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The Big Gulp

The company hopes that early adopters like Jemal will trigger a cascade of conversions; 134 stores by 2017 is the target for Manhattan, but more could be easily added. In America, 7-Eleven is still largely seen as a symbol of suburbia, but it’s achieved urban density elsewhere. Copenhagen, for example, is frequently ­described as having a 7-Eleven on every corner. (In total, there are 197 7-Elevens in Denmark, a country of only 5.5 million people.) The company’s successful expansion in densely populated East Asia preceded its takeover by a Japanese group. According to 7-Eleven itself, the company was once hesitant to open urban stores because it wasn’t confident that urban customers would be interested in the limited product selection of smaller stores; the Retail Information System, it says, solves that problem. (The company also believes that its expanded fresh-food offerings will appeal to time-pressed city-dwellers used to buying food and necessities in the same place.)

Perhaps if bodegas were selling locally made Claritin, paper towels, and condoms, corporate convenience wouldn’t be so successful. But they didn’t. “A lot of [New Yorkers] do say, ‘We prefer mom-and-pop stores, but we actually shop at chain stores,’ ” says sociologist Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. “The very same person who buys fresh apples at the Greenmarket is going to buy Tylenol at Duane Reade.” In fact, given its franchise model and the Business Conversion Program, 7-Eleven could plausibly claim to simply be giving moms and pops the means to take their entrepreneurialism to new heights: The 7-Eleven takeover may merely involve the same people we already buy Doritos from selling us bags of Doritos from a different supply chain. In that case, all that will ­really be lost are some cats and the possibility of occasionally persuading a clerk to sell a single cigarette rather than a whole pack—that, and another set of idiosyncratic storefronts, to be replaced, à la banks and pharmacies, by the nationally uniform palettes of corporate chains. (And 7-Eleven has a particularly eye-catching, pulsatingly neon color scheme.) But will the desire to preserve the city’s visual character be enough to keep the independent bodega alive? 7-Eleven’s generic ubiquity doesn’t seem to have hurt it in other aesthetically minded cities—in Austin, for example, there are 37.

Norman Jemal has faced his own little bit of anti-corporate blowback. Last month, a black-clad group of anarchists attacked the window of his not-yet-opened St. Marks store. Though the window had to be replaced, Jemal was still up and running five days later. With assistance from the parent company, his location had blossomed from empty space to fully formed convenience store in a week’s time. On opening day, a small crew counted every last item in the store. After confirming it was fully stocked, a 7-Eleven handler offered Jemal some documents to sign, which he spread out on a coffee island. With three signatures, the store and its $50,000 worth of initial inventory became his. His first customer, at 11:30 a.m., bought two Buffalo chicken taquitos, two Monterey Jack chicken taquitos, and five fried chicken wings. She had asked for fewer wings, but the clerk’s suggestive selling was quite persuasive.