For two decades, drugstores like CVS and Duane Reade (a.k.a. Walgreens) have been steadily taking over retail space that once housed grocery stores. “The drug chains have had an insatiable appetite,” Mr. Flickinger said. As smaller grocers have steadily retreated, the drug chains have morphed into a 21st-century take on the old general store. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of Duane Reade, CVS and Rite Aid locations in the city grew to 555 from 517.
Approximately 30 percent of sales at drugstore chains are for consumables, which means that the three drugstores capture an estimated $1.2 billion, or 9 percent of the $13 billion brought in by the top 20 food retailers in New York City, according to a CUNY study.
Walk into Duane Reade, and you can get a flu shot and buy a prepackaged tuna sandwich for lunch, along with bread, crackers, milk and grapes. But a drugstore is no corner market. Its selection is limited, and frequently random, and the vibe is often austere, hardly a place where a family would want to get its weekly groceries.
“There is no way that a drugstore is ever going to fill the void of a supermarket,” said Sabrina Baronberg, a founder of the Healthy Food Retail Networking Group, a coalition working to improve healthy food options in stores in poor neighborhoods.
And speaking of voids, few drugstores, or for that matter, supermarkets, are likely to hold your keys for your brother, or inform you that your husband was just in and already bought dinner. That’s the time-honored business of a neighborhood market. Chances are, you’ve watched the owner’s children grow up in the photos proudly taped to the register.
At some markets, particularly the smaller ones, the owner might wonder if you are running low on paper towels or give you a corny but much-anticipated calendar for Christmas. For New Yorkers who live paycheck-to-paycheck, a local grocer might even run a tab, something a national chain would never do. A senior citizen might receive a delivery even if a delivery service does not officially exist.
“We’re there for the community,” said Ramón Murphy, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States, and the owner of Red Apple Deli in the Hamilton Heights section of Manhattan. “There’s a reason we call it the family store.”
Convenience, of course, can also be a casualty when a neighborhood market closes.
Short on peanut butter? Need scallions for tonight’s stir-fry? You probably do not want to wade through the crowds at Trader Joe’s, and would rather avoid the opportunities to buy quirky, but unnecessary, items like cookie butter. You need a place at the corner, with a tiny shopping cart that looks like a toy. But it works, squeaky wheels and all, as you careen through the produce section with dust-covered spice containers stacked on the shelves above. The corners are tight — it’s every man for himself as you make that sharp turn into the aisle that contains bread, cereal and cat food.
Yes, many New Yorkers depend upon Fairway or the Union Square Greenmarket. But where would we be without Gristedes, Associated and the smaller stores with names we can’t recall?
“It’s really important that people have access to all different types of food retail — a supermarket, a bodega, a farmer’s market,” Ms. Baronberg said.
When the Gristedes at 40 East End Avenue and 81st Street closed this summer to make way for an 18-story condominium, neighborhood residents were dismayed, Arline L. Bronzaft among them.
“Look how many more people are coming,” said Ms. Bronzaft, a board member of GrowNYC, a nonprofit organization with an interest in greenmarkets, among many other things. “High-rise buildings are coming onto a block where there is no food. Does that make sense?”
The neighborhood lost a larger Gristedes last year at East 86th Street between First and Second Avenues, this time for a 20-story condo. “I went there for specific things, but those things are gone,” said Kathryn A. Jolowicz, the president of the East 83rd/84th Street Block Association. “Of course, I can go to Whole Foods and Fairway, but those places are zoos.”
The city has tried to convince grocers to stay with its Fresh program, which provides incentives to establish and retain neighborhood grocery stores. Fresh “made it really attractive for developers,” said David J. Maundrell III, the executive vice president of new development for Brooklyn and Queens for Citi Habitats, a real estate brokerage.