CAMDEN, NJ — Anyone will tell you that bodegas in Camden aren’t just practical alternatives to the grocery store, a major brand of which is sorely missing from the city.
They are a way of life.
So much so that when Camden Mayor Frank Moran enumerated the various impacts COVID-19 curfews would have on city functions he took a moment to assure residents he would specifically keep bodegas in mind.
And they don't just offer a place to grab a quick bite or pick up household essentials, but somewhere community members congregate to hear the latest news or see a friendly face.
“Yes, there are some larger grocery stores but Camden is big, depending on where you live they may be far away so that’s where we come in,” Greattown Deli & Grocery owner Jose Serrata told TAPinto Camden on Tuesday. “We usually close at 10 or 11 p.m. but now must close at 8 [p.m.]. That and other steps we’ve had to take that are being felt everywhere.”
Greattown Deli, located on the 1200 block of Morton Street, sells cold cuts masked-customers now grab before swiftly heading out. Cleaning products and basic essentials are the hottest sellers. And the store has kept well-stocked.
But with sales lower than usual and prices for eggs and other basic food items beginning to rise, Serrata said like many stores the future is uncertain.
“Here it’s been quiet lately, but when I head out to other parts of town some people act like nothing is happening,” Serrata said. “It seems some aren’t treating this like the emergency it is. I’m making due for now, but I see things getting worse. That’s what scares me, people not being more drastic and this lasting longer.”
In another part of town, Luis, known as “Squirrel”, frequents Leyba’s Grocery in Centerville.
At least he used to.
“A corner store is a part of the neighborhood. It provides history since old schoolers tend to sit there, able to chat with you all day,” said school board member Falio Leyba-Martinez, whose family has owned the store for roughly 24 years. “Luis is a little older, and he can’t come around now.”
Leyba's Grocery is no longer receiving certain services like its bread shipment, so it's had to make due, he said. But most of all what's been harder to navigate is the language barrier, with large swaths of the Hispanic population not keeping as up to date with local matters.
"People are starting to pay more attention to the news as its getting more serious, but really they should always be like that," Leyba-Martinez said.
As the pandemic has progressed, Leyba-Martinez has worked to keep bodega owners — whom he says are majority Hispanic in Camden — abreast of policy changes that they are subject to.
For instance, he clarified closure and take-out rules to owners in Spanish via videos on social media over the weekend.
“I’m reaching out to business owners to keep them informed and have told anybody that has questions or seeing problematic behavior to reach out to me,” he said. “This is not the time to be price gouging. Also I know we're losing money, but I think we can find ways to give back too. We need to lead by example.”