City corner stores serve up personality

Story and Photo by Deborah Lynch

A stuffed animal is strapped to a corner utility pole with flowers and other mementoes. Similar memorials to those who lost their lives to violence pop up around the city. In these neighborhoods that outsiders might see as being unsafe or down on their luck, business thrives. 

People come and go all hours of the day to the myriad of corner stores and neighborhood bodegas that pop up all over the city. Naming them all would be nearly impossible, especially since some of them don’t even have names printed on signs outside the establishments. What’s certain, however, is that they are the pulse of their neighborhoods, where people can find what they need, shoot the breeze, and meet up with others all day long. 

When milk runs out for the morning coffee, suburbanites either have to go without or begrudgingly throw on some shoes, hop in the car and drive to a gas station or grocery to pick up a gallon. Harrisburgers in many neighborhoods — Uptown and Allison Hill in particular — often have to walk less than a block to refresh their refrigerators and pantries. Corner stores and bodegas are providing a service that’s almost as good as the proverbial cup of sugar from the next-door neighbor — often served with the same neighborly banter, too.

At Zee Mart on N. 4th and Harris streets in Midtown, juices, cigarettes, and blunt cigars are the most purchased items. It’s the second-hand finds though that create the charm of this corner establishment with a faded Hershey’s ice cream sign and no store name outside it. A set of four matching hubcaps sit in a line on the floor against a display across from the cash register.

Brendan Finegan, who has worked for owner “Raj” for a few months, but knew him for years, noted that this corner store “is probably one of the more unique ones,” adding “that’s why I like working here.”

Finegan said they will help clear out old homes and bring some of the stash into the store to sell. They have a large collection of used DVDs, for example. “We take things off people’s hands,” he said. He enjoys haggling with customers on the prices of these one-of-a-kind finds.

Bart Swartz of Virginia, whose family is a distributor of beverages, is unloading some of those popular juices and listens with interest to conversations about the market’s inventory. “If you want to hear some stories from the streets of Harrisburg, I have some — both good and bad,” he said, and provided his number. Swartz said distributors in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia weren’t interested in serving these Harrisburg markets, so his family business based out of Baltimore took over the territory.

“Most corner stores end up being the place where people who don’t want to go to the gas station for their drinks will go — they can walk here,” Finegan noted of their clientele. 

Finegan says he lives across the street from Zee Mart and has worked at warehouses, helped move things into the corner store, and just likes being there. A self-proclaimed Libertarian, he bemoans the hoops he has been going through with the state Department of Agriculture in an effort to take ServeSafe classes for food service safety certification. “Do you know how hard it is to get that?” he complained, noting costs and inspection requirements that small establishments must meet in order to add food preparation to expand their businesses.

 As Finegan elaborated, a customer came in and asked the owner if he sold stamps and how much. “Seventy-five cents?” she asked incredulously, then mumbled under her breath as she bought one. “That’s highway robbery.”

The real thoroughfare for corner stores and bodegas runs through N. 6th Street from Maclay to Division streets where some blocks have more than one. 

Young’s Market (known online as Nana LLC) has been on the first block of 6th Street off Maclay going north for 30-plus years, but has been owned the past two years by the Oh family. Jay and his father Suk Oh were working there recently and described what is a more full-service grocery for the neighborhood. 

“Anything you can think of, we got it,” Jay Oh said, adding, “except car products.” He said the full-service deli is popular and that in addition to sliced meats and cheeses to make sandwiches at home, his father can also make any sandwich anyone requests. “Dad’s the boss,” he said.

He said business is steady throughout the day with mostly neighborhood residents patronizing the store. “We’re here for the older generation and the kids,” he said, acknowledging that Young’s doesn’t carry as many tobacco products as other bodegas in the area.

Another thing they can offer that sets them apart is making keys. Landlords and others use that service frequently.

Although neighbors are the regulars, Oh did note that he has seen more unfamiliar faces in the past year — many who come in for subs. “The personality shows,” he said of his family’s market.

Less than a block away, the bright yellow painted edifice of Antonio’s Grocery beckons at the corner of 6th and Woodbine streets. This establishment is busy all day long, said two-year owner Miguel Guzaman. “People come from all over” to his store, he said.

