New York City Bodegas And The Generations Who Love Them : Code Switch Small grocery stores known as bodegas were once the cornerstones of New York City's Puerto Rican community. The industry has transitioned between ethnic groups, including now the Yemeni community.
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New York City Bodegas And The Generations Who Love Them

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New York City Bodegas And The Generations Who Love Them

New York City Bodegas And The Generations Who Love Them

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In many big cities, there's a nearby place you can walk to if you want a bag of chips, a lottery ticket, maybe the odd lightbulb or nail clippers. Lots of cities refer to it as the corner store. In New York City, you call it a bodega. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has this on a fixture of New York life.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In Spanish, bodega can mean storeroom or wine cellar. But New Yorkers like Miriam Gomez know bodegas as neighborhood institutions you can count on at just about any hour of the day or night.

MIRIAM GOMEZ: And where supermarkets are closed, the bodegas are open.

JOSEFINE RODRIGUEZ: Exactly.

WANG: Chiming in there is Josefine Rodriguez.

Are you the owner of this bodega?

RODRIGUEZ: No, I'm not. I'm the manager.

WANG: What's the name of this bodega?

RODRIGUEZ: It's Stop One Deli.

WANG: And this bodega, she says, is part of a shrinking breed of business in New York where rising rent and chain stores are putting pressure on mom-and-pop shops.

RODRIGUEZ: A lot of them are closing. A lot of people are just giving up, you know? It's not fair.

WANG: Rodriguez came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was 3 months old, and she's been shopping at bodegas all her life for cuts of meat and fresh fruit that she says connect her with her roots.

RODRIGUEZ: We're Spanish people. We got to keep, you know, our culture and our things together. You can't just get rid of people just like that.

WANG: It's a bodega culture that took shape in the 1940s and '50s when Carlos Sanabria's family would make almost daily runs down the street for...

CARLOS SANABRIA: Milk, eggs, maybe some beans, some rice.

WANG: Sanabria recently published a short book called "The Bodega: A Cornerstone Of Puerto Rican Barrios." Other ethnic groups have taken on the business model, but Sanabria says the New York bodega is still closely associated with that first generation of entrepreneurs from Puerto Rico. They were among the hundreds of thousands who left the Caribbean for the island of Manhattan and other parts of New York City after World War II.

SANABRIA: There were always others - Cubans, some Dominicans, some Mexicans. But primarily, if you talked about Hispanics in New York City, you were talking about Puerto Ricans.

WANG: The Puerto Rican community grew tenfold from about 60,000 in 1940 to more than 600,000 in 1960, and so did the number of bodegas owned and run by Puerto Rican families.

SHOYEL ABDUL: Thank you, Mama. Good luck to you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you.

WANG: But these days, the people behind the bodega counter selling lottery tickets, cigarettes and candy bars have changed. The number of Puerto Ricans living in New York has been dropping steadily since 1990. Now other groups are on the rise.

MERQUIS GARCIA: The Dominicans - we call it colmado instead of bodega.

WANG: Still, Merquis Garcia says he gave in and started calling them bodegas once he moved to New York. He owns an A & M Supermarket, a large bodega in the Bronx. And he says keeping close relationships with his customers is key.

GARCIA: Sometimes they have some problem in their house, and they don't have nobody to talk to. And we give some advice. I don't know other bodega owners, but I do counseling (laughter) here, too.

WANG: Garcia is also the secretary of the Bodega Association of the United States which estimates there are about 13,000 bodegas in New York City. Garcia's Association has about 5,000 members, and most, he says, are of Dominican descent. Now they're trying to do more outreach with Arab-American-owned bodegas, like Yafa Newsstand & Deli in Brooklyn.

ABDUL SULAIMANI: It was originally, like, my grandfather's story. And then he gave it to my dad, his son-in-law. That's usually how - what the story is for most Yemeni deli owners.

WANG: Abdul Sulaimani takes over the counter here from his father in the afternoons. He says his father started his life in America, working in bodegas.

SULAIMANI: My dad learned Spanish before he learned English well enough just because of working behind the counter (laughter).

WANG: Sulaimani says his family feels part of a quintessential New York tradition.

SULAIMANI: Corner stores play, like, a huge part in anyone's life living in New York. Like, if you're not cool with your corner-store guy, you're not from New York.

WANG: And that's the kind of wisdom you'll hear straight from your bodega guy. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORNERSHOP SONG, "BUTTER THE SOUL")

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