Lifestyle

In Praise of the Bodega

The characters and the plot details might change over time, but if you think back to the best and worst nights of your life, there’s one setting that always figures in: the bodega. Call it a corner store, or a packy, as we do in New England, or a Korean grocery, or a deli, but each one is roughly the same: It’s small, cramped, chock-full of the most insane bric-a-brac imaginable, and it’s there for you when you need, well, almost anything, literally right there on the corner. It’s everywhere.

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A pair of Silicon Valley startup geniuses has spun venture capitalist straw into a golden idea of shit that absolutely nobody was asking for.

Or at least, at one point, it was. While there are still thousands of bodegas in New York City alone, in cities throughout the country they’re being pushed out by rising real estate prices and predatory competition from chains. I think they just opened a CVS inside of a Duane Reade down the street from my apartment. And now a pair of Silicon Valley startup geniuses has spun venture capitalist straw into a golden idea of shit that absolutely nobody was asking for: It’s called Bodega, and it’s a vending machine.

Its logo is a cat.

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” Paul McDonald, one of the founders, explained to Fast Company today. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.”

Their plan, as you might expect, has not been met warmly online.

“Do they realize that some people do their grocery shopping at these stores because they live in a food desert?” one critic said. “You…want to gentrify something out of business but also steal its name?” added another. “At last a vending machine that requires an app, doesn’t take cash, and tracks your purchases,” wrote a third.

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Part of the reaction can be put down to the joys of a good old-fashioned Silicon Valley pile-on, where no solution for a problem that doesn’t exist isn’t worth setting a mountain of cash on fire over. But more to the point, people take their bodegas very seriously, because they’re one of the last remaining vestiges of this pre-Internet of Shit, phone-myopia era. They’re an actual gathering place born in, and more importantly, reflective of a community. You could not invent a space more antithetical to the sanitized vision of technological streamlining, nor, for that matter, should anyone want to.

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If you live in a city, at one point or another, a bodega will save your life. That can either be true in a literal sense—serving as a inexpensive option for milk or food for your family where no other option exists, or for a 50-cent bottle of water on a sweltering day—or in a more, let’s say, psychological sense. Not too long ago I found myself roaming the pre-dawn streets of midtown with a friend, in desperate need of a beer, during one of those rare Sunday morning windows when it can’t legally be sold (I know, I know). We were turned away again and again, like a scumbag retelling of the Biblical magi. And then, the sweet promise of the friendly bodega emerged before us, whose kindly shopkeep looked the other way, because he could tell we needed it.

You could not invent a space more antithetical to the sanitized vision of technological streamlining, nor, for that matter, should anyone want to.

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That’s what a bodega does. It can tell what you need, much better than any algorithm or marketing spreadsheet, because it sees you. Not in the sense that the Million-Dollar-Vending-Machine heroes mean, with computer recognition software that drills down your purchases to numbers, but through the miracle of human interaction. How many times has an egg sandwich from the bodega saved your life on a rough morning?

“Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like,” Frank Garcia, chairman of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told Fast Company. He’s right. When was the last time you had a conversation with your checkout person at the supermarket? Is there even a checkout person at your supermarket? When has a Starbucks drone taken a moment to ask how you’ve been? To say they haven’t seen you in a while? To fix you a little something extra because you look like you’re under the weather? What were any of those people’s names? Can you picture their faces?

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You cannot. You can, however, remember exactly what your bodega guy looks like, how he sounds when he speaks, and probably what the store smells like. Mine is named Anesh, and his store absolutely reeks of incense, but it’s a fog of incense that we inhabit together on almost a daily basis. He calls me buddy, without fail, 25 times within the span of a few minutes, and as corny as it sounds, sometimes that “buddy” makes me feel a little less alone. Can a fancy vending machine replicate that? Can it populate, if only for the span of a few moments, the world with a series of characters of disparate ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds you wouldn’t otherwise come to know? Will there be friendly old women in their track suits sharing stories about the neighborhood kids, littering the worn carpet with scratch-off dust?

That’s another problem at play here when we talk about the eventual obsolescence of the bodega, and more importantly, the bodega operators. It’s often an Anesh, or Muhammad, or Sung-ho, or Miguel, the type of immigrants who have made cities operate throughout American history, that embody the idea of the bodega. It’s scary to think about what cities will end up looking like if they’re forced out, either by draconian immigration laws, or by the no-less cruel hand of the market. Or, for that matter, by a goddamn vending machine.

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