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The N.Y. bodega is in a corner

Nearly 1,000 have closed in the past two years, pressed by rising rents and food prices. For one shopkeeper, it's a daily struggle for survival.

August 08, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The 7 a.m. sun gleams off the windows of this East Harlem bodega, as its owner, Julio Pimentel, unlocks the door and steps behind the counter that separates him from customers. He switches on a fan and tunes the radio to a Spanish station, and merengue awakens the humid morning.

It is Friday, Aug. 1. Rent is due, and Pimentel does not know if he can pay. He spends $3,300 a month to lease the bodega. When he took over the small grocery eight years ago, monthly rent cost $1,500.

Pimentel surveys the shelves. He's running low on popular items: grape-flavored Kool-Aid mix, Goya honey, Starbursts, Cheez Doodles, applesauce, sunflower seeds.

Food prices have gone up, and his customers don't spend as they used to. Pimentel pays more for goods but won't raise his prices. He knows his clientele can't afford to pay more. They are mostly poor residents from the housing projects, shelters and run-down apartments in the neighborhood. Recently, a woman scoffed at the 99-cent price for a bar of soap, walking out in a huff without buying. Nearly everyone is struggling more than usual.

Across the city, a food crisis is unfolding in low-income neighborhoods, as one-third of New York's supermarkets have closed over the last five years, according to a recent city report. Most New Yorkers don't own cars; having a nearby store is important when grocery shopping means traveling by foot, cab or subway. Well-to-do residents who don't live near a supermarket can pay extra to order groceries online and have them delivered; poor residents must turn to the closest bodegas.

"The sales have been down for the last nine months," said Jose Fernandez, president of the Bodega Assn. of the United States, which claims membership of 7,800 of New York's 11,400 bodegas. A weakening economy and rising rents and food prices have forced many to close, he said; the number of bodegas in New York has decreased by nearly 1,000 from two years ago, according to his organization's most recent tally.

For decades, bodegas -- the crowded corner stores started by Puerto Rican and Dominican entrepreneurs in the 1960s and 1970s -- have textured the backdrop of New York. The Spanish word comes from bodeguita, a general store in Latin America, and has come to refer to such New York shops owned by people of all ethnic backgrounds.

In the last decade, many Latino longtime shop owners have left to open bodegas in places like Pennsylvania, Rhode Island or Connecticut, or moved on to bigger businesses, passing their shops to other immigrant groups, including Koreans, Middle Easterners and the newest wave of Latino immigrants, Mexicans.

Pimentel, a Dominican immigrant, is trying to hang on.

"It's hard. I think it's going to be worse for New York," Pimentel says, adding, "People are looking for special prices. Sometimes bodegas can't give special prices."

His shop, Lexington Avenue Food & Deli Corp., sits at a crossroads where condo developments and pricey outdoor cafes end and low-income housing projects and check-cashing businesses begin.

The bodega is slightly bigger than a dine-in taco stand. It fits three aisles of goods stocked according to no apparent sorting system: guava jelly, coconut milk, Wonder Bread, Goya beans, mango juice, Juicy Juice, cactus plants, blackened bananas, pork rinds.

On the shelves near the front and side windows, light peeks between rows of "Nice 'n Fluffy" and Suavitel fabric softeners and VO5 Sun-Kissed Raspberry shampoo.

Toilet paper, masking tape, plastic toy dolls, paintbrushes and barbecue lighters fill wall space, reaching high as the ceiling.

Pimentel's counter stands next to the entrance. To the right of it is the deli, where the scent of fried eggs, ham and flaky dough makes morning stomachs rumble.

Pimentel, 50, is a quiet man with thick eyebrows black as his hair. He's stationed behind clear plastic shelves filled with peppermints and chewing gum. The space is so narrow that when two people are behind the counter, they must shimmy by each other.

Behind him, a shelf is crammed with Advil PM, flashlights, cigars, Fixodent, Midol, a moldy package of coffee cake, canned octopus in garlic, Vienna sausages, toy guns, a Puerto Rican flag, $2 calling cards that read "Conversacion."

Pimentel serves customers through an opening wide as a window. His bodega does not have bulletproof glass -- he believes his camaraderie with the community is enough to keep him safe from armed robbers, though not necessarily from shoplifters.

Pimentel owes $1,400 to the power company and $1,300 in rent for the Bronx apartment he shares with his wife.

They have other debts, too. He has saved money to pay some of these bills, but it's not enough to cover the bodega rent, too.

To pay on time, he'll need to earn $3,300 today.

If he keeps falling behind, Pimentel says, the debt could mount until it swallows him. "I will have to close. I have no option. I lose all the money that I have."

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