Many times when people know I am Hispanic they ask me: What is a bodega store? If you look up the English translation of “bodega,” you’ll find a number of different meanings depending on the country: wine cellar, wine shop or winery; the hold of a ship or place; pantry or larder in a home; or warehouse.
But in Hispanic places in the U.S., when you hear the word bodega, it will almost always mean a corner store. And not just any corner store – the bodega, originating in New York City’s Hispanic neighborhoods, plays a very specific role in the city’s culture.
History of the Bodega – What Is a Bodega Store?
Corner stores themselves have been around for generations, particularly in urban areas such a New York City.
In Irish and Italian neighborhoods, they were called food stands. But with the increase in Hispanic, particularly Dominican and Puerto Rican, ownership in the first part of the 20th century, these small grocery stores and Latin food markets came to be called bodegas, after the word for the little markets in their home countries.
There, the stores were part of the neighborhood, where locals would gather to talk, drink, and play dominoes. That community aspect came to be associated with the stores in New York City, and the name bodega stuck.
Today bodegas sell much of what a typical convenience store sells, and an average bodega has over 3,000 products. But the focus is definitely on convenience food and necessities: milk, bread, eggs, newspapers, candy, and cigarettes are all essentials at a bodega.
With changes in liquor laws, beer also became a staple; in recent years, more bodegas even offer fresh sandwiches as a nod to the New York City deli.
What Defines a Bodega?
For many New Yorkers, it’s just a feeling. In fact, these days bodegas are not necessarily owned by Hispanics or even in Hispanic neighborhoods – many New Yorkers call any neighborhood corner store, or tienda de esquina, a bodega.
There are certain aspects of appearance and product selection that seem to be the hallmarks of a bodega. For example:
- Signage: Bodegas generally have red and yellow awnings and signs, with signage in block letters. Instead of the name of the store, the products on offer are prominently displayed: “grocery,” “ATM,” “ice,” “soda,” etc.
- International food selection: As neighborhood stores, bodegas respond to their local demographics. Hispanic areas will have plantains and plantain chips, stores owned by Muslims stock a wider variety of non-alcoholic beverages, etc.
- Location: Many bodegas are on corners and often converted from some other space, and therefore they generally have no windows and only one or two doors. Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons that they can be targets for robberies.
Beyond just convenience, New Yorkers value bodegas for their unique atmospheres and their relationship with the community.
Many have cats to keep mice and insects away, and, like other cats, the Internet loves bodega cats. When radio station WNYC announced a contest the best bodega cat in New York, it got over 200 entries. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are even bodega cat Tumblr and Instagram accounts.
There are over 10,000 bodegas in New York City, so chances are, if you visit the city, you’ll have the opportunity – and probably the need – to visit one especially in Spanish harlem and Alphabet city.