Why? His sandwiches are made to order from fresh ingredients and are known throughout the city, especially by the Spanish community, he said.

The store has the usual candy display by the cash register, cigarettes behind the counter, and a wall of drinks. A CAT driver walked in to order his sandwich, his big blue bus parked at the curb out front of the store.

A few blocks down, Victor Rivas operates his second establishment in the city. In 2009, he opened his first at 14th and Vernon streets, then moved it across the street into the former Harry’s Tavern, a Harrisburg landmark. Just as he changed that area with his well-stocked grocery and deli including hot breakfast and lunch foods, he has done the same at Major League Deli & Grill at the corner of Schuylkill and 6th streets.

Playing off the theme of professional sports leagues, the exterior of the deli is brightly colored with murals of sports leagues and food painted on the brick walls along with full-sized photos of menu items. Rivas’ friendly smile greets customers, and he deftly handles an interview while preparing an enticing-looking BLT for a customer. 

The customer waiting patiently for her BLT recounted running into other customers thrilled to find one-of-a-kind purchases at the bodega. In particular, she remembered a woman who said she’d been all over the city before finding a mortar and pestle-like wooden mug behind the counter at Major League. It sat on a high shelf alongside hookahs, with cigarettes and vape packs below.

In the same display, customers could find combs, scissors, bath soap, cold medicine, and more. Along with these incidentals, fresh deli meats, eggs, and plenty of Goya products line the shelves. The deli also stocks delicacies from Cousin Keef’s including carrot cake, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler.

As for the sandwiches, Rivas says they are always freshly made. His most popular offerings are omelettes, homemade cheesesteaks, and Tostones — the Spanish specialties, he said.

Rivas, a big Yankees fan given his Bronx, NY, heritage, has lived in Harrisburg since 2009. Along with his corner store at 14th and Vernon, he has recently purchased the Lucky Seven bar on Maclay street with plans to convert that bar into a deli, just as he did with the other two.

Along with his fresh deli food, Rivas said customers will like “the friendly group of 

people working here.”

These are just a few of the many corner stores and bodegas that line the city streets. On 4th Street, MiniMarket IV stays busy all day with people from the neighborhood stopping by. Also on the 6th street corridor, El Cabral Grocery features candy at the counter and a steady stream of customers. 

A young boy offered a dollar in payment for his Pepsi, only to be told it was $1.25. The woman waiting behind him in line to get cash to play the machines said she would cover it, but to remember that it was $1.25 next time. “My mom only gave me a dollar,” he said with a sweet smile as he headed out the door.

And, the owner knows he will be back, just as the personable owners of all of these community lifelines know their customers will be back again and again to quench their thirsts for fruit drinks, caffeine, tobacco, sandwiches, and camaraderie.

Allison Hill bodegas fuel inner-city neighborhood

By Paul Hood
For Harrisburg Magazine

Harrisburg is a comfortable small city where locals know each neighborhood in the city has a corner store. Whether tucked away on a side street or visible from the car while driving along busy streets, these havens of convenience dot the city limits, offering frequent customers a place to grab odds and ends daily. Talking to residents, it’s clear their fondness for stores that offer anything from food to snacks and sometimes made-to-order sandwiches.  Varying in size, some focus on smaller items, such as things someone may have forgotten to pick up while perusing the aisle of bigger stores like Giant or Aldi.

The history of corner stores (or as some refer to them, bodega — a Spanish term for a wine cellar, bar and/or grocery) dates back to the 1940s and ’50s, when Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants arrived in New York City shortly after World War II. In need of places offering items familiar to their culture and homeland, immigrants began opening convenience stores throughout the city. Today, in most cities near and far from Harrisburg, bodegas are as common as potholes, noise and traffic.  

These stores, scattered throughout the city of Harrisburg have — over the years — leveled-up in appearance and things offered. From 13th and Derry streets to 17th, South Allison Hill has become a haven for multicultural provisions.  Varying in size and amenities, these are not your grandma or grandpa’s corner stores, and each has a uniqueness that confirms the ethnic diversity for which South Allison Hill is known.

