Don’t Call It a Convenience Store: The New York Bodega Is So Much More

A brief history of how New Yorkers of all stripes came to use a Puerto Rican term for the city’s family-owned corner groceries

A bodega in New York City.
By Stephen L. Carter
April 15, 2022 | 10:30 AM

Bloomberg Opinion — In a marvelous Twitter lovefest, New Yorkers have been listing the reasons they love their local bodegas: owners who’ll give you a free scoop of butter if that’s all you need, or who’ll sell you hamburger bun “loosies” — yes, that’s evidently a thing — and, maybe most important, sandwiches to satisfy that 1 a.m. craving.

For the inveterate wordsmith, this outpouring of delight leads to an intriguing mystery: How and when did a Spanish word meaning “cellar” or “storeroom” come to be assimilated into English as synonymous with a convenience store, often family-owned and open all night?

During the first half of the 19th century, “bodega” found its way into English-speaking accounts of travels in Spain and Latin America, usually in connection with the sale or storage of wine. By the 1870s, a wine shop called “The Bodega” had two locations in lower Manhattan. (A reviewer found the premises “excellently fitted up with all conveniences for the use of customers, including chairs and tables, a free lunch counter, etc.” to benefit clients who were mainly “the business men of the community.”)

As early as 1902, the term was used in English as a Spanish word encompassing grocery store. That’s when William Eleroy Curtis, who served as U.S. Commissioner to a number of nations in Latin America, wrote: “A friend in Caracas one day took me into a bodega, or grocery, kept by a former servant in his family who got his capital as a prize in a lottery.” A fawning 1940 New York Times profile of Cuban President Fulgencia Batista told readers that the soon-to-be-dictator once “clerked in a bodega,” which the paper described as “Cuba’s combination of grocery and bar.”

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When was the word first applied to neighborhood grocery stores in the U.S. in general or the Big Apple in particular? The Oxford English Dictionary traces this definition to 1956, when Time magazine included the term parenthetically in an article about New York’s growing Puerto Rican population: “Almost every sector of the city has a bodega (grocery) or two, and perhaps a Spanish-language movie house.”(1)

But we can go back earlier. In her definitive volume on the history of New York’s Puerto Rican community, the historian Virginia Sánchez Korrol quotes a recent arrival who recalls working for the American Manufacturing Company in Greenpoint during the 1910s: “There was a small bodega on Franklyn Avenue near the factory which was owned by friends of mine and they sold hot lunches to the factory people.”

To be sure, it’s possible that the term bodega was not in common use back then, but was instead applied by the worker to clarify a later recollection. Yet it’s clear that by World War II, the usage was general. The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes a 1934 article in The New Yorker that mentioned a “grocery and meat business” that was “called, in vast letters, La Flor de Quintana Roo — Bodega y Carnecería.”


And there’s more. In her much-cited 1945 doctoral dissertation, Patria Aran Gosnell studied advertising in newspapers aimed at New York’s Spanish-language newspapers community and found “an ever-increasing tendency on the part of Puerto Ricans to use distinctive names for their enterprises in the city” — including “bodega,” which for the benefit of readers, she translated as simply “grocery store.” Elsewhere in the dissertation, Aran Gosnell herself used “bodega” as a generic term for grocery stores.(2)

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Mainstream papers soon caught on. By 1950, the New York Daily News included coupons that could be redeemed at a long list of stores, including some explicitly called bodegas. The term soon became common in the advertising columns of the city’s dailies.

By the 1960s, the parentheticals had vanished. “Bagel-Bodega Area Gets Own Museum,” the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed in 1960, not troubling to define “bodega” for its readers. “Pushcarts have given way to bodegas,” ran the headline on a 1965 New York Times article about a Bronx neighborhood. Again, the story offered no definition. Thus it’s fair to say that the city’s editors had decided that their readers knew the word. In 1970, the Times even brought to the general reader the word “bodegeros” to describe the store’s owners.

Today, nobody can agree on exactly how many bodegas exist in the city. Bloomberg puts the number at 13,000. The official count is just over 7,000. A 2021 Grubstreet study estimates 8,000 bodegas, although only 16 used forms of the word in their names. (“Organic” and “gourmet” were far more common.) Whatever the correct figure, the beloved institutions are under threat.


Bodegas have long been struggling. During the pandemic, hundreds if not thousands collapsed. Others are barely surviving – particularly in high-crime neighborhoods. If the switch to online shopping proves an enduring structural change, many more will be in trouble.

And that would be tragic. Richard Sennett, in his marvelous book “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City,” compares grand urban avenues to exclamation points and side streets to semicolons. Arriving at a corner, writes Sennett, “the urbanite experiences a shift in focus, a little sensory jolt.” One may continue along the main boulevard, or stroll a side street to explore what Sennett calls more “modest” retail.

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Bodegas, very much a side-street phenomenon, make immeasurable contributions to the city’s richness.


And wonderful late-night sandwiches.

  • (1) The OED doesn’t warn the word sleuth that the article views Puerto Ricans through a somewhat derogatory lens.
  • (2) Scholars have lately lamented how Aran Gosnell’s work was so long overlooked by historians. Some have accused her husband, Charles Frances Gosnell, of basing some of his own published articles on her research, but without attribution.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”