much like it does today – a microcosm of downtown’s new urbanism, with a laundromat, beauty salon and lawyer’s office doing daily commerce within one of Greenville’s oldest communities.
Rex Collins bought it in 1955, hiring a young teen named Jim DeYoung to work behind the counter.
DeYoung took over 10 years later – naming it the Northgate Soda Shop – and was a fixture behind the counter as owner and operator for the next four decades before retiring in 2006.
DeYoung had been with Shaw’s Pharmacy and focused on the typical business model of sundries, medicine and ice cream.
There weren’t as many places back then that had a little of everything and was open late, DeYoung said. He offered just about every medicine that didn’t require a prescription.
Then the Wal-Marts and Kmarts came, and DeYoung said he had to adapt.
He began to focus more on food, moving beyond just a handful of sandwiches.
But even more, he said, he cultivated an environment.
If a kid broke a bone playing at the Rotary Park across the street, he would limp into the Soda Shop for help.
The shop, DeYoung said, became a cultural gathering point, a place where the day’s stories were shared and, sometimes, the city’s future shaped.
“The whole City Council would come down here,” he said. “Sometimes I think they would make all their decisions here instead of City Hall.”
In 1996, DeYoung decided to offer a place for the adults who liked to have a beer after work. He asked the landlord for a lease on the space next door, knocked a hole in the wall for a doorway and “The Other Side” was born.
In all, DeYoung said he only had to kick out two men for “getting too friendly with female customers.”
The Other Side serves its purpose as a bar known mostly for its Happy Hour and karaoke nights and Halloween parties – but during the day it’s available for Bible study groups, like the so-named “Bible Baptist Boys” group on Wednesdays.
In 2006, DeYoung sold the Soda Shop to the lawyer next door, Catherine Christophillis, who held on for a short while until Iris and Ren offered to buy in 2009.
Now, DeYoung walks down from his home on North Main a couple blocks away and comes in every morning for coffee.
“I miss the customers,” he said.
‘I can’t imagine not being here’
Iris and Ren Bell grew up in Greenville.
Iris was a Greenville County Sheriff’s deputy. Ren a regional manager for Southern Bell, then Bell South, then AT&T.
In 1989, transfers within the company took the couple all around the Carolinas, but they returned in 1994 where Iris got a job as director of the Blood Connection.
It was there, she said, that the donors she cooked for told her she should open a restaurant.
She had raised five children, all boys, and knew how to cook for a large group.
The kids had always played at the Rotary Park and went to the Soda Shop more than their parents.
The business was for sale, and the two were finally at a place where they had the necessary time.
“I had always wanted a restaurant, but we had children,” she said. “It just needed a little love, so we walked in and gave it that.”
The first task was to take stock of what the Soda Shop had always done right.
The Pimento Cheeseburger was high on the list.
So was making customers feel welcome.
If a customer wanted a sandwich specially made, he got it – and in the case of the Chris Evans burger (egg on top), customer Chris Evans got a burger named after him.
Ren didn’t figure he’d play much of a part.
His wife had put the money in it.
“I was a financial officer,” Ren says. “When I looked at the financials, I didn’t like it all.”
But he asked what he could do to help.
Iris says it didn’t take long before she realized there was a bottleneck at the cash register during peak times.
Ren manned the register – and he has every day at 7 a.m. until school lets out for his grandson, save for one trip to California for his son’s wedding.
The first day, he said, the couple brought in $316 – and received a $700 power bill.
All the old stuff started breaking.
“For the first two years, we didn’t make a dime,” Ren said. “You get kind of antsy, but we persevered.”
The two have made their own imprint on the Soda Shop.
The business acts as a hub for charitable activities.
Ren, who played football at Greenville’s now-defunct Parker High School, has filled the restaurant with Parker High memorabilia and hosts two school reunion events each month.
And while the Soda Shop is rooted firmly in old ways of doing things, the business is active on social media.
Karaoke on Friday nights fills the parking lot. On Thursdays, Happy Hour lasts until 10 p.m.
The last Halloween party at The Other Side attracted about 50 Furman students among the typical “21-to-80 crowd.”
The appeal to the younger generation, the couple said, is the Soda Shop as a museum.
It’s a tradition they hope to carry on for years to come – as long as they can, Iris says.
“I can’t imagine not being here.”