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Grime Is, Like, the Entire Point of a Bodega

In trying to ‘innovate’ on corner stores, the Bodega startup gets rid of exactly what makes them great

Silicon Valley’s latest solution to a nonexistent problem is Bodega, a gallingly named startup that wants to replace the real thing with curated minibar-style cabinets wherever you might normally put a vending machine. There are a couple thousand reasons to hate the idea (it targets immigrant small business owners and threatens a sense of neighborhood community), but my first reaction aligned with this Desus Nice tweet:

Only a couple of tech dweebs would think that bodegas are for, like, ketchup and Band-Aids. The corner stores I’ve known and loved are where you buy tallboys of Bud Light and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — because it’s Tuesday night, baby! Bodegas are where you can watch the dude on the grill get into a shouting match with some bro who keeps keeps changing his order. (This happened countless times at my most beloved Harlem bodega, and it never failed to warm my blackened, crusty heart.)

Do these dumbass pantries even have the weird sex pills with a Chinese-speaking rhino on the packaging? Do they have loosies for that one day a year you’re inexplicably craving nicotine? Can you walk into their A/C when it’s 100 degrees out for a frosty paleta? I didn’t think so.

Take a good look at that bland, IKEA-ass shelf. I’ve seen dentist’s offices that were less sterile. This is shopping for nerds who are afraid of being in the same retail space as a homeless person paying for Gatorade with quarters, who can’t bear the thought of walking on a grime-scuffed floor lest the bottoms of their loafers get dirty. The wholesome sleaze of the bodega is central to its appeal; if guys weren’t rolling dice or bumming cigarettes from each other outside, you wouldn’t feel that particular urban security. You’d worry about what happened to them. If you want to buy your emergency toilet paper from a piece of furniture, maybe you shouldn’t be living in a city in the first place. Move the fuck out and give your apartment to someone who doesn’t mind interacting with people. Go live on your company’s dystopian Mountain View campus and breathe that filtered air.

I have to say, too, as a writer who has spent months at a time working from home, that the dust and gunk of a great bodega, presided over by someone who smiles when he recognizes me — despite being tied up on a Bluetooth call — were critical reminders that I was actually alive. Running down to Bahamas Deli on Broadway was occasionally the only time I got out of my head all day. I would actually take a few extra minutes to browse, whether or not I knew what I wanted, because I liked discovering stuff I hadn’t known was there. No, I wasn’t in the market for canned fish powder, whatever that is, but I am damn glad it was for sale.

I’m trying my best not to overcompensate with regional knee-jerk bodega praise here, or suggest that these shops are important because they meet some privileged ideal of “authenticity.” It’s more that they’re good because they’re gross. I don’t know about you, but I’m a man of many vices, and the bodega helps me with almost all of them, sans judgment. That’s what they’re for.

I dread the day I have to walk into an antiseptic room that resembles an Apple Store to get booze and find there’s nothing but jugs of small-batch mead from Finland. I’ve never snapped an issue of Hustler off the rack, but I want to have the option, always. I guess what I’m saying is: I’m disgusting, and my shopping experience should be, too. Grab an Arizona Tea and meet me on the curb.