I’ve been re-re-reading Adam Gopnik’s wonderful memoirs of life as an expat and young father in Paris at the turn of the past century. Oh, the Clinton years (said as a person who experienced them as a child), when America and its capitalist forces were viewed as, ultimately, unstoppable and logical, if a bit gauche. By the time I moved to Paris, in the fall of 2007, the narrative had changed: America was a bully ruled by an idiot. Plus ça change…
Anyways. In “A Tale of Two Cafes,” Gopnik explores the histories of Paris’ two most storied cafés, the Flore and Les Deux Magots, hoping to get at why the Flore, which occupies the same triangle as Les Deux Magots, was now “the most fashionable place in Paris, and Les Deux Magots, the least.” The modern-day French intellectuals to whom he poses this question offer up different answers — it is because the owners of the Flore and the Brasserie Lipp, the triangle’s third occupant, had a familial relationship from which the owner of Les Deux Magot was excluded. It is because when Les Deux Magots was at the height of its fame, Sarte and De Beauvoir could barely breathe for the reams of tourists hoping to overhear a pearl of wisdom, and so the other intellectuals decamped for the Flore, whose previous occupation by the right-wing anti-semite Maurras had cast a years-long pall. (“Like so many lovely things in Paris, the two cafés were given shape by the first German invasion and then in one way or another were deformed by the second.”) Or the answer is simple and ahistorical: put two of the same thing side by side and one will naturally become more fashionable while the other becomes less.
As neither a historian nor a philosopher (nor a Saussurian), I can’t say which answer is right. Perhaps they all are. But the essay moved me to consider my own, très New Yorkaise, equivalent: the, in my case, eight, bodega problem.
When my now-husband and I moved into our apartment, closing in on seven years ago, there were seven bodegas within two blocks of us. Now there are eight — a change which might seem incremental, but it is this eigth, like Brasserie Lipp, that knocks about the others’ orbits.
Bodega culture is unique to New York, at least as far as American cities go. Not only the word, a testament to the city’s Puerto Rican and Dominican roots, but the concept: a convenience store plus a short-order kitchen, often open 24 hours a day. When I am not in New York, it is the bodegas, and the freedom of purchase they offer, I miss most. (Rue the New Yorker searching for beer on Christmas Day in Boston.)
Unlike a grocery store, a bodega inspires daily visitation; it is not the place where you stock up, but where you pop in. My husband and I are habitual pop-inners and single-recipe-shoppers, and rare stock-uppers. Bodegas satisfy about 60% of our food needs, and the ruinously expensive boutique grocery around the corner satisfies the rest. Cost-wise, this system makes no sense, but then again, isn’t time money? And there is the delight of forming relationships with the owners, who come, as taxi-men do, from all over the world, but are universal in their friendliness to small children and their harried, unwieldy mothers. They wave to my son as I fumble for my wallet and tell him he is strong, he is growing like a tree. When I was pregnant, they offered me clementines and bottles of water.
There are three main stripes of bodega: the traditional, which offers what I outlined above: non-perishables, dairy, cold drinks, and made-to-order sandwiches and breakfast items; the organic, which offers organic versions of the traditional’s goods, along with smoothies, juice, and a small selection of produce, and the greengrocer, which has a large selection of produce, decent selections of dairy and drygoods, and often some specialty prepared and short-order food, eg grain bowls, or destination sandwiches. If you were a vegetarian, you could do all of your shopping at a greengrocer’s (you could do it as a meat eater as well, but the meat, and fish, is all smoked or pre-cooked). In our eight bodegas, we now have: five traditional bodegas, two organic bodegas, and one greengrocer. The greengrocer, a place called Mr. Mango, is the newcomer. It is the largest of the bodegas, and manages to stock, in its outdoor shelves and indoor boxes and cases, nearly as wide a produce variety as you can find in the (fairly awful) Whole Foods 365 that opened recently. The quality of the produce has nothing on what you can get at the greengrocer on Atlantic and Clinton, but it is decent, and, at times, staggeringly inexpensive, blueberry flats-for-$1 inexpensive.
Before Mr. Mango came along, I did my cheap produce and drygoods shopping at Fresh Gardens, the larger of the organic bodegas. The produce at Fresh Gardens, though more limited than what Mr. Mango has, is often of slightly better quality, but Mr. Mango’s aisles are more stroller-friendly, and, crucially, there is a sheltered, convenient place to tie my dog up.
My husband still goes to Fresh Gardens, but only for true pop-ins (the kind that necessitate a second pop-in in the same night). I can’t say whether or not Mr. Mango is stealing a significant number of former Fresh Gardens customers, but it is undeniable that Mr. Mango is busier than ever, and Fresh Gardens, when I do pop in, is not.
The traditional bodegas are different: for the most part, each serves a distinct, hyper-hyper local customer base. The one on the corner of Cumberland and Greene, Deli Superior Market, serves the Bishop Loughlin students almost exclusively. Rolex Deli, second-closest to us, on Fulton past the Hanson Place triangle, serves the people who are leaving the biergarten and the pharmacy, the people waiting to catch the B25 and my husband, when he fancies a steak and cheese at 3am. (Four years ago, he went in to get one with his twin, identical brother, which so delighted the grill man that he snapped a photo, which he’ll pull out to this day.) Lafayette Grocery and Dairy, on Lafayette and Cumberland, with its old-fashioned press-in sign, serves pet-owners and parents of small children, because it carries pet food and diapers. It is also known as the kitten bodega, though the kittens are grown now, and loll proprietarily on the windowsills. Then there’s Ralph’s, on South Oxford and Lafayette. It’s the closest bodega to us, and serves the old-timers who live in the Griffin and the larger, less lovely building beside it. How exactly it serves them beyond giving them a place to congregate (there are even broad wooden benches and umbrellas for that purpose) is unclear, for the selection of goods is sparse and random: no peanut butter or toilet paper and only a few, dusty cans of cafe bustelo, but there is a carton of pomegranates, small, and brilliantly fuchsia. Last, there Fulton Smoke Shop Brooklyn, in triangle of Fulton and Lafayette, wedged between Fresh Garden and what used to be the Smoke Joint and is now Peaches Hot Chicken. I have never been in this bodega, but I can see from the extensive display of bongs and bubblers in the window that the name is accurate.
And what of the other organic bodega? This one, Greene Ave Market, benefits from being next to the Bishop Loughlin bodega, and from being not next to Mr. Mango. You can get sliced watermelon and a packet of CBD gummies without wondering if you’d be better off across the street, where there is also a reliable selection of Mrs. Meyers home spray, baby wipes, and daikon root for that vietnamese noodle bowl you keep putting off making.
All this to say: is eight bodegas too many, or just enough? At last count, the city had 13,000, which sounds like a lot, on the one hand, but on the other, that’s only .0015 bodegas per citizen, which seems not nearly enough.
If my immediate slice of Fort Greene is taken as an example, it would appear that the universe, or NYC-verse, allows for an infinite number of pop-in places, but only a set number of stock-up places. If your pop-in place is determined by proximity and specialty, your stock-up place is determined by its breadth and navigability. Fresh Garden might need to lose both of its titular attributes — that is to say, become more of a traditional bodega — if it is to survive opposite Mr. Mango. (And I do hope it survives, as the owners are truly lovely people). Then again, maybe all it needs is a dog hitch.