“Everything I ever had from here was spectacular,” a customer said to Guillaume Guevara, founder and owner of Miscelanea, the East Village corner store that became the go-to place for homesick Mexicans as well as New Yorkers in search of a more contemporary Mexican experience, free of luchador masks and sombreros. But on Tuesday, after a four-year run, it was in its final stretch: closeout sale day.
Guevara, a Mexico City native, thanked the woman as he busily tended to the other customers who, like lost ants, kept streaming into the bodega located on 63 E 4th St. They snatched the remaining $1 and $3 items from the shelves of the 450-square-foot store as they lamented it was closing, all in one beat.
Thirty minutes before locking the doors, Guevara exchanged bills with a customer, took swigs of his Mexican Coke—made with sugar in lieu of corn syrup—and nodded as yet another person expressed their disbelief. “We’ve known for about a month,” he said, probably for the hundredth time. To the inquisitive, he cited the rising costs of rent, payroll, taxes and garbage removal as the main culprits. In recent years, even the price of avocado—which they spread on just about everything—went up.
“But what about you?” the 37-year-old said, flipping the focus back to the customers’ lives. “What do you do?”
He came out from behind the counter to open the near-empty fridge and offer me a refreshment. “It’s on me,” Guevara said, making me choose between glass bottles of luridly-colored Jarritos or a non-alcoholic grape soda called Sangría. My brain jumped back to childhood memories of sipping the fizzy drinks during family vacations in Acapulco or during languid waits at nondescript rural highway stops. I accepted a Sangría.
In strict terms, miscelanea (or miscelánea—with an accent over the á—since we’re speaking in strict terms) translates to miscellaneous. But for anybody raised south of the border, the word is emotionally charged. Misceláneas—delis, corner stores or bodegas—aren’t just the last step of a supply chain, they’re places that are intimately tied to how Mexicans experience food and culture as they go about their daily activities.
In New York City, Miscelanea was the sole purveyor of this market/takeout food experience, Guevara assured. “Even if it’s hard to believe, we were the only miscelánea,” he said, although he agreed he couldn’t be 100 percent sure.
“You can go to Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx and find a store that self-describes as a Mexican corner store. But then you’ll find that the person taking your order is Ecuadorian, the products Venezuelan or Colombian, the food Dominican or Puerto Rican and yes, maybe they sell some authentic chips or Mexican food, but that doesn’t make the place Mexican. Even if it’s hard to believe, a place like that didn’t exist,” he told B+B later over the phone.
Bedford + Bowery, one of many outlets that wrote about the deli’s opening back in 2015, called it “the perfect place to go if you want a bit of Mexico in New York, but can’t handle any more Frida Kahlo meets donkeys meets sombreros meets lone cactus.”
Guevara knew how to make heads turn, offering kids’ sundries side by side with face masks made of Tulum-sourced clay and cookbooks by celebrity Mexican chefs. One time he announced he would give 10 percent of the returns of his hats and beanies brand, Son of an Immigrant, to the ACLU, in support of the nonprofit’s work defending migrants rights. Last year, he started accepting payment in Mexican pesos.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Guevara said. “People always want a reason, they want you to tell them what exactly went wrong. But this isn’t as if I ruined a Rum and Coke drink because I went too hard on the rum. It’s hard to pinpoint what happened.”
In the end, he said, the expenses exceeded the revenue. But he was proud of what Miscelanea accomplished. “There were sales, there were fans, noise, business and all that. I see this as a triumph,” he said. More than 300 reviews on Yelp gave the upmarket grocery a five-star rating.
He also expressed sadness. “For the partners, family, my employees, suppliers, clients; the people who believed in us and who believed in me,” he said on his way to pick up his three-year-old from school. After doing that, he and his wife had a farewell celebration date at Casa Enrique, a Mexican hotspot in Long Island City. “You should go if you haven’t,” he mentioned.
In Miscelanea’s last beating moments, the counter, fridge and wooden shelves displayed a motley assortment of “Mexico is the Shit” jackets, cooking wooden mixers, dried epazote herbs and chillies of the mulato and ancho varieties, traditional Mexican popsicles and other popular sweets, bottled grasshoppers (chapulines), Oaxacan cheese, corn to prepare pozole soup as well as tortilla-ready corn in masa, one lime squeezer, and hats and beanies from Guevara’s Son of an Immigrant brand. A propped-up white book with the serendipitous title Las cosas pasan por algo, o no (Things Happen for a Reason, or Not). A small basket even offered half-a-dozen units of the first aid antibiotic Vitacilina, whose advertising jingle “Vitacilina… ¡ah qué buena medicina!” was so popular in the country it’s forever engraved in the collective memory of its people.
A woman trailed in and asked about the wooden bench situated at the store’s entrance. On a lucky day, clients would find a spot on the bench to sit and enjoy their tender and juicy meat or scrambled-egg tortas. “Oh, you want it? Take it!” he said, as he wiped it dry from the day’s rain, “I had it custom made.” Guevara sold it for under $20 and helped the woman load it into a van.
The retail entrepreneur has called New York City his home for more than a decade. But now he has plans to fly with his family back to Mexico City, where he hasn’t lived since he was 17. “I went to study in Europe and never returned,” he said, and added, “I want my son to learn Spanish properly.”