Sep 20, 2017

The "reinvention" of vending machines

A fully-stocked Bodega pantry for an apartment. Photo: Bodega

Two ex-Googlers are creating a commotion with a Plain Jane re-contemplation of the standard issue vending machine.

Ashwath Rajan and Paul McDonald are promoting the installation of small shops in the lobbies of dorms, offices and apartments, stocking them with typical convenience store items, and allowing payment with a mobile app (photo above). No advance there. But social media is erupting with outrage at the threat to the traditional corner store.

What's the big deal? The venture, which Rajan and McDonald call Bodega, invents precisely nothing: Percival Everitt conceived of the vending machine in 1883. Lobby pantries go back to Shakespeare and before. Throughout, immigrants and others have opened and run their convenience stores. Relax, folks.

Bodega launched Sept. 13 in 30 locations in San Francisco. The inflamed outpouring followed quickly, including from places where Bodega does not exist. "You can't just bundle cultural appropriation and gentrification and call that a company," tweeted Daniel Mortenson, a Brooklyn freelance writer.

Academics welcomed the opportunity to philosophize on the milieu.

  • "We in New York are living through a crisis of local shops," Sharon Zukin, a sociologist at CUNY Brooklyn, told Axios.
  • People have "a surface interest" to live in cities, said John Stehlin, an urban geographer at UC Berkeley, "but there are technologies that allow you to withdraw" from urban life.

Against the fear that Bodega will put local stores out of business, threatening the livelihoods of the middle-class immigrant families who often own and run these stores, McDonald wrote in a Medium post, "Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal." Instead, Bodega will go to "places where commerce currently doesn't exist."

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