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The Colombian corner store, a neighborhood hub

The Corner Store

The corner store in Colombia, is like the barbershop or hairdressers in Black neighborhoods in the U.S., but better. It’s gossip and groceries.

Well, you can’t get your hair cut at the Colombian corner store (that’s the peluquería for women or barbería for men). But you can buy whatever you might have just run out of, place your legal bets on sporting events, play lottery numbers, buy a beer or a shot of rum or aguardiente, watch a soccer game or the news or the soaps on TV, re-up on minutes for your cell phone, get a sandwich, and of course, get up to speed on the neighborhood gossip.

Different Words Same Thing

Talking about the Colombian corner combo store/open-air tavern, a word that might ring familiar in the ears of gringos, or maybe just New Yorkers, is bodega. It means grocery store in Puerto Rican Spanish and it’s entered the English lexicon. I grew up in the Bronx running errands for my mother to the corner bodega. But as far as I know, the bodegas in the neighborhoods I grew up in were still just grocery stores. Let me tell you about the Colombian corner store, a great place for gossip and groceries.

(By the way, in Colombian Spanish, bodega is a storage space or warehouse. In Honduras and Costa Rica, the corner store is referred to as a pulpería, which translates to general store, or minimarket. The word comes from the root word for octopus. The concept is that the owner of the general store has tentacles that reach for everything and anything. In Mexico, it’s a heladería, which comes from the word helado for ice cream, and of course they sell much more than just ice cream. And sometimes Colombians use the word charcutería, but that’s more like a deli. Please don’t take this as an exhaustive list of the words for corner store in Latin America. All I did was an informal poll of my Latin American friends.)

Salsamentaria – i.e. Corner Store

In Colombia, what I knew as bodega is called a salsamentaria, a word that comes from salsa or sauce. The salsamentaria is a store that has a little bit of everything and serves for a little bit of everything.

Learn about the neighborhood at the corner store
The side wall of Salsasmentaria La Chinca doubles as a bulletin board

My corner store, one of two across the street from each other, and with another just a block away, is called Salsamentaria La Chinca. It’s named after the church just up the street, La Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquira – the Parrish of Our Lady of Chiquinquira. The Virgin of Chiquinquirá is a title given to the Virgin Mary in the northern Andean region of South America. She’s a patron saint of Colombia. Shorten Chiquinquira and you get Chinca.

Fifteen Years and Counting

The Salsamentaria La Chinca has been around for 15 years. The current owner, Arelis Vergara, has owned it for the last five years. She’s a former civil engineer who happened into a change of vocation. (More about her particular story in a future Profile of Colombians.) The neighborhood seems to provide more have more than enough business go support three-plus salsamentarias. At any time of day up until midnight, there are regular clients at the tables and drop-ins looking for snacks or staples. (By staples, I mean food stuffs and not the metal fasteners. That’s one thing you wouldn’t find in a salsamentaria though you never know. It all depends on what the clientele has repeatedly requested. There’s another salsamentaria two blocks away on a main drag that doubles as a bare-bones copy shop. They might actually sell the metal staples.)

Arelis tells me she’s been approached by a real estate developer who wants to buy the buildings including the one that houses Salsamentaria La Chinca, which are small one- and two-story structures, and erect an apartment building. But for the time being, it’s just talk. Although she did say that if it does happen she’d most likely return to civil engineering, but something where she could travel around Colombia, like working on roadways maybe.

For the time being my corner hangout/open-air office is secure.

The corner store, great spot for groceries and gossip
My Open-Air Office at Salsamentaria La Chinca

Much More than Groceries

When I moved into my apartment 6 months ago, I learned the lay of the land by taking my morning tea at the corner store. For example, I was introduced to a woman who sells furniture. Her house is her showroom. She assured me she could place an order for a custom couch I fancied. If I run out of cat food, the salsamentaria a block away, Salsamentaria Bolívar, that’s a little bigger than my salsamentaria, carries the brand the cats like. It’s a bit more expensive, but if it’ll forestall a riot by my two felines, I’m saved!

Not all salsamentarias serve liquor, but the majority do. All an owner needs is additional permits, one to sell closed bottles and another for on-site consumption. Arelis said that when she bought the store it came with those permits.

A general store a few blocks from where I lived in Manizales sold beer, but I don’t think they had the consumption license. Regardless, folks would buy their beers and sit on the steps in front of the store to drink. It was their bar. I ran into a friend one evening on my way home. She and a bunch of her co-workers from a nearby restaurant were sitting on the steps, unwinding after their shift. We talked story until right before the buses stopped running. Staying out any later would mean getting home by taxi. It was a fun, impromptu night.

As of this writing, two blocks away in another direction from my current residence, some folks are stocking a new store. The gossip on the street is, there’ll be yet another salsamentaria in my neighborhood. That will make 5 within a two block radius. The four currently open seem to be doing well.

A Regular

In the time I’ve lived on the block, I’ve met a lot of the regulars of Salsamentaria La Chinca and I guess I’ve become one too. Though I try not to gossip, I bet that as the only Black American around I’m the subject of it. I use the corner store as my open-air office. I keep asking Arelis to set up Wi-Fi for me. Since I’m the only one asking she hasn’t paid much mind. Oh well, there are still a lot of other draws.

And yes, the majority of this post was written while sitting at one of the tables of Salsamentaria La Chinca.

My Corner Store really pops with the new paint job
The Salsamentaria La Chinca recently got a fresh coat of paint
There’s lots more to tell … on Colombia

P.S. Interesting words

Here are a few other “-erias” that have caught my attention.

Panedería. The Spanish word for bread is pan. So, a panedería is a store that sells breads and pastries.

My favorite is a Piñatería, a store that sells anything and everything to make a piñata. It looks a lot like the dollar stores in the states.

Drogería is a synonym for farmacia, i.e. a place that sells drugs (the legal kind, of course).

A repostería is a store that sells postres or desserts.