An Ode to the (Vanishing) Bodega

By Chaya Babu

The bodega, one of New York City’s most prevalent—and most modest—institutions is slipping away. (Photo courtesy of the author)

“Can we get coffee on the way?” my friend Nina asks as we leave my apartment to walk to the F train.

“Sure,” I say. “Oh. But I just get bodega coffee. That’s fine, right? It’s on the way. I don’t do fancy coffee or whatever.”

“Um… Yeah,” she hesitates.

“I mean, there’s a coffee shop too,” I offer. “Like a cute one. Would you rather do that?”

She pauses. “Uhh…”

“We can. It’s nice. They have good pastries and stuff.”

“Yeah,” she caved, lighting up just a little. “Let’s do that. Is that okay?”

Nina has visited me in Kensington once before, but compared to her years living in Manhattan—Midtown West, the Financial District—this Brooklyn neighborhood, she tells me, is so interesting.

“Of course,” I say, in response to her request. “We’ll just walk to the other train.”

Lark Cafe is in the other direction, but we could take the Q to our destination. It’s spacious with white walls, long built-in wooden benches with round bistro tables, yellow and stainless steel Tolix chairs, and a mounted white ceramic deer head. Sunlight pours in through the floor-to ceiling-windows facing Church Avenue. They sell Magpies poptarts, smoked salmon on bagels, Greek yogurt and granola, and Stumptown Coffee. I go there to write sometimes.

I knew Nina would like it. And definitely prefer it over my routine stop at the Church Ave. Food Corp Deli & Grill, where I get an iced coffee, light and sweet, the sugar settling at the bottom even though Ernesto shakes it upside down before handing it to me.

At Lark, I use simple syrup. Nina gets a shot of hazelnut. She’s shocked when she hears that this is the spot where I was robbed at gunpoint last year.

“Here?” she asks, incredulous.

People are always baffled when they see the actual place after they hear the story. I always wonder what they were imagining instead. Perhaps something more like the bodega.

In the mornings I go to Church Ave. Food. I get an egg and cheese on a roll with my iced coffee, and Ramsi, whose cousin Ali owns the place, lets me pay later if I somehow don’t have the $4 and I’m in a rush. I go there for other things too—beer, batteries, candy, cold medicine. They sell Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies, racks of microwave Asian noodle bowls, and Vita Coco coconut water—my whole diet basically. Just kidding. And of course, lots of celebrity weeklies and lotto tickets.

There’s a sign taped to the sliding glass door of the ice cream freezer near the front, which by the way features Mamita’s Ices: “Please do not scratch lotto tickets here.” One of the two TV screens mounted near the ceiling is exclusively for showing the winning numbers.

“Bodegas,” Tatiana Schlossberg wrote in the New York Times last week, about such stores’ dwindling presence as large corporate chains crowd them out, “cannot be strictly defined. You know one when you see it.”

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A variety of pickles line the shelves at a bodega in Kensington, Brooklyn, where the local Bangladeshi community has earned it the nickname “Banglatown.” (Photo courtesy of the author)

She’s right. When it comes to the shops that dot Church Avenue and some of its cross streets, the bodega essence is palpable. Some are called “delis,” others “groceries” and “markets.” A neon ATM sign inevitably flashes in the window. Inside—condoms, soda, the Post, diapers, cockroach traps, canned tomatoes, soup, cereal, cigarettes, milk, whole and 2 percent, iPhone chargers, pet food, chips, cheese steaks, socks. And back at my daily stop, a hookah on a top shelf—an indulgence Ali brought with him from Saudi Arabia.

Just across McDonald Avenue, a handful of what I call “desi bodegas” butt up right next to one another, owned by and serving the local Bangladeshis who have made Kensington earn the name “Banglatown.” These are halal mini marts, meaning there’s no alcohol and the marshmallows are made with gelatin from cows not pigs. Their shelves stock tamarind chutney, jars of mango and lime pickle—condiments in nearly every South Asian household—bottled rosewater, sacks of lentils, pre-made rotis. In the window at one on the corner, boxes of Fair & Lovely are crammed next to sandalwood soaps and Dove body wash.

While it’s true, as Schlossberg reports, that rising rents and retail chains are pushing bodegas out of Upper Manhattan, the same thing is happening all throughout the city, including in Brooklyn. Walk any residential neighborhood long enough, and it’s impossible not to reflect on this precarious moment, when bodegas and the franchises that threaten their existence sit cheek-by-jowl. Here in Kensington, there’s a Walgreens right next to Desh Bangla Grocery, a RiteAid across from Church Ave. Food, and a mammoth Foodtown two blocks up.

Though this particular corner is still occupied by businesses owned by folks, mostly immigrants, who have settled in the area over the past few decades—Kabir’s Bakery, a few 99¢ stores, an electronics shop where I go to use the printer—just yards away on Church is a large gleaming T-Mobile store. And a spot called Brooklyn Comfort, which serves treats like Baked Chipotle Cinnamon BBQ Chicken, replaced Kennedy Chicken & Gyro two years ago. To say it’s a place in transition is an understatement.

My banter with Nina as we walk brings this into stark relief, especially as she asks me whether people are moving into the the sprawling Victorian mansions that catch her in awe as we make our way to the train.

“People live there right now,” I tell her.

The thought seems not to have occurred to her.

People who get coffee at the bodega, I think.

She isn’t totally wrong, though: People are moving to the area from other neighborhoods and boroughs, I myself a recent transplant as of last December and part of this process. And we all know what that means. But the thought of the area stripped of many of its older small businesses is one that’s tough to conjure—and yet also not if we look to its neighbors just north.

The owner of Bangla Nagar Supermarket told me that he paid $3,500 in rent when he opened his store seven years ago; today he pays $9,000. He’s been able to stay in business thus far because his Bangladeshi customer base has also increased in that time.

“This is our block,” he said, indicating the stretch of Church between McDonald and Dahill.

Still, he’s not naive; he sees what’s happening around his home. He’s just no stranger to change.

I’m new, but these are the places I shop, places that have helped me make home, where I come in cases of small medical emergencies or for junk food late at night. For spices to attempt to make the chai my mother never made growing up, and incense she tells me hurts my asthma. For tampons, and Advil, and a heating pad.

And of course, for coffee, with packaged croissants that I tear open on the way home and bring to my boyfriend who thinks they’re fresh from Lark.


Chaya headshotChaya Babu is a Blog Editor for The Brooklyn Quarterly as well as a writer for India Abroad and a number of other publications. Her work focuses on social issues and culture, and you can check out her musings on brown, feministy, identity politics at The Fobby Snob.

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