Nothing Can Replace the Bodega

Sep 14, 2017 by


A group of friends playing dominoes outside a bodega in Washington Heights. Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Like solar eclipses and bipartisan legislation, moments of near-universal consensus are extremely rare. One such event took place on Wednesday, when a start-up named Bodega stated its intention to put its namesake — real-life, neighborhood corner stores — out of business by replacing them with unmanned pantries.

“Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you,” one of its co-founders told Fast Company. The start-up, run by two ex-Googlers, was widely savaged across social media on the grounds that its name and business mission are culturally insensitive, morally dubious, and, perhaps worse of all, lacking in personality.

Few things make a New Yorker defensive like an assault on bodegas. Largely immigrant-owned, they are the ultimate frills-free symbol of consumer access and gritty mini-embodiments of both the city’s diversity and its 24/7 ethos. Bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches in the morning; basic groceries and oversized heroes in the afternoon; and, inevitably, all three of these things at 3 a.m.

In other words, a bodega has crucial provisions whenever you need them, judgment-free and generally at a small-to-medium markup. Alka-Seltzer, regular seltzer, Gatorade and Advil. Toilet paper and deodorant. Tampons and condoms. Last winter, a bodega on the Lower East Side gained a small measure of fame or notoriety when it was reported that customers could order Plan B pills from it online and have them delivered to their apartments.

But in addition to their convenience, what make bodegas beloved are their personalities. It seems like every one of them is oddly curated: prayer candles sit next to jarred olives which are sidled up next to boxes of organic mac-and-cheese. There is no Silicon Valley algorithm clever enough to come up with those crumbly, shrink-wrapped date bars that are inevitably piled up by the cash registers.

Michael Silber is a graphic designer who has documented more than 1,200 New York City bodegas over the past three years for Deli Grossery, a project whose name is a nod to the iconic and idiosyncratic food signage outside of corner stores. “For me, bodegas and deli groceries really encapsulate the character and culture of a neighborhood,” Mr. Silber noted in an email. “Each has its own delicacies or quirks, whether it be a famous chopped cheese sandwich, unfamiliar Polish specialty foods, or a friendly bodega cat.” (Further fanning the flames underneath Bodega is that the company logo is a cat, an unlawful fixture and unofficial mascot of many corner stores.)

Of course, the most meaningful difference between Wi-Fi-enabled vending machines and family-run corner stores is the human being. Corner stores aren’t just a small compensation for living in a dense city. They also enable countless New Yorkers to begin their day with routines that are both rote and reassuring, whether it’s a buttered roll, a cup of coffee or a sane, friendly encounter across a checkout counter.

A well-cultivated, strategic relationship with your bodega can mean that you might have a safe place for your spare keys and packages. If you’re really lucky, the clerks will share their life stories with you, tell you about all the ways you’re screwing up your romantic life, and remember that you add American cheese to everything.

My first bodega in New York was on Eighth Avenue, where I was known as “Houston” by the staff because, well, I’m from Houston. Of course, it was pronounced like the nearby street in Lower Manhattan rather than the city in Texas. At first, it irritated me. Then I realized that it was a way of letting me know that I had arrived.

Many years later, my current bodega opened on my block in Brooklyn a year after I had moved in. Its shelves were still half-stocked at the grand opening. When I asked if there would be date bars, the owners told me to come back tomorrow. It doesn’t get more high-tech than that.

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