The Bodega: A Brief History of an Urban Institution

The Internet wants to know: what's a bodega? Any New Yorker can answer that question. But first we're going around the corner, you want anything?

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A bodega in Queens, N.Y.

In some parts of America, it’s called a “party store.” In others it’s called a “corner store.” And elsewhere it’s a “grocery”. In New York City, the term for a small, local retailer that sells everything from beer to diapers  is “bodega,” and it was in the stockroom of one of these stores that 6-year-old Etan Patz lost his life 33 years ago today.

On Thursday, a former bodega employee named Pedro Hernandez told police that on a sunny morning in 1979, he had lured the boy into the basement of a store in Manhattan’s SoHo district, choked him to death and then hid the body in a trash bag. He is accused of second-degree murder.

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While most local outlets went ahead and called the crime scene a bodega, TIME refrained from using the term in our story on Etan today;  not everyone in the country is familiar with the Nuyorican, Caribbean or Noo Yawk patois that spawned the term.

The word is from the Spanish la bodega — grocery store — and years ago, referred primarily to those found in Spanish speaking neighborhoods in the city, where the shops sprang up on streetcorners in residential neighborhoods, as opposed to the more established retailers along major avenues. But the convenience of having a convenience store within arms reach of one’s apartment appealed more and more over the years to New Yorkers. Delis, Korean groceries and bodegas — the terms are fairly interchangeable, no matter what neighborhood you’re in —  now number number more than 13,000 in New York City alone, many still owned by Puerto Rican and Dominican retailers.

“In Central and South America and the Caribbean, they have bodegas on every corner to serve the poor,” said Fernando Mateo, spokesman for the Bodega Association of the United States. The term is used in cities with large Spanish-speaking populations elsewhere, of course; but it’s taken firmer root in the Big Apple than anywhere else. “New York City is basically the largest urban community in the world. Bodegas serve people who are used to that service in their native countries.”

Mateo explained that bodegas have traditionally served a need in the inner city because where a large retailer will charge $5 for a gallon of milk, a bodega owner might charge $1.50 for a quart; someone who has an immediate need will go for the more convenient option several times a week.

“But also they become a place where people get together and go over their daily news, and people become part of their communities,” he said. “It’s unique that supermarkets have not been able to put the bodega owner out of business.”

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But because the bodegas have also been the targets of armed robberies and complaints about food choices, the stores are not without their detractors. In 2002 the city launched an initiative to install security cameras in many of the stores after 12 bodega owners were killed in stickups. The city, adopting the term itself, launched its “Healthy Bodega Initiative” to help owners offer healthier alternatives for their customers.

Politics, however, have found their way into bodegas as well. Mateo disagrees with what city health officials are trying to do. “It’s a political initiative, not a real initiative,” he says. “You’re not going to change the habits of people who are used to eating a certain kind of food.”

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