Connections, community and cute-ass cats: in praise of real-life bodegas

As the inventors of Bodega learned yesterday, real corner shops actually matter to cities in a way supermarket chains and automated cabinets never can

The Saturday before Christmas 1971, my grandparents worked like crazy making enough corned starch for hundreds of friends in East Oakland. Together theyd invented a secret cornmeal masa recipe to sell at their corner store, El Progreso, in order to make the tastiest tortillas and tamales in the region. Dozens lined up when the store opened, some coming from way out of town, and the whole weekend was a lively scene of people from the community buying, commiserating, gossiping, and laughing. My mother, Irma, remembers families even bringing them food.

By late evening on Sunday, she had to announce to friends still waiting that they were out of masa. Though sad she couldnt give them what they were looking for, she and my grandmother Isabel were amazed at their good fortune, sweating from a full day of honest work as my grandfather Anastasio drank beer in the back room to celebrate with his bakers.

Years earlier, the scene had not been so joyful. When my grandparents bought a small corner store and the surrounding property from an Italian immigrant, their ticket to prosperity seemed unlikely. They eked out a living: raising three children, working multiple jobs, and learning about market pricing and budgeting. The first day they opened the store, they only made $12.43 (9.30). They often went to bed wondering if their purchase had been worth it.

A publicity shot for Bodega, a Silicon Valley startup that sparked Twitter uproar with its stated desire to make real bodegas obsolete. Photograph: Ellian Raffoul for Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

But hard work, innovation and a deep connection to their Oakland community eventually made the store more than a modest success. Towards the end of their near 25-year run, they were known for having the best Mexican bread and the cosiest customer service in town. Years after the store closed, my familys connection to the community remained strong, far beyond racial or other tribal boundaries which, if you know anything about radically open-minded Oakland, makes perfect sense. To this day, my mother is constantly stopped on the street by people of all races who remember her when she worked at the store as a child.

I know what youre thinking. If El Progreso was so successful and beloved by the community, it would still be around. But truth is complicated. The rise of the ruthless efficiency curves of supermarkets and the one-click shopping of the internet has diminished the role of the corner stores, no question. But theyre not gone. And neither is the publics love and concern for them.

A 1920s grocery store. Corner stores have been run by successions of immigrants. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Yesterday a couple of young entrepreneurs launched a new business called Bodega: small, automated cabinets that sell a variety of goods in public places, and which can track items sold and send orders for restocking. The Twitter backlash was immediate, particularly due to the name, which many considered offensive as it appeared to appropriate a type of establishment that had thrived under Spanish-speaking immigrants, like my grandparents, while apparently contriving to put those very establishments out of business.

One Oakland resident, Kathryn Walters, put it succinctly:

[In NYC], if I had a day where I really didnt want to go anywhere or see anyone I still made time to go to my corner bodega cause those dudes were *rad* and their cat was cute as fuck. Highly doubt youd get a cute ass cat stuffed in a cabinet to simulate that authentic bodega experience. I predict/hope for failure.

The reaction to Bodega might seem harsh, but its understandable. Technological changes happen so fast now, and often so brazenly without regard to community, that the most human reaction is: Will you stop to think about what youre doing? Seen in the larger scope of peoples growing understanding of techs rattling effect on important institutions (See: democracy, Facebook, Russian ads, Trump), any wish for real, cute, Bodega-creeping cats is expected.

Convenience store owner Ephrame Kassay talks with a customer outside his shop in southeast Washington DC. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ann Satterthwaite, an author and city planner, has argued that community backlash against new projects that affect places of gathering such as corner stores and beer halls are driven not by Nimbyism or fear of the future, but by a desire to understand the effect. They dont want to impede progress or return to a sentimental dream of the past, only to, as Satterthwaite writes, realistically and comprehensively [understand] the options for retailing as they relate to the long-term national goals of providing vital communities.

Corner stores do exactly that. And above all, they help immigrants get a leg up. Today, most bodegas in the US and by no means is this a uniquely American phenomenon are run by immigrant families of Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian descent, who followed in the footsteps of the Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who preceded them. Bodegas offer something chain stores or robot cabinets cant: real, friendly, localised service, not to mention ethnic specialities and connections with people who might not be like you.

Times change. But people are angry. Maybe its the lack of understanding that it takes real people and real sweat to make the products we buy. Most of the time, we cant see the real people many of them immigrants, or in another country entirely who are breaking their backs to give us something extra. We know humans are working hard putting together those iPhone Xs, but does it really sink in? In a corner shop, however, you see it: hardworking immigrants building a world for themselves by selling you what you need for yours.

My grandparents worked from before dawn to the far end of dusk. There was heavy lifting. There was attention to detail and social graces, and an unforgiving, hour-by-hour accounting of their life. People could see their work on their faces, every day, and appreciated them for it. I dont know the future of the corner store. All I have are my familys memories. But, whatever the future, if it involves the startup tech world, I would urge them to begin at the place where all of us, it appears, want and need to: in a community. Maybe that means stop asking how to automate away an institution, and start thinking about how to help them.

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