It’s midnight on a Friday night in New York. An elegantly-dressed couple in a black suit and evening gown, a group of raucus students, and a cat are all in the same room. This could only be one place: a bodega. Peoples’ reasons for visiting these shops may be quite different: the elegant couple may want to buy gum; the students may want beer. And the cat? The cat just lives there. But they’re all in the bodega on purpose.
Bodegas, also called delis or green grocers, are New York’s independent grocery stores. There are about 12,000 of them in the city, so you’ll find one (or two) on almost every street block. Most of these tiny stores are stuffed to the brim with groceries, soft drinks, beer, cigarettes, umbrellas, cleaning products, toilet paper, light bulbs, cash machines, and many other things that are often needed urgently but don’t in themselves justify a trip to the supermarket.
Interestingly, bodegas are all comparable in appearance. The aisles are so narrow that there’s hardly room for two people to pass each other; the light flickers; the air is stuffy; the cashier yells down at you from a raised counter, surrounded by more products on display. With a little luck, he (rarely she) is the friendly or quiet type. The chances that he’s grumpy, however, are high. Bodegas have a long tradition behind them, which is probably one of the reasons that national giants like 7 Eleven have long since cleared out of New York.
The stores, and even more their owners, are symbols of the city’s constant state of flux. Two centuries ago they were all called ‘delis’ and were mostly owned by Jewish immigrants. The word deli is still often used to describe the few of these shops that also sell prepared food. In the first half of the last century, most of them were taken over by Latin American immigrants. Accordingly, people began to call them ‘bodegas.’ A couple of decades later, the Koreans took over the shops and the term ‘Korean groceries’ became popular (though it has since been abandoned due to its inaccuracy and political incorrectness). This variety was best known for its wide selection of fresh vegetables and fruit. At a certain point, both the names of these shops and the wares they sell have been diversified to the point that easy classification is nearly impossible. Recently it’s become clear that small businesses in New York face an uphill battle. Steep rent prices and the sudden interest of international chains in New York real estate have led to a consistent decrease in the number of the city’s bodegas.
And what do New Yorkers who are otherwise no strangers to change or gentrification think about this trend? They hate it! They notice that the new chains sell neither alcohol nor cigarettes nor lottery tickets. Or they notice that there’s no place to leave the apartment keys for a couple of hours for guests arriving from out of town. Or they miss the skinny, hungry cats that saunter around and lend many of the bodegas a distinctive atmosphere—perhaps because these cats are reminders of the charming fact that New York often sees basic rules broken in broad daylight. Or perhaps because most New Yorkers just don’t like rodents.