Recently, a popular video on TikTok sparked a New York Times article on bodega culture. Created by bodega owner Ahmed Alwan, it shows him playing a math game with one of his customers. When the customer answers correctly, he’s told he could pick up anything in the store. Naturally, he tries to take the one indispensable item in any bodega, only to be immediately stopped by Alwan, exclaiming “Not my cat!”Alwan’s viral video has helped make the quirky elements of bodega culture, like the ubiquitous pet (and pest-controlling) bodega cat, accessible to people outside major East Coast cities. The daily routines and aesthetics of these small businesses capture our collective imagination, making the culture of bodegas just as important as the service they provide.
Products of the great post-World War II Puerto Rican migration to New York and the Northeast (“bodega” is a repurposing of the Spanish word for wine cellar), bodegas today reflect shifting demographic trends. Lamb over rice is on offer at my local Yemeni-owned bodega; two blocks away, I can buy yucca and plantains along with my favorite Asian treats from a Korean-owned bodega.
Despite such changes, however, bodegas present a familiar field of sensorial impressions, with waves of sounds and colors unfurling as the doors open. The resemblance shared by many bodegas seems like a deliberate design strategy as if all bodega owners adhere to a common template that teeters between order and chaos.
Even new customers immediately know the paper towels will be on top of the fridges, canned cat food will most likely be next to the canned beans, and the cashier will have toothbrushes behind the counter. The rectangular, often Plexiglas-shielded, cutout framing every bodega counter becomes the viewfinder that shapes a revolving slideshow of neighborhood images: the student rush in the morning, the teenagers cutting school, the construction workers on lunch, the evening grocery shoppers, and the last-minute sandwich buyers. Bodega transactions may last a minute or an hour, depending on how well the cashier and the customer know each other.
I grew up witnessing how the day-to-day life of bodega owners and patrons intertwine. In my family’s bodega in Philadelphia, the store counter quickly becomes a public forum for the exchange of news and neighborhood gossip. Unlike sterile supermarket checkouts or overly friendly, bordering on invasive, coffee shop glass-tops, the bodega counter strikes a balance between intimacy and distance. While designed as a clear separation between customer and cashier, most bodega counters blur this line through use and aesthetic choices. The counter can quickly become a receptacle of neighborhood memories, filled with mementos that, at the very least, mark the passage of time within a neighborhood. In many bodegas, small family portraits and graduation photos are peppered amongst the products, signifying a connection between owner and customer that goes beyond any business transaction.
(At the same time, the bodega’s inviting aesthetic clashes with overt and hidden elements of surveillance and state intervention: surveillance cameras on the counter and storefronts; “No Loitering” signs on the door; or panic buttons under the cash register.)
Alwan’s video is not the first time bodega culture has crossed over to a larger audience. The cramped corners filled with colorful inventory serve as the backdrop for photos and videos all over social media, and many brands adopt pieces of the bodega’s visual culture to elicit a form of urban authenticity. In 2017, two former Google employees created an app called Bodega with the aim of “disrupting” convenience store shopping. The app connected users with small vending machines located in participating apartment buildings, giving customers access to the items commonly found in bodegas without needing to step inside an actual store. Social media exploded with so much outrage at the appropriative name and potential negative impact on actual bodegas that the developers were forced to issue an apology and change their product’s name.
The backlash to the Bodega app, like the celebratory reactions to Alwan’s video, demonstrates how bodega culture extends far beyond the neighborhood storefront. In today’s bodega, digital platforms increasingly coexist with traditional networks of communication and exchange. Bodega market research still consists of asking customers what they need, even as owners have started using apps to manage inventory and Seamless and Grub Hub to make deliveries. You can connect to public Wi-Fi while waiting for your bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.
Bodega culture still rests on the quick transactions that turn into familial encounters; these brick and mortar strongholds exist at the intersection of community center, public forum, and corner store. But what was once a hyperlocal cultural experience is now reproduced globally via marketing and social media. Each customer that steps inside the bodega is participating in networks that — whether analog, digital, or social — spread the bodega’s influence farther than the corner where it stands.
Quizayra Gonzalez is a Dominican American researcher, writer, and curator based in Brooklyn. She leads the graduate advising team at the Parsons School of Design and is an MA candidate in Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. This article draws on, and updates, an earlier essay that originally appeared in Urban Omnibus in October 2019. It was original published by Urban Matters.