Keep Your Grubby Hands off My Bodega, Silicon Valley

Replacing community with 'efficiency'? Yikes.

September 13, 2017 9:00 am

I’ve lived in 11 apartments in New York City. Each one came with a bodega. My favorite was on the corner of Ninth Street and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, just south of Ninth. The owner was Indian. For two years, we high-fived when I came in, to buy Diet Coke and magazines. Twice, we hugged. I think of him whenever my endocrinologist hugs me goodbye, after my appointment. People who are not New Yorkers think a lot of things about New Yorkers, but I don’t think many of them, the non-New Yorkers, understand how much hugging is going on behind the scenes.

I haven’t lived full-time in New York City for six years, but I still have a bodega. The owners are three brothers, from Yemen, and they do have a cat.

My experience on both coasts, East and West, has fine-tuned my response to the Bodega app, whose “ex-Googler” founders seem to think, incorrectly, that the essence of a bodega can be replaced by a vending box. They are wrong, but I can I imagine the PR push: Bodegas are outdated! No one needs them! They can be replaced by efficiency, technology, innovation! It’s the American way, at least in 2017!

This is the Silicon Valley that people are scared of: one guided by the “wisdom” of the marketplace, and the “morals” of the crowd. (Slim, none.) 

To this I say: F*ck your efficiency, technology and innovation. I prefer tradition, community, and the pathway to the middle class that bodegas have provided to immigrant communities for decades. 

Go to Paris and you will see a selection of independent bookstores on the main streets of most neighborhoods. This is not by accident. This is not because the French are better than us, more sophisticated or better read. It is because Amazon can’t discount books as much as they can in the U.S., by law.

How do so many French bookshops survive and thrive in the age of Amazon? In part, Cuvelier credits a piece of French legislation called the Lang Law, passed in 1981. At a time when chain bookstores were just starting to appear on the scene, it prohibited the discounting the prices set by French publishers by more than five percent. Since then, the big retailers have not been able to charge significantly less for a title than a bookseller like Cuvelier.

We hear time and again in the U.S. that the marketplace, and the crowd, are wise. They are not. They are without pity or discretion. They are terrific at finding the cheapest good for the lowest price, no matter the dreck that’s produced, the chemical-laden garbage that’s dishonestly sold as food, the apps that presume to replace a vibrant part of our communities to save a shopper 30 cents on a tube of toothpaste. 

Bodega, the app, will fail because when Fast Company writes these “unmanned pantry boxes” will present competition to “many mom-and-pop stores,” they misunderstand what those mom-and-pop stores represent. For example, actual mothers and actual fathers (and their cats), and the people who they high-five (and occasionally hug) in the morning. Only people who’ve never been inside bodegas think they could be replaced by unmanned pantry boxes. And only people who prioritize making two ex-Googlers rich over tradition and community think they should.

They are wrong.

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