Thursday, April 25, 2013

Botega Botata, or The Comforts of Home

My Favorite 24/6 Macholet on Bezalel Street

I am a real believer in the corner store, and quite possibly one of their best customers internationally.Corner stores are a good litmus test of a place's character and culture. Don't believe me? What type of people go in there? What type of goods to they carry? Where are they located and when are they open? When do people shop? Yup, you can learn a lot from them.

In New York City, we don't really have "corner stores." We call them "bodegas." In fact, I didn't even realize this was a New York thing till I met Americans from other parts of the country... in Israel.

When I lived in Williamsburg, there were three main population groups (hipsters to the North, Latin Americans in the middle and then my Satmar Haredi brethren below South 8th street). Each area had its own characteristics with regards to the local bodega and each bodega took into consideration the local population. I can't quite remember them in the northern area of Williamsburg, mainly because I lived and worked farther down South, though I do remember the newly constructed, glossy 24 hour pharmacy with beer on tap and some fresh produce (ah, liberals in America...) and organic juices. Magazines galore to match the glossy exterior. In the central section of Williamsburg, the stores had mucho Latin American products--tons of goya spice mixtures and juices for example, and stuff with Spanish all over it. And lastly, in the Satmar section, corner stores were more like mini-supermarkets, with Israeli products dotting the shelves. No magazines here that I can remember. Some Yiddish.

In Italy, I cannot remember seeing any corner stores, probably because everything was so specialized. In Spain, I remember corner stores being called "chinos," probably in reference to the Chinese people who so often seem to own them. (Note to the wise: when discussing immigrant populations in Europe, it is quite possible that "Chinese" refers to anyone who looks remotely Asian.)

And now, on to my time in Israel.... Macholet, or corner store, is one of those words everyone uses in Jerusalem, even people who don't speak Hebrew. Interestingly enough, it was a word that I didn't learn till after I started living in the "real world" (i.e. working, albiet in an American company).

Probably the Cheapest Macholet I Have Seen in Jerusalem,
Located on Shatz Street (Soda is 1 NIS Cheaper!)
In Jerusalem, there are two main types of macholets: SOS 24/6 (referring to 24 hours a day, 6 days a week and not Shabbat), and then local corner stores. SOS stores may be considered sketchy by some. My coworkers will not visit the one I most often frequent, shinning brightly on Bezalel street. But for me, as a former New Yorker, what greater luxury could there be than picking up ice cream at 11:30 PM after a long day's work? Than strolling down the isles and grabbing a carton of milk on the way home and pretending I work normal hours, rather than American ones (3-11 pm)? When I go in late, there are all sorts of clientele. Sure, there are the strange ones who tell you to rub arak on your belly when you have a stomach ache. But there are also other 20-somethings, and even some married folk going in. When I was frantically doing Passach cleaning, I ran into a SOS macholet that was even closer to me (the beauty of living downtown). I was not the only one in frantic cleaning mode! And the clerk seemed to take pity on me and help me find stuff in the store, even giving me old newspapers to cover the counter tops with. Oh, the little things...

Then, there are the local macholets like the one we all visit at work, that is actually shutting down in the next few weeks because the landlords want to renovate the building. We are all a little sad at the office to see them go. They had been open some 20+ years.
Fresh Produce All Lined Up at a Neighborhood Macholet in Katamon

All corner stores in Jerusalem seem to have their fair share of fresh produce, ranging from so-so to really excellent quality. Sometimes, there is fresh-squeezed juice, especially of the orange variety. A great selection of yogurts and dairy products. A great selection of candy and gum and cigarettes. Newspapers (English language ones too, depending on the 'hood) and often magazines. Salatim (dips like hummus and babaganush). Baked goods like cookies and bread that look semi-locally made. Sometimes they even have specialty items, like American Reeses or Bailey's. And of course, the random (they are Israeli, afterall) like Hanukkah oil in the middle of the Spring. Quite often, they even have a space to sit in outside, under the sun... or, as is the case in the cheapest macholet I have found in the center, the owner's friends will sit on crates and talk to him, while he smokes a cigarette and rings up customers. Humble corner store or not, Israelis love to sit and chat.

See, there really is a lot to say about the corner store.

Salatim (Middle Eastern Dips Like Hummus and Schug) Galore Inside 24/6 Macholet
Land of Milk... at the 24/6 Macholet (See? Really NOT That Sketchy, Folks)
Assorted Jewish Things: Chanukah Oil (Green Bottle on Left); Memorial Candles; and Toothpicks, an Israeli Staple 

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