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D.C. residents don’t have especially unique names for the little shops in our neighborhoods. When we need to pick up milk, we don’t borrow a word from Spanish and stop by the bodega, like New Yorkers do. Need a bag of chips? Unlike Southern Californians, we don’t buy our snacks at “junior markets.” And even if it means we’re less fun, we don’t call our shops “party stores,” like Michiganders do.
Here we say corner store, convenience store, or simply “the store.”
They can be the most forgettable shops in D.C. They have unmemorable names. They don’t usually have websites; some don’t have phone numbers. Too many of them don’t stock fresh food. Frequently, they’re overpriced. But just as often, they’re independently owned. They might let you buy now, pay later. Depending on where you live, the shop down the street could be the most practical place to buy pants, let alone breakfast. Your local shop owner might know you better than any other retailer, too. When’s the last time the check-out guy at Target asked about your kids?
Corner stores can be the easiest to forget, but sometimes they’re the hardest to replace.
The District government would like to make D.C. friendlier to corner stores. They’re factored into an overhaul of city zoning that’s been in the works for several years. Current regulations don’t permit new corner stores in residential areas, and that may change. The zoning update proposes a tweak that would allow new shops to open on residential corners under a limited set of circumstances. According to the Office of Planning, the proposed rules would open up big swaths of wards 1, 4, and 6—and scattered sections of the city’s other five wards—to new neighborhood markets.
That could be a great thing for parts of the city left behind by the District’s grocery-store boom, wealthy and poor neighborhoods alike. Then again, D.C. residents don’t necessarily love the corner stores they have now, even if they are conveniently located. Junk food, malt liquor, and Plexiglass—that’s what plenty of the city’s little shops are known for. How many want more of that?
The good news is D.C.’s corner stores are changing, often for the better. A DC Central Kitchen program is putting more fresh food into shops that didn’t sell any fruit or vegetables before. Stores in gentrifying neighborhoods are getting pricier, yes, but they’re ditching the Plexiglass. The standard for corner stores is shifting. Still, as long as they’re around, they’ll always be the most familiar place on the block.