Harrisburg’s densely populated section, Allison Hill, is home to 3,369 residents (according to the latest census) where stores litter the cityscape. Grabbing attention with lights and colorful signs, the newer stores demand those driving through main arteries to take a look — or even stop in. The older stores, hidden on corners of narrow streets less traveled by those heading east toward the suburbs, sit tucked away and are easy to miss unless one is on foot.

Others are more visible and busy, such as neighborhood staples like Min and Jay Store, located on the corner of 17th and Regina streets. Min and Jay, currently under new ownership and undergoing a complete renovation, reveals changes soon-to-come as construction materials and the sound of a table saw fill the air inside. Entering, one is greeted by the beginning of new flooring in a place that supplies locals with odds and ends that help get them through the day, the week, the year … even through life. 

“This store is good for the area,” says Felix, a Brooklyn, NY, transplant who relocated to Harrisburg to build a new life for himself and family. “This is a place for families and you can buy property here much easier,” Felix added, clutching his newly purchased pineapple flavored White Owl Cigars. “This store reminds me of the one on my block back home.” 

Store manager Jose Ali, nine months fresh to the state capital from Upper Darby, PA, is known as friendly and helpful to locals. “He’s just a good dude,” says Felix. “They’re making this spot really nice for the people that live here.” 

Less than a mile away, in the  south eastern part of Allison Hill, Vanessa’s Convenience Store located at 1501 Derry Street, sits on the corner of 15th and Derry streets. The small but welcoming sign is one part of the big heart this store has for the community, and her Facebook page backs this up, with pictures of fresh meats and Spanish food. “The Hill reminds me of Brooklyn in the ’80s,” owner Vanessa Marcano says about New York City’s bodega-friendly borough. Marcano, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was only 1 year old when her family moved to Brooklyn. As she grew older and started a family herself, Brooklyn’s skyrocketing rent and struggling schools made her consider a change. 

“When we first moved here, we lived in Hershey,” she says. 

True to her upbringing in Brooklyn and the allure of lower rental prices and her passion for making hair bows for children, she was urged to move to Harrisburg and open a business. 

“I wanted to do something here because at the time there was nothing here like what I was offering at the time,” Marcano says, adding the ups and downs of the neighborhood have yet to sway her. “A guy got hit right out front of my store while riding his bike,” she says, noting she’s spoken to city officials on many occasions requesting a stop sign or light be placed near 15th and Derry streets. 

Her store is small, yet mighty (proof of this is damage on the side of the store made when sideswiped by a car) and is neatly stocked with the usual items: chips, sodas, cigarettes, and even hardware items, a rarity in neighborhood corner stores. 

“My empanadas are my best seller,” she beams, a claim solidified by a customer coming in to purchase the golden brown deliciousness fresh out of the oven during the interview. 

“There’s about forty five bodegas in Harrisburg,” Marcano says, “I’d like to think mine is different.” It’s more than just a corner bodega to Marcano, who’s current home is located on the top floor of the building. “Some of the owners have a business here but choose to live outside of the city,” says Marcano, as she promises to one day become part of Harrisburg’s Mural Fest sponsored by Sprocket Mural Works. “I’m going to get two of those planters outside and have the children in the area decorate it,” she says. 

“I want to continue to change things for the better,” Marcano adds, referring to Harrisburg’s gun violence and lack of positive outlets for Harrisburg’s youth. “Something needs to be done, but sometimes it feels like no one does anything.”

The sentiment about cheaper rent and a better life is also echoed by M&G Mini Market Manager, Juan Monegro. M&G Mini Market, located directly on the fork of Mulberry and Derry Streets — AKA Mulder Square — appears as one of the stores frequented only by its nearby residents. It’s small and offers the usual fare: sandwiches, WIC, coffee, ice cream, soda, fruits, ATM. Monegro, originally from West Chester, NY, laughs when asked what items are commonly purchased, “… cigarettes, cigars … our subs,” he says with a thick Hispanic accent.

More than convenience, the multitude of corner stores in the city of Harrisburg offer a sense of pride. They act as community batteries, refueling minds, bodies, and souls, and offering hope and necessity to a part of Harrisburg seemingly foreign to developers and residents in other neighborhoods.