Nothing Can Replace the Bodega

Nothing Can Replace the Bodega

A group of friends playing dominoes outside a bodega in Washington Heights. Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Like solar eclipses and bipartisan legislation, moments of near-universal consensus are extremely rare. One such event took place on Wednesday, when a start-up named Bodega stated its intention to put its namesake — real-life, neighborhood corner stores — out of business by replacing them with unmanned pantries.

“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,” one of its co-founders told Fast Company. The start-up, run by two ex-Googlers, was widely savaged across social media on the grounds that its name and business mission are culturally insensitive, morally dubious, and, perhaps worse of all, lack personality.

Few things make a New Yorker defensive like an assault on bodegas. Largely immigrant-owned, they are the ultimate frills-free symbol of consumer access and gritty mini-embodiments of both the city’s diversity and its 24/7 ethos. Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches in the morning, basic groceries and oversized heroes in the afternoon, and, inevitably, all three of these things at 3 a.m.

In other words, a bodega has crucial provisions whenever you need them, judgment-free and generally at a small-to-medium markup. Alka-Seltzer, regular seltzer, Gatorade, and Advil. Toilet paper and deodorant. Tampons and condoms. Last winter, a bodega on the Lower East Side gained a small measure of fame or notoriety when it was reported that customers could order Plan B pills online and have them delivered to their apartments.

But in addition to their convenience, what make bodegas beloved are their personalities. It seems like every one of them is oddly curated: prayer candles sit next to jarred olives which are sidled up next to boxes organic mac-and-cheese. There is no Silicon Valley algorithm clever enough to come up with those crumbly, shrink-wrapped date bars that are inevitably piled up by the cash registers.

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