A report by Hansi Lo Wang for NPR. Follow the link to the original report for the audio of the broadcast.
In New York City, there’s a place on almost every block where you can buy a bag of chips or a lottery ticket. Elsewhere, it’s called a corner store. But in the Big Apple, it’s known as a bodega.
In Spanish, bodega can mean “storeroom” or “wine cellar.”
New Yorkers like Miriam Gomez, though, know bodegas as neighborhood institutions you can count on at just about any hour of the day or night.
“Where supermarkets are closed, the bodegas are open,” she says after making a purchase at Stop One Gourmet Deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Still, bodegas are part of a shrinking breed of business in New York, where rising rent and chain stores are putting pressure on mom-and-pop shops.
“A lot of them are closing. A lot of people are just giving up. You know, it’s not fair,” says Josefine Rodriguez, who manages Stop One Gourmet Deli.
Rodriguez came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. She says she’s been shopping at bodegas all her life for cuts of meat and fresh fruit that connect her with her roots.
“We’re Spanish people. We got to keep our culture and our things together,” she says. “You can’t just get rid of people just like that.”
That bodega culture took shape in the 1940s and ’50s, when Carlos Sanabria’s family would make almost daily runs down the street for milk, eggs, beans and rice.
Many different ethnic groups have taken on the business model. But Sanabria, author of The Bodega: A Cornerstone of Puerto Rican Barrios, says the New York bodega is still closely associated with that first generation of entrepreneurs from Puerto Rico. They are among the hundreds of thousands who left the Caribbean for the island of Manhattan and other parts of New York City after World War II.
“There were always others — Cubans, some Dominicans, some Mexicans. But primarily if you talk about Hispanics in New York City, you were talking about Puerto Ricans,” says Sanabria, a retired professor of Caribbean history who taught at Hostos Community College of The City University of New York.
New York’s Puerto Rican community grew tenfold from about 60,000 in 1940, to more than 600,000 in 1960. And along with the greater demand from new arrivals came more bodegas owned and run by Puerto Rican families who often named their businesses after places on the island.
But these days, the people behind the bodega counters selling bottled drinks, cigarettes and candy bars have changed.
The number of Puerto Ricans living in New York has been dropping steadily since 1990. Now, other groups are on the rise.
Shoyel Abdul says he remembers stopping by a Latino-owned bodega on the Lower East Side every morning for breakfast before school. Now he works across the street from that spot at L.E.S. Mini Mart, which is owned by an immigrant from Bangladesh. Bodegas, he says, remain an important part of the neighborhood.
“You know the people. When you work for a corporation, it’s just about in and out. We don’t do that. We talk to our community about what’s going on,” Abdul says.
Merquis Garcia, who was born in the Dominican Republic, owns A & M Supermarket, a large bodega in the Bronx. This kind of store, he says, was known as a colmado when he was growing up in the DR. Still, he’s proud to be known as a bodega owner, whose service to his customers sometimes includes dishing out advice on personal problems.
“Sometimes they have some problems in their house,” he says. “I don’t know other bodega owners, but I do counseling here too.”
Garcia is also the secretary of the Bodega Association of the United States, which estimates there are about 13,000 bodegas currently in New York City. The development corporation has about 5,000 members, most of whom are of Dominican descent, according to Garcia.
Now, they’re trying to do more outreach with Arab-American-owned bodegas like Brooklyn’s Yafa Newsstand & Deli, named after the home region in Yemen of Abdul Sulaimani’s family.
“It was originally my grandfather’s store, and then he gave it to my dad, his son-in-law. That’s usually what the story is for most Yemeni deli owners,” Sulaimani says.
The 21-year-old sometimes takes over the bodega counter from his father in the afternoons. His father took a rare day off in February to join other Yemeni bodega owners in a protest against President Trump’s first temporary travel ban against travelers from Yemen and other majority-Muslim countries.
He says his father started his life in America working in bodegas. “My dad learned Spanish before he learned English well enough just because of working behind a counter,” he adds.
Now, his father runs his own bodega, which stocks only halal meat and sells newspapers in English, Spanish and Chinese. The family, Sulaimani says, feels part of a quintessential New York tradition.
“Corner stores play a huge part in anyone’s life living in New York,” he says. “If you’re not cool with your corner store guy, you’re not from New York.”