Gail Victoria Braddock Quagliata knows the value of a solid pair of walking shoes better than most New Yorkers. Quagliata, a photographer, spent nine months walking every single block of Manhattan in a quest to shoot every one of its bodegas. “I figured, no time like the present to walk the entire island of Manhattan!” she says. She succeeded — and only tore one ankle ligament in the process.
On Wednesday, the digital-media start-up Atlas Obscura will host a talk by Quagliata at Acme Studio in Brooklyn, accompanied by a selection of her photographs. She estimates there will be 50 or 60 photos on display, which isn’t much considering Quagliata has around 2,000 images from her journey. She initially had that number at closer to 4,000, but decided to narrow her focus to independent, mom-and-pop stores — some that she had thought were independent turned out to be small chains. “I had to be really specific about what qualified as a bodega,” the 34-year-old says. “My criteria was that it had to sell newspapers, cigarettes, and snacks. Beyond that I was pretty open, but some people had very concrete ideas about what a bodega is, and that surprised me, because I don’t know why that’s a thing to get angry about.”
Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Quagliata attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She moved to New York City in 2003, eventually settling in Bushwick, where she lives now. In 2011, while working toward an art education degree, she was placed as a student teacher at a school in Alphabet City. At the time, she lived in Williamsburg. “To keep myself awake, because it was, like, seven in the morning and my brain wasn’t used to that, I would take a different route from the L train to the school every morning, and find coffee at a different bodega,” she says. “I noticed just during the semester I was there that places where I was going were suddenly closed down. The bodega was the first thing I really relied on when I moved to New York, so to see them disappearing was kind of shocking.”
Quagliata wasn’t just imagining things. Jose Fernandez, president of the Bodega Federation of the United States, tells the Voice that about 75 bodegas closed throughout the five boroughs last year, mostly due to increasing rents. The neighborhoods hit hardest, he says, were the South Bronx and Washington Heights/Inwood, as well as certain parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
“The rent is getting out of control,” he says, adding that bodega owners who had renovated their stores were often asked to pay much more in rent when it came time to sign a new lease.
New York’s independent stores have had a rough go of it in recent years. According to the Center for an Urban Future’s annual State of the Chains report, 2014 was the sixth year in a row that there was an increase in the number of national chain stores in New York City. Quagliata loved to document which bodegas had the best coffee on her Tumblr; she’d be dismayed to know that Dunkin’ Donuts has topped the list of the largest national retail chains across the five boroughs for seven years and counting (it has a total of 536 locations, as of 2014).
And then there’s the mother of all perceived threats to bodegas: 7-Eleven. The chain convenience store’s presence in the city has ballooned from 59 stores in 2009 to 135 in 2014.
For Quagliata, Manhattan’s existing bodegas presented the perfect opportunity for a conceptual series of photographs. She was inspired in part by photos of water towers taken by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, as well as pop artist Ed Ruscha’s first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, “although I have more than 26 bodegas,” she adds.
She began at the top of the borough, in Washington Heights/Inwood, working her way down, saving Harlem, which houses her favorite collection of bodegas, for last. Working around a freelance schedule, Quagliata set out four or five days a week, leaving at eight in the morning and going home at sundown. When she was done — and she insists she would have finished sooner than she did had it not been for that ankle injury — she had amassed more than 10,000 images. She took a few months off, because, she explains, “I was so close to them that I had to just take a break.” She only finished selecting and color-correcting the photos last month.
On Wednesday, Quagliata plans to talk about some of the more unusual things she witnessed during the project. On Dyckman Street in Inwood, she found a small beach. Other experiences were less whimsical: In that same neighborhood, one man started flicking cigarette ashes at her while she was waiting for a street to clear to take a photo.
“It’s not like every store owner was shaking a broom at me,” she says. “I ran into some people who told me really amazing stories, just because I happened to be standing there and they happened to be standing there. I got both sides, which is kind of the New York experience.”
Later, she went back to re-shoot some of the bodegas, and found that about a third of the stores she had planned to shoot again had already shuttered — perhaps an appropriate cap to an adventure that began with the realization that many independent stores in Manhattan are disappearing. Contrasted with the rigid sameness of a chain grocer, drugstore, or coffee shop, bodegas offer the kind of local flavor that is slowly leaking out of many communities.
“New York is such a collection of little neighborhoods that you kind of get in your own little bubble, and you’re like, ‘Well, every bodega has this specific thing that I’m used to seeing,’ ” Quagliata says. “And then you wind up going to this other neighborhood, and you find out that they sell like, bean pies, and they close for prayers. It was baffling. It was like walking into a different world, where I could also buy gum and coffee.”
And her favorite bodega? “That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite kid!”
Wednesday, April 29, 8 p.m. Acme Studio, 63 North 3rd Street, Brooklyn. $15.