How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC

Six bodega owners tell us their tales of immigrant perseverance.

Photographer Yael Malka
June 27, 2016
How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC Heng Li Grocery Store.  

Every city in the world has general stores that sell soft drinks and sundries. But only New York city has bodegas. In a city that so often feels like it’s completely indifferent to whether or not you get eaten alive by subway rats, the bodega offers a calming constant. The cans of Chef Boyardee might be covered in a thin patina of dust; the prices on diet Pepsi might forever arbitrarly fluctuate; the resident cat might get more employee love than you. But the bodega is always, always there, and it will never judge you.


Some of us here at The FADER have developed a rapport with our local bodega proprietor. Some of us enjoy a regular head-nod/grunt-of-recognition groove. But a lot of us have long wanted to know more about these secret heroes, the men and women that indulge our urges and provide us succor, one late-night Bud tall boy or early-morning egg-and-cheese at time. Where do they hail from? Where do they want to go next? What do they really think of us?

As part of Freedom Week — a chunk of content we've put together ahead of the 4th of July to examine different interpretations of freedom through topics like immigration, mass incarceration, politics, and celebrity — we went out to a string of bodegas throughout the city, and we asked these proud American immigrants their stories. True to character, they delivered just what we needed.

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC
New Foods of India

Kips Bay, Manhattan

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC New Foods of India.  

MOHAMMED ALAM: I came to New York a long, long time ago. 1989. It has changed myself. I was a student then I finished my studies and I started working and then I became an owner. I got married, I got kids, my kids are in high school now. But I used to work in similar stores like this, and I got experience and then I opened my own store and I’m doing good. Like or not, when I was looking for job when I came here, I found the jobs were all like this. Then I started liking it. Working with the food is easy for me because I am familiar with all the food.


Back home in Bangladesh, it was the dream to go to America. My family is still there. A lot has changed. My kids, they don’t like it. They like it here, they’re born here. Everything is different for them. For me it’s no problem but for them it’s different. Going back, my kids would not allow it.

Customers here mixed: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Asian, Americans. Some people, they bargain. They’re loud, driving a cab and come here, “What is this, this is expensive.” OK, you can find somewhere else cheaper. Ninety-five percent of customers they like the quality. We keep good quality here. Very quality food. They’re all imported from India, Arabs, Israel, Middle East, Europe, Saudi Arabia. They’re all imported.

Sometimes customers come here by mistake and we say, oh we don’t have beer. “OK, OK,” and then they leave. I don’t want to deal with them. They might hit you, they might throw a bottle, they’re stoned, they don’t know what they’re doing.

I have plans to raise the kids. To give them a good education. I’m always looking for opportunities to open new stores. Next stop will be Queens.

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC
How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC
Paradise Deli

SoHo, Manhattan

MUSA: I’m from Yemen. Ibb. You know, the middle city. It’s a couple hours from water. My father, you know, he came here in like the '70s. He bring my brothers, my sister, yeah, he came 1972, and he bring some of his kids. I got six brothers and sisters. And me the seventh. My father, he set up businesses. Yeah we have a couple stores.

He brought me in 1998. Me and my brother. I was like fifteen, sixteen. I went to school for a couple of years. Summer school used to be in Manhattan. High school I went in the Bronx. I still live there. My youngest brother, he come late. I work in the morning, he work in the night. I come like 7am to 5pm and then he come 5pm to 1am. You know how Yemenis do, man! Seven days a week!

Customer: “You got roll cones”?
Musa: “I got Dutch, son. Come on, man!”

Everybody, you talk to them the way they see, like this guy...this is how you gotta run business, you know! Sometime customer, they don’t have money, I say “OK pay next time, no problem.” You gotta be nice, that’s how you get more customers. How you do business. But sometimes people, if you give them a lot of credit, $20, $40, they sometimes don’t come back. Sometimes you lose the customer and you lose the money. Too much is not good. Maybe a couple dollars. Too much, not good.

This area, you know, this area is alright. We have bad people a little because you know you got the shelter, you got the methadone clinic, a lot of crazy people, especially a store like this. But you have to take the good and the bad. I been here twelve years, never had a fight with somebody.

