Words & Deeds

Boise is the next Portland? More like New York City. Bodegas are opening Downtown

As a card-carrying Boisean, I did two things when I heard that JD’s Bodega had opened Downtown across from City Hall.

First, I Googled “bodega.” Then, I started cussing.

Bodegas are a longtime fixture of New York City, where there are thousands. “Bodega” is a Spanish word that has come to refer to a small grocery or corner convenience store. But a bodega, according to New York website StreetEasy, is “a lot more than that.”

Swell. If there’s one thing growth-paranoid Idahoans do not want, it is more. Of anything. Especially big-city and out-of-state. (OK, a few more “I Don’t Care How They Do It In California” bumper stickers. Those are funny.)

But as I stand here scratching the resident cat at JD’s Bodega, 161 N. Capitol Blvd., I’m realizing something. Embracing an aspect of East Coast culture actually might help preserve the Boise that we love. Or even recapture some of the small-town charm that’s already been lost.

JD’s Bodega owner Josh Davis, who grew up in Boise, is betting on it.

He hands me a local Dawson Taylor coffee and pulls up a chair near the front of the store. It’s one of three new Boise businesses calling themselves bodegas.

“I think places like this are what’s going to keep Boise having its own unique identity,” Davis, 46, says. “Although this is called a bodega — and for Boise residents, that may seem from the outside like it’s big city moving in — really, I’m trying to capture what Boise’s about, and trying to identify what Boise’s version of a bodega is.”

JD’s is not open 24 hours like a New York bodega. But it’s open late on Fridays and Saturdays. Downtown residents can grab ChapStick, lottery tickets, laundry detergent or a frozen pizza until 2 a.m. Bargoers wanting the party to last all night can pick up beer on their way home.

JD’s Bodega owner Josh Davis plans to develop the store’s outdoor patio area this spring. In the future, he also hopes to be able to allow customers to consume alcohol on the premises. Arthur Balluff

Unlike a genuine Big Apple bodega, there is no kitty at JD’s. That cat I’m petting? It’s a stuffed toy perched in a Christmas tree. Store clerk Holly Miller — identified as “Den Mother” on her name tag — hides the fake feline in a new spot each day. “Unfortunately, the health department here doesn’t allow us to have a cat,” Davis explains. “We don’t have a mice problem, so they kind of frown upon animals inside the store.” (Bummer. A Boise bodega should probably have a dog, anyway.)

Like a real New York bodega, JD’s takes pride in making customers feel like family. That’s where it’s excelled during its first three months.

Tiffany McGill, 36, works next door at Chase bank. She usually buys a drink or candy at JD’s. “Honestly, I go there every day just to talk to them,” she admits. “We chat. I can stand there for hours. Like last night, I was there from 6:15 to 8:30 just running my mouth!”

“They get to know you. They know your kids, your grandkids, your dog’s name. ... Holly’s like, ‘How’s Corey?’ — that’s my son. And if I don’t come over, she comes over to the bank, and she’s like, ‘Hey, I’m just making sure you’re OK!’ ”

McGill grew up on the East Coast, so she’s been educating Boiseans about JD’s Bodega. “They would come into the bank and say, ‘What is a bodega? Is that a clothing spot?’ I would say, ‘No, it’s a cute little corner grocery store. You can get your groceries and sit down and talk to them like they’re family.’ ”

Not all bodegas are alike. The Benchmark Bodega, which appeared shortly after JD’s at 3302 W. Overland Road, is more of a specialty shop with coffee, tea, beer, wine, spices and gifts. Bodega Boise, which is on track to open Downtown by late February at 1007 W. Main St., will be similar to JD’s but with more emphasis on groceries, co-owner Taylor Hunt says.

JD’s Bodega carries a mix of convenience store items and locally made products. Arthur Balluff

Josh Davis had never heard of a bodega until a couple of years ago. But he saw a need Downtown for a small market or convenience store. After doing a bodega reconnaissance mission in New York — and visiting similar mom-and-pop shops in Seattle and Portland — he formed a uniquely Idaho vision.

“We’re not New York City. And we’re not trying to be a New York bodega,” Davis says. “... As this town gets bigger, how do we maintain and hold the culture of what Boise is? And so you walk in here — it does not look like a New York bodega. It kind of looks like my bedroom when I was growing up.”

You’ll notice skateboard decor at JD’s. Davis is president of the Boise Skateboard Association. He knows about volunteer work. He helped raise money to get the Rhodes Skate Park built. JD’s Bodega is a business, but it’s also altruistic on a certain level.

“The reason why I wanted to do something Downtown, is because I grew up here,” he says. “I’m deeply vested in this community.”

Davis hopes Boiseans feel similarly about his bodega. Boise-made products are a fundamental part of JD’s. Not hungry for a typical convenience-store burrito? Grab a hot, fresh, Main Street Deli breakfast sandwich instead. Or something from Zeppole Baking Co.

Jody Gorton, 40, a brand analyst Downtown at nearby AppDetex, appreciates the fact that there are tables at JD’s Bodega. Grab some free popcorn. Look out the window at City Hall. An inviting outdoor patio is coming this spring, too.

“If you need to kill some time, you can sit, have a cup of coffee, read the paper, or sit with your laptop for 20 minutes,” Gorton says. “I think people are so terrified of change, but I think it’s definitely a positive for Downtown.”

Davis already sees the concept resonating.

When JD’s held its grand opening Nov. 1, during Day of the Dead celebration, a customer asked if they wanted to use her ceremonial altar display from home. “So she brought in this whole thing,” Davis says.

“We’re already getting people buying in,” he says proudly. “They feel like this is their store. This is their community.”

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Michael Deeds is an entertainment reporter and columnist at the Idaho Statesman, where he also has been a sportswriter, entertainment editor and features editor. Deeds co-hosts “The Other Studio,” a one-hour music show, at 8 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.