Don’t Call It a Convenience Store: The New York Bodega is So Much More

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In a wonderful Twitter love-fest, New Yorkers listed the reasons they love their local bodegas: the owners who will give you a free scoop of butter if that’s all you need, or who will sell you hamburger bun “loosies” – yes, that’s obviously a thing – and, perhaps most importantly, sandwiches to satisfy my cravings.

For the inveterate wordsmith, this outpouring of delight leads to an intriguing mystery: how and when a Spanish word for “cellar” or “cellar” came to be equated in English as a synonym for convenience store, often family-friendly and open. to all. night?

During the first half of the 19th century, the “bodega” made its way into English-speaking accounts of travels in Spain and Latin America, usually related to the sale or storage of wine. In the 1870s, a wine store called “The Bodega” had two locations in lower Manhattan. (One reviewer found the premises “perfectly equipped with all amenities for the use of patrons, including chairs and tables, a complimentary lunch counter, etc.” for the benefit of patrons who were primarily “workmen”. community affairs).

As early as 1902, the term was used in English as a Spanish word encompassing grocery. It was then that William Eleroy Curtis, who served as US Commissioner to several Latin American countries, wrote: “A friend in Caracas once took me to a bodega, or grocery store, run by a former servant of his family who got his capital as a prize in a lottery. A flattering 1940 New York Times profile of Cuban President Fulgencia Batista told readers that the future dictator once “committed in a bodega”, which the newspaper described as “Cuban’s combination of deli and bar”.

When was the word first applied to neighborhood grocery stores in the United States in general or the Big Apple in particular? The Oxford English Dictionary traces this definition back to 1956, when Time magazine included the term in parentheses in an article about New York’s growing Puerto Rican population: “Almost every area of ​​town has a bodega (grocery store) or two , and maybe a shop in Spanish. movie theater. »(2)

But we can come back earlier. In her definitive volume on the history of the Puerto Rican community in New York, historian Virginia Sánchez Korrol cites a recent arrival who recalls working for the American Manufacturing Company in Greenpoint in the 1910s: “There was a little bodega on Franklyn Avenue near the factory that belonged to friends of mine and they sold hot meals to the people at the factory.

Admittedly, it is possible that the term bodega was not in common use at the time, but was rather applied by the worker to clarify a later recollection. Still, it is clear that by World War II, usage was general. The Dictionary of American Regional English cites a 1934 article in The New Yorker that mentioned a “grocery and meat business” that was “called, in large letters, La Flor de Quintana Roo – Bodega y Carnecería”.

And there’s more. In her much-cited 1945 doctoral dissertation, Patria Aran Gosnell studied newspaper advertising for New York’s Spanish-language newspaper community and found “an ever-increasing tendency on the part of Puerto Ricans to use names distinctive for their businesses in the city”. — including “bodega,” which, for the benefit of readers, she simply translated as “grocery store.” Elsewhere in the thesis, Aran Gosnell herself used “bodega” as a generic term for grocery stores.(3)

Mainstream newspapers quickly caught on. In 1950, the New York Daily News included coupons that could be redeemed at a long list of stores, including some explicitly called bodegas. The term quickly became common in the advertising columns of the city’s daily newspapers.

By the 1960s, parentheses had disappeared. “Bagel-Bodega Area Gets Own Museum,” proclaimed the New York Herald Tribune in 1960, without bothering to define “bodega” for its readers. “Handcarts have given way to bodegas,” headlined a 1965 New York Times article about a Bronx neighborhood. Again, the story offered no definition. So it’s fair to say that the city’s publishers had decided that their readers knew the word. In 1970, The Times even brought the word “bodegeros” to the general public to describe the owners of the store.

Today, no one can agree on the exact number of bodegas existing in the city. Bloomberg puts the number at 13,000. The official tally is just over 7,000. A 2021 Grubstreet study estimates 8,000 bodegas, although only 16 used forms of the word in their names. (“Organic” and “gourmet” were much more common.) Whatever the exact figure, beloved institutions are under threat.

Bodegas have been struggling for a long time. During the pandemic, hundreds, if not thousands, have collapsed. Others barely survive, especially in high-crime neighborhoods. If the move to online shopping proves to be a lasting structural change, many more will struggle.

And that would be tragic. Richard Sennett, in his marvelous book “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City”, compares the main urban avenues to exclamation points and the side streets to semicolons. At a corner, writes Sennett, “the city dweller experiences a change of orientation, a little sensory jolt.” One can continue along the main boulevard or stroll down a side street to explore what Sennett calls more “modest” retail.

The bodegas, a real street phenomenon, contribute immeasurably to the wealth of the city.

And wonderful late night sandwiches.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The new inflation normal will be 4%. Get used to it: Allison Schrager

• Chocolate bunnies can teach us to save our food supply: Amanda Little

• You shouldn’t skip your student loan payments: Alexis Leondis

(1) The OED does not warn the detective word that the article views Puerto Ricans through a somewhat disparaging lens.

(2) Scholars have recently lamented that Aran Gosnell’s work has been so long overlooked by historians. Some have accused her husband, Charles Frances Gosnell, of basing some of his own published articles on his research, but without attribution.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. Her novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and her latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Lawyer Who Shot America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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