Corner stores, bodegas, minimarts…call them what you will but they’re an invaluable neighborhood asset. Where else can you find toothpaste, wine, eggs, candy bars and keychains all in one place—at 2am to boot? Even if you’re not the sort of person who needs those items at 2am, chances are you have, at some point, had the experience of being at home and needing one random item very badly. Without a corner store you’d drive 15 minutes to the nearest Target to get that item, but a corner store offers convenience, plus a whole lot of other neighborhood benefits you might not have even thought of.
The Value of the Corner Store
The main and obvious value of the corner store is proximity. It’s there when you’re in the middle of hosting friends and you run out of toilet paper. It’s there when you’re halfway through baking cookies and you suddenly realize you don't have enough butter. It’s there when your kid spills juice all over the kitchen table and the paper towel roll just ran out. Sure, the prices at a corner store might be a little higher than your usual grocery chain, but in these moments of need, that extra 30 or 40 cents is probably something you’re probably willing to pay.
Something else I love about this corner stores is the familiar nature of them: No matter what time of day I visit my bodega, I’m guaranteed to encounter one of only four different cashiers. After just a few months living here, I could recognize them all. Sometimes they’ll ask about a product—“Have you tried that bread before? It’s great!”—or make friendly conversation about the neighborhood goings on—“Lots of traffic after that parade, huh?” I love that. It’s the complete opposite of my typical experience at the large supermarket where I make my weekly grocery runs; I recognize no one there and the conversation is always at the bare minimum—“Have a nice day. Here’s your receipt.
Corner stores also provide valuable “eyes on the street” in what might otherwise be fairly residential neighborhoods. When I lived in New York, I had a favorite corner store. It was a couple blocks from my apartment and on my way to the subway station. I often stopped there when I got home from work to grab some milk or an ingredient for dinner. Sometimes when I’d be getting off the subway late at night on a Friday, the presence of the bodega made me feel safer as a woman walking alone. I’d make sure to exit the subway at the entrance near the corner store, knowing that it would be open with customers and cashiers inside. I’d grab an item that I needed, then hurry home, shepherded by the warm glow of the bodega window.
Another special aspect of corner stores is that they often have personality. The one on my block has an ancient Atari gaming system in front of a hideous 1970s orange and green wallpaper background, which you can play while you’re waiting for your sandwich to be made. It’s charming and fun. On the other hand, my boyfriend tells the story of a corner store he stopped at in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee; pasted around the edges of the checkout counter were pamphlets from the funerals of young men who had been murdered in the neighborhood. Whether meaningful or funny, these mementos have clearly been put in by the owners, who have control over their space, unlike a chain grocery store where layout and art is handed down from a corporate headquarters far away.
There’s a whole Twitter account called @Bodegacats_ which is dedicated to the strange but cute phenomenon of feline friends who often lounge in and even live in New York City corner stores. Just another way that corner stores offer so much more personality and familiarity than chains.
Significantly, corner stores are also a key food access point for poor communities that may lack a typical chain supermarket. While they may not offer much in the way of fresh, healthy food, a growing movement is utilizing corner stores as a way to connect residents with healthy food options in cities across the country—proving what an important neighborhood asset they are and can be.
Finally, and most importantly, because they are usually family-owned rather than corporately-owned, corner stores can provide meaningful income and keep money in the local economy. Being located in residential neighborhoods, they also create an option for owners and employees to live and work in extremely close proximity, sometimes even residing directly above their stores. That means saving on transportation costs and more time to spend in leisure or with family and friends.
The Future of the Corner Store
Zoning has led to the removal of many corner stores and the prevention of new ones in neighborhoods across the country. There’s an excellent website that documents the lost corner stores in residential neighborhoods in Washington DC, which will help you get a sense of what we used to have.
I suspect many of the remaining corner stores—especially in smaller cities and towns—only exist because they were grandfathered in. I imagine that opening one today in the first floor of an apartment building or condo would prove challenging if not impossible. In my own city, only 1% of buildings are mixed-use and getting permission to build more is not easy.
Chain drugstores have risen to fill the corner store void in some communities, although they usually have all the trappings of an auto-oriented place: large parking lots, entrances that face the parking lots and locations on busy car thoroughfares. Nonetheless, they still provide the basic necessities—eggs, paper towels, Tylenol, etc.—that one might hope to find at a corner store, even if they are only offering minimum wage jobs and siphoning money out of the community.
In some communities, the corner store has morphed into a hipster meeting point, with names that end in words like “Provisions” or “General Goods,” harkening back to some earlier era. But unless you’re experiencing a tragic artisan pickle shortage in your household, the basic necessities one would hope to find at a typical corner store are unlikely to be found in these spots.
At this point, an authentic, old school corner store may be rare in anywhere but the most dense urban neighborhoods, so if you’re fortunate enough to have one near your home, do what you can to keep it in business. Not far from my own corner store is a Whole Foods Market where I could surely get everything I’d find at the corner store, and maybe even a higher quality version of some of the items. But I choose the corner store because it’s close and I want to keep this neighborhood asset alive for years to come.
Corner stores are one of those unique hyper-local businesses that meet a surprising amount of needs for people in all walks of life. Three cheers for the corner store!
(All photos by Rachel Quednau)