Actually never had violence. Sometimes people, they drunk, they act stupid. We never got in fights. Once, it wasn’t even me, it was my brother, it was a stupid thing, no gun or anything, it was a kid, he live around here actually, we know where he live, it’s stupid, you know...he was not stealing, he was rolling like weed. My brother saw him in the camera, he tell him stop, and this kid, he think he a gangster, he trying to fight. Yeah, it’s nothing. We don’t have no violence.

In ‘04, my father bought the store from a Spanish lady. Dominican lady. We fix it a little bit. But now, you know, it’s too late. We leaving. The lease is over. We have a month, we leaving. I miss it. I kind of miss it. I been here a long time. Maybe I’ll open my own store! Yeah, why not. You never know. It could be a better life for me. More money for me. I’m here, running the business, I run the business with my father, I manage the store. So maybe I have experience, and from here, I can open my own?

Billy’s Deli

Fordham Road, The Bronx

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC

BILLY GONZALEZ: Eighteen years ago, we started a new business. I started with a $100. I built this store day by day. I’m Dominican. I came to America in 1981. Straight to the Bronx. My mom brought me here. She passed away a couple years ago. My brothers work for me, and my wife, and, oh, my cousin work for me. Real family business. My wife, she’s a good support. I always believe, the bigger your family, the more power you have. It’s like the government.

This was an ugly place. I just paid for location. And from there I had to work. For more than ten years, every penny that I made I put it in the store. And for the last years, I started to see a little more opportunity. I was broke when I started. Now I support my whole family. And I pay heavy child support. Heavy heavy!

Because I was playing around. I was married, then I was playing around. My [first] wife found out what I was doing; I got caught up. Now it’s like I have two families. I pay child support twice! So sometimes people think because you have a business that you have money, but you’d be very surprised. Sometimes I don’t make a hundred dollars in a week, because by the time you pay your bills, you may be behind.

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC

To be honest with you, when I came over here I had a dream that I wanted to become a baseball player. So when I came here I already finished high school and my mom she had a business, we had to help her out. I didn’t have so many opportunities to play baseball. But it was my dream. I went and tried out for the Mets and I went and tried out for the Yankees. I played third base, infield. So they like me. But at the same time, I got a bad luck. I got hit by a car when I was 19 years old. I got a broken leg. So my dream was over right there.

For that reason I had to use my talent in something else. So this is my talent now, this is what I do. This is the best, what I do. And I love what I do and I enjoy what I do. And every time that a customer come into my store, I appreciate every dollar and every penny. Because it’s hard to make a dollar.

This business right now, I know that I’m gonna grow. Because I’ve been growing. In 20 years, keeping my door open, maybe I’ll be ready to retire from here, enjoy my old time in life. You feel me?

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC
Bally 868 Food Market Corp.

Flushing, Queens

SHENG YU-CHUN: 1983. I came to New York. Good life. I need to make money for a good life. In 1994, I came here [to Flushing]. I'm from Taiwan. When I retire I'll go back to Taiwan. Here, for young people okay. When I get old, I don't like it. When you walk on the street, maybe sometimes they rob you, you fall down you're gone. In my country this problem maybe happen, one percent, two percent; here, maybe 20, 30 percent.

I don't like the people who throw money on the counter. They don't know that's wrong. The best people is people who come shopping and give money by the hand. This is the right way. Some people say "Oh you need to smile." I say no.

New York, like in 1988, that time, no chain stores, no Costco, no Walmart. They changed the whole city. After the 90s, business not very good for small stores. Big stores changed everything. Costco — you cannot beat Costco. They're very nice. I like to go Costco shopping. They can get very good price, the chain stores.

Some little girl, not even table high, I watch them and they watch me. Their hands put here [on the candy], they watch me, and if I look down, they take it. Even old ladies, 50, 60, they try to steal. Sometimes you watch them, they look at me like this [scowls.] A lot of customers at night time, they try to steal the beer. You watch them, they will come and be like, "Why are you looking at me like that?" I say, "If I don't look at you, I look at what?”

I like that this country is real free. You know? A lot of people don't know what is free. In my country, you have a car, you buy a Benz and everyone's like "Oh! You have a Benz?" Here? Nobody cares what you my country, they say, "How are you gonna do it like that?" You're supposed to buy a house first, why do you spend money on a car? Here, if you like nice cars, and you work hard and make money, no one cares.

