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NYC Explained

What Is a Bodega? And Why Do New Yorkers Love Them?

image of a bodega in nyc

As visitors and transplants to the city know, bodegas are a uniquely — and initially baffling — New York City phenomenon. These small grocery stores are part supermarket and part neighborhood hangout spot, and they share similarities that go beyond cereal offerings. So for all of the non-New Yorkers (and locals who still don’t quite understand), here we answer the question “What is a bodega?” once and for all.

The History of NYC Bodegas

The name bodega originates from the Spanish word, which can mean “storeroom,” “wine cellar,” or “grocery store,” because these shops first started popping up in the 1940s and ‘50s in Hispanic communities. The majority of them were opened by Puerto Ricans, and sometimes by other Caribbean and Latin American immigrants, who came to New York in large numbers after World War II and wanted more of a local convenience store that they could run to daily. New Yorkers as a whole took to the idea, and these small shops multiplied. Nowadays, owners are not exclusively Latin American, but the name has stuck.

What’s a Bodega?

A bodega is a small convenience store that sells staples like chips, candy, coffee, sodas, lottery tickets, over-the-counter remedies, and household items like laundry detergent and trash bags. Some have a deli counter, some sell beer, and some have neither, but what defines a them goes beyond any one product.

Most are open 24/7, ensuring that you’ll always have access to ramen and detergent in even the most dire situations (e.g., if you’re doing laundry while hungry in the middle of the night). They’re also ubiquitous, with more than 10,000 bodegas spread across New York’s five boroughs. This combination means that if you need to pick up something after a night out, you can do so at 4 a.m. at your closest bodega.

As all NYC locals know, many bodegas also have cats. Although some shoppers don’t appreciate their presence, bodega cats actually serve a larger good: exterminating rodents, whose presence (trust us) is less favorable than even the stinkiest feline.

But perhaps the strangest concept for visitors to understand is that bodegas are neighborhood landmarks. Locals often know the owners and workers, and can sometimes count on these stores — which again, most are open throughout the day and night — to accept packages and hold onto keys for visitors in lieu of a doorman. Many of these store owners are more than happy to help, and it’s common practice to pay a small thank-you fee for any not-strictly-bodega-related activity.

Other Things to Know About Bodegas

Many of them usually have a credit card minimum, so make sure to bring cash, or you’ll find yourself doubling up on ice cream and cookie dough — not a tragic outcome by any means, but good to remember. Also, you can’t assume that most of these shops stock beer, as some simply sell soft drinks and juices. Luckily, there’s usually another bodega right down the block with what else you’re looking for. And if you’re new in town or need some help finding an electrician or handyman, think about looking to your local bodega team for advice. As mentioned above, they can often help with receiving packages, and their local knowledge can extend much further than you might expect.

The Future of Bodegas

Although bodegas are an NYC staple, that doesn’t mean they’re thriving; in fact, the opposite is unfortunately true. In the past few years, many local stores have been forced to close due to rising rents and chain store competition. And recently, two ex-Google employees began a startup app, “Bodega,” which involves selling convenience store items from automated boxes. Many reacted angrily, criticizing the team for appropriating the bodega name and trying to put these mom-and-pop shops out of business. After all, locals love these shops, they’re a crucial part of the New York neighborhood landscape, and despite the hardships and competition facing them, they’re not going anywhere any time soon. So what happened to the app? It rebranded as Stockwell.

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