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Dépanneurs vs. Bodegas: What Corner Stores Say About a City

Dépanneurs vs. Bodegas: What Corner Stores Say About a City

On the language and politics of convenience.

Photo by Shawn Hoke (via Flickr).

I envy the French language for the word dépanneur. It turns what it does—dépanner, to help out—into a name for both its storefront and its staff, making that most personal of shops a kind of person in itself. We go to the dep to indulge, and the dep justifies those little vices in its name: I'm here, it says, and I'll help you.

That connotation of aid reassures us that by buying cigarettes and wine, we're only satisfying a need. The dep—store and repairman—fixes us; the transaction becomes a conversation. Ketchup-flavoured Pringles, PBR Dry, lottery tickets—sure, man! You need it!

And of course, what we can buy at the dep is steeped in mild vestigial shame. Dépanner can mean, as well, to save someone from embarrassment, especially by lending money. «Peux-tu me dépanner jusqu'au 30?» offers the Petit Robert, by way of illustration. If it ain't broke, don't fix it; though of course it is broke, a little, or you are. Just temporarily. The fact that a recognition of that broke(n)ness is on every corner peut combler le vide a bit.

South of the border, in New York, you satisfy those needs at the bodega. For an anglophone, there's the same linguistic otherness to the name; it came first from neighborhoods with larger Spanish-speaking populations. The term "wine shop" (though, per state law, they sell only beer) is more prosaic: it comes from the Greek apotheke, literally "a place where things are put away." A place and not a person. Here, your vices are something to be hidden, not shared. You can't smoke in public parks anymore in New York.

Bodegas are not cheap. (This is outside of the fact that a pack of anything, even Newport Menthols, will run you about fourteen bucks in Manhattan.) Individual stores, often family-owned, can't buy in bulk to the degree that grocery stores or Duane Reades can. You pay for the convenience of acquiring cigarettes without needing to cross the street.

There is, of course, an emotional appeal to your chosen bodega or dep. One of the comforts of the bodegas near my old apartment was the staunch unwillingness of cashiers to recognize me. This phenomenon can be expanded to New York as a whole, but it becomes necessary when you want to slip between two identities: one who buys Steel Reserve tallboys (the most alcohol for the least money!) at four on a Tuesday morning, the other who orders an egg sandwich some hours later.

You feel that you can claim a bodega because there's likely one on your block—maybe even in your building. It's nearly impossible to know how many operate in the five boroughs at a given time (one man is trying); the Bodega Association of America, based in New York, gave an estimate of thirteen thousand last April.   But omnipresence is not a guarantee of profitability. The East Village, a neighbourhood particularly heavy with bodegas, is seeing some of the sharpest rent increases in the city. Places that sell $15 six-packs of American macrobrews and $6 cups of Greek yogurt are still unable to pay rent. The CPEX Fall 2010 Retail Report showed an average rent increase in the East Village of $225 to $350 per square foot. My rent in Montreal is within that range.

The year before, the NYC Hispanic Small Business Survey found that 53 percent of bodegas surveyed were at risk of going out of business; three-quarters of these cited high rents as the primary cause. Along a thirty-block stretch of Broadway a few miles north, 137 closed their doors in 2010.

The factors in this out-pricing are complex—economic forces I'm not equipped to address. "Gentrification" is a nice catch-all that, once mentioned, spurs the kind of conversation that might require another late-night trip down to the bodega for more booze, maybe some of those little cheese things. Certainly I, as a student in the East Village, was only contributing to the trends that push out these little stores I love.

What is at stake? A Duane Reade or a Walgreens offers the same foodstuffs and round-the-clock hours, with lower prices and prescription pills. I can recognize that my preference for bodegas over such pharmacies is born, in equal measures, of the desire to be "authentic" and the recognition that I'm plainly not. I want to belong in this city I didn't grow up in; I want to call a bodega mine and have the guy behind the counter know what kind I smoke, even if he won't talk to me. Even better! That's so New York!

In a neighbourhood where nearly everyone is from somewhere else, the bodega is seized on as a signifier by that majority—and, too, by those who do belong. The blog EV Grieve, written by longtime residents who trace the departure of cultural markers, mourns the loss of a bodega on Avenue A set to close in early 2012. The owners sent the blog a message expressing their thanks to the neighbourhood, signed with love. That same store has gotten press for its upstairs storage space, which operated as a theater from 1926 to 1959 and whose interior remains.

People took photos to document the moulded proscenium and milk crates before the building is demolished. "A friend of mine once told me that your bodega knows all your darkest secrets," wrote Kevin Shea Adams about the space. "Being my primary water supply, East Village Farms may know me better than I know myself." The tie between bodega and home shifts—from emotional to physical, pipe-born.

Handing over $20 for something unhealthy in a place with a super-explicit name—VILLAGE EAST GOURMET GROCERY FARM ATM VILLAGE—is, not kidding, one of the things I miss most about New York. The bodega run is a solitary activity. It exists for you within the context of your own apartment in the way that Duane Reade (over 150 locations in Manhattan) does not. Your bodega becomes an extension of those days when you are filled with a totally banal, anxious dread and don't leave a two-block radius. Home for the unmoored and not-yet-proven.

I wish, then, that bodega had the same implication of agency that dépanneur does. The bodega is a person: it converses with you, if only by grunts or gestures. (You're the reason we're being priced out of this neighbuorhood.) It knows you're broke, authenticity-wise. It'll help you out till the end of the month.

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Related on

—My Life in Dépanneurs
—On Dépanneurs
—The In-Between Space of Montreal's Marconi Avenue

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