Connecting at the Counter

A bodega storefront in East Harlem.

In an age when so many of our daily provisions — from fresh produce to diapers to printer paper — can be summoned with an app, many vital urban exchanges still happen behind storefronts on neighborhood street corners. The bodega is a social network, a community message board, a hub of intertwined exchange circuits — all compressed into 2000 square feet. It’s where datafied supply chains meet neighborhood gossip, where people post notices about lost pets while others tap into global financial networks, where customers are cross-referenced with federal SNAP databases and immigrant proprietors access global media and connect with diasporic communities. In an ongoing documentary project, Quizayra Gonzalez has looked closely at the material culture and social rituals of these small corner stores. Here, she examines the frictions that arise when these humble institutions mediate between the global and the local, the digital and the analog, the transient and the
permanent. – SM

A couple of years ago, someone sent me a direct message on Instagram: a picture of a cat lying in between stacks of potato chips, with its paw elegantly dangling over the shelf while napping atop a Doritos bag. To some, it may seem peculiar to see an animal lounging around a corner store, but to me, the ubiquitous bodega cat was a familiar sight. When I was young, I considered the many cats that roamed my family’s bodega to be cute pets, but for my parents they were feline employees meant to deter rodent visitors. (All the cats would run away, so eventually my parents stopped replacing them and invested in proper exterminators.) As I scrolled through the “Bodega Cats of Instagram” feed, reliving childhood memories, I noticed the thousands of likes and comments for nearly every post. There I was, a bodega kid perusing countless pictures of bodega cats, when I realized that even a single bodega’s reach can extend much farther than a city block.

Brick and mortar strongholds, bodegas are increasingly enmeshed in complex global networks. Social media, surveillance technology, and new digital platforms all impact bodegas, where they intersect with existing analog networks of communication and exchange. The bodega is somewhere between business and community center, a place where quick transactions can easily become transformative encounters. In gentrifying neighborhoods, they act as thresholds where different socioeconomic classes, cultures, and ideas converge. The day-to-day life of owners and patrons intertwine in the pulsating energy of the shop’s interior. While these layers may not be apparent during a quick transaction or pit stop, they do reveal themselves through close observation.

Bodegas may not have designated aisles for categories of items, but inventory is organized along other criteria.

The resemblances across bodegas seem like the outcome of a deliberate design strategy, as if all bodega owners adhere to a common template. Even new customers at an unfamiliar bodega seem to know that cereal boxes will be always be on the top shelf, hair products will be near the counter, and trash bags next to the canned foods. The standard interior is made up of shelving units, refrigerators, and storage areas, but the products are determined by an informal market research practice: Owners engage their customers in conversation and ask them what they need. At first glance, the bodega’s inventory may seem haphazard, but the pack of Marlboro Lights, the bottle of Starbucks iced coffee, and specific brand of paper towel are carefully selected. This level of intimate understanding is also practiced out of a need for frugality: Bodegas cannot afford to buy items that will not sell.

As neighborhoods change, bodegas must remain agile, reorienting their inventory to new customer demands.

Bodegas that have stood for years as neighborhood cornerstones can have difficulty finding their footing in the digital age, as business both increasingly depends on, and is threatened by, technology. Some bodegas now deliver via Seamless or Grubhub. In others, you can connect to public Wi-Fi to upload a picture of their cute cat while waiting for your bacon, egg, and cheese. Many bodegas in New York City are also using new apps to manage inventory and buy supplies at lower prices. Access Bazaar was developed by a Bronx-born entrepreneur specifically to spare bodega owners daily or weekly trips to restaurant depots or wholesalers. Saving businesses time and money, the digital platform helps them survive amid rising rents and changing neighborhoods.

A small graduation photo of an employee’s child is affixed to the left-hand side of the counter.

The bodega counter’s rectangular cutouts are a plexiglass frame for a succession of neighborhood scenes: the student rush in the morning, teenagers cutting school, construction workers on lunch, the evening grocery shoppers, and the late-night sandwich buyers. Small family portraits and graduation photos adorn these frames, and are peppered among the products on display. Amid the exchange of money and goods between customer and cashier is the potential for exchanging news, ideas, and theories. Transactions may last a minute or an hour, depending on how well the participants know each other.

