Welcome to the Brokelyn Files where our resident unlicensed P.I. Sam Weiss answers the local questions you never thought to ask. Got a lead on a Brooklyn mystery? Write us in the comments below.
The bodega — symbol of New York City, bringer of breakfast sandwiches, canned foods and very old candy, beacon of light at 4:30am when everything else is closed. Broadly, we all know that the word refers to a New York City general store, but to try to put a finer point on what exactly makes a bodega a bodega brings a world of ambiguity: When does a grocery store become a bodega? Are all delis bodegas? And why do we call them that but the rest of the country doesn’t? This week, the Brokelyn Files seeks to answer those questions and more, because we want to know exactly from where our bacon, egg and cheeses are coming.
First things first: What does the word “bodega” mean? When you think of a bodega, you might picture the kind of store you see on every corner, that sells all the random stuff you might need in the middle of the night, including, but certainly not limited to, deli sandwiches, beer, ice cream, batteries, toilet paper, condoms, scratchers and just the shrimp flavor of Top Ramen. Also, there’s usually a cat. As NYC’s “Global Welcome Ambassador” Taylor Swift put it in the “New York vocabulary series” that nobody asked for, “bodegas are our friends.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, though, we get the word from Spanish and it means, “a cellar or shop for the sale of wines only.” So, right off the bat, it’s clear that our usage of the word as New Yorkers is a stretch from its intended denotation, since your average bodega can’t even sell wine according to New York law. Colloquially, though, “bodega” can sometimes mean a more general “warehouse” or “stockroom,” which makes for a more conceivable jump to “convenience store featuring cat.”
That still begs the question, though, How did New York specifically and uniquely arrive at calling convenience stores “bodegas”? According to NPR, New Yorkers have a Spanish nickname for corner stores because the first big proliferation of those stores coincided with a wave of immigration from Puerto Rico to New York and many of them were, at least initially, Puerto Rican-owned. Puerto Ricans immigrated to New York City in large numbers after World War II, often escaping poverty and newly able to travel to here specifically due to drops in the price of airfare. And, as families moved into the city, many went into business running corner stores and so, those stores were given a Spanish nickname.
In the last 60 years, obviously, the word “bodega” has separated further and further from a Puerto Rican association. Convenience store ownership has continued to be a popular career choice for immigrant families in New York over decades of immigration waves and so too has the word branched out into those other communities. In February, for example, the word “bodega” popped up in national headlines on the day of the “Yemeni Bodega Strike” when many of the city’s Yemeni-owned bodegas closed in protest of President Trump’s proposed travel ban. As the definition of the word has extended to include new stores with new owners, it’s also become more and more of a catchall for any New York general store, whether it’s got a deli counter, produce or just a whole wall of old batteries.
So, are you using the word “bodega” correctly? Honestly, yes and no. There really is no correct usage of the word, because the New York definition is so far removed from its origin. In a way, we’re really all using the word incorrectly; the “bodega as corner store” definition isn’t in any dictionary, so no matter where you draw the line on deli v. supermarket v. bodega, you’re as right as anyone else. My personal rule of thumb, for one, is that a bodega is a bodega if it has a cat, a generic name like “New York Best Store” or “Super Brooklyn Deli” and at least one piece of expired candy.
Got your own definition of the word “bodega” that’s more correct than everyone else’s? Sound off in the comments below.