In my country, I don't wear the jeans. I wear suits, nice suits. Leather shoes. Here? I wear sneakers. Why? Different. I just need to look clean. I feel good. I don't need to care what people think. That's the big difference.

Eight years more and then I will go back to Taiwan. I bought one farm in Taiwan four or five years ago. Bigger than this — like this [store] three times as big. It's big enough. I will go back to my farm and work

I'm not so rich but I'm ok. My two children just graduated from NYU Stern. So, I'm ok. It's why I work so hard. You know, we will get old. Everything will. It's life.

Chinese Hispanic

Lower East Side, Manhattan

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC
How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC

RAFAEL PEREZ: I’m from Dominican Republic. Well my parents, they came here in the 70s. I was like sixteen. Nah, fifteen when they bringing me over here. I was a little kid, you know.

I lived 41 years now, Lower East Side. I live upstairs from the store. My family live upstairs too. I live in one apartment, my mother used to live in another apartment. My big brother live in apartment 4, my cousin live in apartment 12, I live in apartment 2.

It changed for the past twenty years. Before we have a lot of drugs, killing people. That don’t happen anymore. Before we used to have a lot of Hispanic people, Mexican, Jewish. They all moved, so now we have only Chinese here. And now the white people started moving back!

The store been open since 1973. My friend before me, they run the store. It was Steve’s Grocery. We changed the name. We run the store for 31 years ago. My brother [named it] Chinese Hispanic. People come here, they say, “Where the Chinese?” I say, “I speak Chinese!” I can do it! I know a lot of words Not perfect. But I can understand.

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC

They interviewed me from the Tenement Museum [around the corner], and people come from all over and they say, “Oh my God, I seen you, you famous.” You can go there [to the Tenement Museum], you see the video right away.

I used to work in a store in 1976 on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street — 77nd 2nd Ave. They robbed me, they put a knife behind my back. I was like 18 years old. It was just a crazy guy on drugs or something. And from that time, I don’t have any more problems. I feel safe here.

No, I don’t have no problem. My customers, they love me when I’m here. They looking for me all the time. My name Rafael — they say “Rafael number one!” They all love me, they say I’m a nice guy, we have some conversations. “Hey, how you doing, good morning, everything OK?” I like to have conversations with people. I like to travel sometimes, and they say, “Oh hey Rafael, where you been?”

I go to Florida sometime, with my wife, we take a two week vacation. I go to New Jersey to visit my family. I haven’t been back to Dominican Republic since 1995. My wife, she don’t like to go on the planes. She afraid. It’s OK, I got all my family here anyway.

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC
Amin Grocery and 99 Cent Plus

Staten Island

MOHAMMED ALAMIN: Two years ago, they killed Eric Garner here. You know Eric Garner? Like next door, you see the memorial and things...I saw everything that happened that day. He was selling cigarettes, loose cigarettes you know? This area you find anything: pills all kinds of drugs, weed, anything you want. So that guy sell cigarette, cigarette, cigarette. He was a very nice guy but he still sell cigarette, you know. He's not disturbing anything. He's not doing bad things.

When I came to America [from Bangladesh] I finished high school. They give a lottery to come to America, they bring people, immigrant people by lottery. You apply and it's like how the lotto plays. So first time, I apply and I win. That time was like 20,000 people they bring from the world.

Nobody knew I applied. So the letter came to my house in the village and they go to my father and he was a principal in a high school and take the letter and bring to me. “You applied and nobody knows nothing.” So somehow everything goes through. Two years to take me to process everything. So I bring my parents here, I get married and I bring my wife. Then I bring my 12 brothers and sisters, I bring everybody here. My mother and one sister [are still in Bangladesh]. She came and she went back.

[America] is the better place. Everybody wants to come but no one can come. A lot of people go to Saudi Arabia or the Middle East to work and make some money because our country is very poor. So I try to change my life, I never, never in my dreams did I think I would come to America. Because this is big, you know, this is a big thing to me. Like God came and give this to me. I never think I can come here.

If somebody lives in America and say it's no good, this guy maybe he has no brain or nothing.

How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC Heng Li.  

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Freedom Week
How 6 Bodega Owners Make An Honest Living In NYC