Each moment at the counter brings the possibility of a connection beyond a simple transaction.

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 its developers were forced to issue an apology and change their product’s name. With deeply rooted neighborhood ties that extend beyond their storefront, bodegas offer more than convenience. An app can’t give you that level of connectedness.

A camera tucked away on the inner corner of the counter may be easy to miss among the photos, snacks, and money.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described how small businesses witness and participate in the daily ebb and flow of their neighborhood. Whether holding spare keys or offering credit to customers in need, bodegas build relationships with their communities rooted in a level of trust that transcends typical business transactions. These interactions help foster a form of community accountability where everyone shares in looking out for the safety of their neighbors. But the bodega’s inviting aesthetic hides signs of surveillance and state intervention: cameras on the counter and storefronts, “No Loitering” signs on doors, or panic buttons under the cash register. Owners must display signs issued by the city deterring underage drinking and smoking, and some bodegas must contend with daily police officer check-ins. Failure to adhere to city and state regulations can result in heavy fines and loss of alcohol and tobacco licenses.

A camera is mounted to a plexiglass counter, below an orange flyer reminding customers to show their ID for purchasing tobacco.

As an interface for state, city, and neighborhood authorities, bodegas play a complex role in community surveillance. This question was brought to the forefront with the murder of Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz in front a Bronx bodega earlier this year. One of the store’s cameras captured the teenager being dragged out of the store where he sought refuge behind the counter, leading community members to express outrage at both the brutal gang violence and the perceived lack of intervention by the bodega owners. Under new management, this same Bronx store became the first “safe haven bodega” in the city. A partnership between the NYPD and United Bodegas of America — an association of bodega owners founded in the wake of Guzman-Feliz’s death — the “safe haven” initiative equips bodegas with shatterproof glass, panic buttons, and cameras transmitting live feeds to local NYPD precincts. While the goal of this collaboration is to make bodegas more active in keeping their communities safe, it also enlists the bodega in networks of policing and surveillance that can have adverse effects on communities of color.

Bodegas reflect the demographics of their communities through the items they offer.
This bodega offers a mixture of Caribbean and Asian products.

At the same time that they serve a crucial neighborhood function, bodegas are part of a larger global network of cultural and economic exchange. In the 1940s, recently arrived Puerto Ricans repurposed the Spanish word for wine cellar to refer to their corner stores. Bodegas’ aesthetics and services have shifted along with the city’s demographics to reflect the culture and traditions of immigrant owners from many different parts of the world. Food, especially, provides fluid opportunity for cultural exchange. I know I can get lamb over rice as easily as I can get a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll from my local Yemeni-owned bodega. I also know if I go two blocks down, I can buy yuca and plantains along with my favorite Asian treats from the Korean-owned bodega.

In addition to displaying images of family members, bodegas may choose to use the counter to mark business milestones like first bills, or share a collection of foreign currency.

Many proprietors and employees send remittances to sustain families, community initiatives, and even political campaigns outside of the US. The money flowing from my family’s bodega to the Dominican Republic helped fund, among other projects, a new recreation center in Corocito, my grandmother’s village in the mountains of Santiago. With one click on a screen or an app download, bodega owners make meaningful contributions to their families overseas and participate in a global economy that is heavily reliant on their economic power. Each customer that steps inside the bodega is participating in these networks that — whether analog, digital, or social — ensure the bodega’s influence runs farther than the corner where it stands.

All photos by Quizayra Gonzalez.

Quizayra Gonzalez is a Dominican American researcher, writer, and curator based in Brooklyn. Her work explores notions of belonging and placemaking with an emphasis on the Caribbean and first-generation experiences in the US. In between her curatorial adventures and musing about bodegas, Quizayra leads the Graduate Advising team at Parsons, and is pursuing a master’s degree in Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


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Ivan H December 3, 2019

“…bodegas are increasingly enmeshed in complex global networks.”
This is very true, especially given the recent data- and manufacturing technology-driven rise of the niche snack product. Think: Kettle Chips, Green & Black’s Chocolate, craft beer. On this very topic, see this recent episode from NPR’s Planet Money.