It’s not completely a convenience store, not completely a deli, you know one when you see one, but they’re not a total cinch to define. Uniquely of and representative of New York City, the bodega is a place every New Yorker regularly visits for their day to day needs. Whether for a daily coffee and bagel or an emergency 2 AM cereal run, the local bodega is a neighborhood cornerstone.
But where exactly did these places emerge from? As with many traditions, a combination of various ethnic traditions led to what we know know as a bodega. In a city as richly diverse as New York, it comes as no great shock that our corner stores contain the legacies of several generations of immigrants.
For one, it would appear that the post-WWII influx of migrants from Puerto Rico established the foothold that allowed modern-day bodegas to multiply. Rooted in the Spanish word for “storeroom” or “wine cellar” (but eventually coming to mean “grocery store”), many of the early examples simply advertised themselves with that one word splashed across a sign out front. Their customers knew what they’d find inside.
Of course, the idea of a small corner store didn’t start exactly there. Earlier sandwich shops in Jewish enclaves held the same position as an indispensable neighborhood establishment. However, these shops and grocery stores in those days hadn’t evolved into the self-service stores we visit today. Most still were run by the “grocer” who would find your items for you, and many more were sit-down eateries. It took a few decades before things sped up to the satisfaction of all New Yorkers.
Another example of such is the Dominican enclave of Washington Heights, where the old-country tradition of the colmado is an important part of the bodega’s local role. These convenient stores also function as a meeting place, where locals can meet up with neighbors and friends in a relaxed atmosphere. Groups of people chatting in folding chairs outside the store is a not very unusual sight. The same can be found not only in Washington Heights but in bodegas across the city. Their position as impromptu meeting points underscores the importance of bodegas to their communities.
More recently, a growing number of bodegas are operated by immigrants of Middle Eastern origin. As the latest set of arrivals to set down entrepreneurial roots in the city, these owners face the same challenges as those who came before them, along with a few unique ones. The idea of selling pork products or alcohol is for many Arab bodega owners a source of conflict, but many have assimilated and accept this practice without partaking in it themselves.
No matter who they are owned by, bodegas survive by serving their community. More and more frequently this means offering healthy options alongside the usual snack cakes and sodas. New, so-called “organic bodegas” offer up kombucha and organic pasta to their customers looking for hip, nutritional fare in their neighborhoods. City leaders have gotten in on the act as well, with several initiatives aimed at improving access to healthy food in all communities.
Beloved by all New Yorkers for many years, it’s hard to imagine the city without these ultra-convenient quick-shopping stores. Whether you’ve been here all your life or are new to the city, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the neighborhood bodega.