“For every neighborhood I’ve lived, worked, or gone to school in, there was a bodega that served as a sort of orientation point for the community,” says Stanley, a resident of New York City for over 24 years.
And he’s right. For every neighborhood in New York City, it seems like there are at least 50 times as many bodegas. Sitting on street corners with their doors wide open, they’re the urban versions of front porches clinking with glasses of sweet tea. Their welcoming call to neighbors has a more pragmatic than saccharine sheen: handwritten signs for discounted fresh produce and brightly colored ads flagging soda, organic juices and cheap beer.
More than convenience stores, bodegas have historically served as community landmarks for Spanish-speaking immigrants whose very word, bodega, has been politely shoplifted by residents of the east and west coasts as a general term for neighborhood delis and corner stores regardless of the owners’ ethnicity. But the line between borrowing and outright thievery is under scrutiny, as a recent Fast Company article broke the news that two ex-Google employees, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan, are seeking to capitalize — quite literally — off of the bodega concept with their start-up, Bodega, a high-tech vending machine targeted to young, predominantly white and well-off millennials whose high-end apartment complexes and offices lack the presence of a humanless kiosk.
Are the millennials for whom this automation is intended such an easy sell? “A box in my lobby isn’t going to wish me a good morning on my way to work at 4 a.m. or know my coffee order,” says Crystal, a Florida native working in film who lives in Bushwick. “They’d need ten of those boxes to stock even half of what any bodega can offer.”
If limited size and lack of perishable goods like fresh produce aren’t lackluster enough, the venture markets convenience over human interaction and tries to repackage insularity as added value. The main selling point of this micro-pantry is that it brings “the relevant slice of a store right to where you live and work,” but, if adopted, it would further detach consumers from the effect their presence has on local business owners in their own communities.
“My bodega is run by a family ranging from high schoolers to elderly,” says Leah, who lives in East Williamsburg. “The type of place where, if you don’t have cash and you need rolling papers and a coffee, they got you. Pay ‘em back tomorrow.” Throughout her years in the city, it’s been a “sacred community space” where anyone can wander in at any hour of the day or night, free from judgement, buy what they crave and effortlessly “chat about the weather.”
The bodega is a gathering place, whether you’re off the clock, out of a job, on your way home or on summer break. As a kid from Bensonhurst who is now a professor in political science, Rafael frequented the bodega down the block from the building he grew up in and says he “can’t count the number of times we neighborhood kids would go there for ices and candy during the summers. It was just nice having a place like that nearby where you could spend a couple of bucks and kill some time on a day when school was out.”
Daily foot traffic in and out of bodegas spans generations and bridges class and culture, and is an underappreciated flow of knowledge. The Korean couple who own Santo’s Farm, a bodega on Court Street in Carroll Gardens, not only offer soup but holistic advice when their patrons fall ill. “When I had mono in grad school a few years ago, I could barely move but would drag myself to the bodega to buy soup,” says Sari, a transplant from Cleveland, Ohio. “Sue and Joe were so concerned about me because I looked like death. They are both really into natural health remedies and would give me tips on healing foods.” Long after her recovery, the couple continued to ask how she was doing whenever she stopped by. “Every single time I went in there I was struck by how they knew every customer’s name and would ask about their children, their work, etcetera.”
Because of their small-scale operations, bodega owners are able to get to know their customers and quickly adapt to suit their taste. “I usually hit up Irving Gourmet Deli. They have great vegan snacks and cheap kombucha!” says Joe, a Long Island native who lives and works in north Brooklyn. “It’s more convenient than running to a grocery store when I run out of something like cat food or olive oil (like I did last night).”
Just thinking about a vending machine replacing her local bodega has Cayetana, a Peruvian PhD student living in Crown Heights, misty-eyed. “Ben and Jerry’s at 3 a.m., bagels 24/7, quarters for the laundromat, human interaction; the randomness of it all is just lovely,” she gushes, citing Royal Deli and Grill on Nostrand where she often procures household supplies. Coffee, on the other hand, is loyally purchased “from One Stop to Shop Gourmet & Deli Corp on Verona Place and Fulton.”
For other internationals living abroad, like Gloria, the bodega offers a small semblance of home. A Spaniard who lived in Clinton Hill, she says the nearby Mr. Melon nourished her at all hours of the night when she was studying for her master’s degree. “Those guys fed me fresh-squeezed juice for $4 at 5 a.m. when I was getting back home and had no food in my stomach and no strength to start cooking.” After relocating to Boerum Hill, she will occasionally travel an hour out of her way on the subway just to visit. “They had the best fresh fruit and vegetables at really good prices, and just seeing them outside reminded me of Spain and helped me remember to feed myself fresh stuff.”
Intimacy is almost inevitable at bodegas; scouting miscellaneous items in tightly packed aisles and making regular over-the-counter orders quickly spawns first name basis acquaintances with owners working tirelessly to meet the demands of their customers. The energy it produces is readily palpable, even for newcomers.
“I moved to Brooklyn just over a week ago, and one of the biggest surprises was the strong feeling of community here in Greenpoint,” says Alexa, a therapeutic yoga practitioner. “I’ve met the owner of the flower shop down the street, the tailor around the corner, and explored some of the bodegas.” One such store was Natural Garden on Manhattan Ave where she met the store owner, who is Punjabi. Having recently lived and travelled in Northern India, Alexa swapped stories with the owner who had just returned from a trip home. He proudly showed her pictures of his family living in India and in California. “Now whenever I walk by on my way home from work, I stop by to get a snack and say hi,” she says, grateful for the little snippets of conversation that remind her of the small town she calls home.
Sometimes, no conversation is needed. Just being a bright light on a late night is enough to spark affection. “Many bodegas in Bed-Stuy kept me feeling safe and secure as I walked home alone at night,” says Talia, a Canadian who lived on the east coast for nearly a decade while working and going to school. She appreciated that, as a woman, she could easily “duck into a busy, well-lit place” if she was “feeling a bit skeeved out.” When other shops are closed, just being an open door is a service she says is “worth considering beyond what they supply in terms of delicious snacks.”
The pressure is immense for bodegas to survive in areas that constantly contract and produce an influx of new neighbors with zero historical or emotional ties to places where rising rents have pushed out the very bodega owners they buy from—a cycle that makes sustaining a loyal clientele all the more precarious for business owners already politically and economically vulnerable but whose livelihoods depend on the patronage of their neighbors. The situation on the ground makes the blatant appropriation by the tech start-up in the cloud even more appalling.
But Bodega isn’t cutting a fresh wound; rather, it pushes an old knife in deeper. It is insidious less because of novelty and more owing to the brazenness with which it announces itself rather than hiding behind camouflage like the Fresh Directs and Amazon Primes that came before. If these small sanctuaries of deli sandwiches and cheap coffee are to be preserved, community must be valued over disruptive convenience.
The bodega is more than the sum of its drunken scratch-off tickets, canned Swedish fish and last-minute cartons of milk, Stanley reminds me. It’s an education. An institution. A place for “getting in fights, making friends and lessons in posturing.” It’s the place where Stanley recites his deli order like a memory verse, “Let me get a…” From Monday to Sunday, he says, no matter the hour, “Bodega is church.”
For more reading on the importance of bodegas in New York City, check out the project Bodega Stories, “Inside the All-American Yemeni Bodega Strike” at The Fader and “The Legacy of the Puerto Rican Bodega” at Centro PR.