Four years ago, the illustrator Sunny Eckerle walked into a bodega in Brooklyn and found herself greeted by a cat. After assuming the little guy was a stray who’d wandered into the establishment by mistake, she was told that, nope, the kitty lived in the store.
As anyone who resides in New York City knows, this is a common part of the metropolis’s makeup: Every corner bodega is hosted by a cat who lives among the Lay’s chips, toilet paper and six packs, and whose days are spent warding off unsavory bugs and vermin while chaperoning the customers.
Inspired by her inaugural bodega cat sighting, Sunny began a project based around profiling the felines who reside in various bodegas around Brooklyn. Along with an illustration of each sterling servant, she details the cross streets of the establishment and writes a little back story about the kitty. You can mosey on over to her Brooklyn Bodega Cats website to check out the series so far.
As a confirmed bodega cat enthusiast myself, I spoke to Sunny about the reasons why these furballs are so beloved, got some pro tips on interacting with the cats, and asked her to suggest famous felines of the Internet who would make for fine bodega cats themselves.
Catster: Who was the first bodega cat you drew?
Sunny Eckerle: The first bodega cat I drew was Smoochie, who lived in Greenpoint. He belonged to the bodega near my old apartment and would sometimes come to my building for food or just to hang out. We were buddies. The bodega was sold to new owners and Smoochie was sent away to Connecticut — or so I was told — which was very sad to hear.
He was such a cool neighborhood fixture. I’d been wanting to officially launch the project for a while and it felt like a nice tribute of sorts to start with Smoochie. He’s a special edition in that sense because he’s the only cat I’ve drawn who no longer lives at the bodega and that someone couldn’t feasibly find based on my drawings. It was a little dedication to him as a send off. I hope he’s happy in Connecticut!
In my experience, bodega cats always have curious names. What’s your favorite back story to a cat’s name?
No Name is my favorite so far. She originally belonged to a lady who lived on the same block as the bodega where I met her. When the lady moved to Florida, she gave No Name to the store. At that time No Name had a name, but the bodega owners never learned it, or just forgot what it was. They’ve called her No Name ever since.
How long do spend getting to know a bodega cat before you’re ready to draw him?
Generally however long it takes to learn their names and some interesting facts about them. Some bodega owners are more interested in chatting about their cats than others. Part of what appeals to people about the illustrations is the narrative behind them and the personal aspect. A drawing of a cat and and a building isn’t as intriguing as a bit of background to go along with it. Because of that, I’d never draw a cat that I hadn’t met in real life or one that I didn’t feel like I knew at least a bit about.
How do the store owners usually act when you start asking about their cats?
Most are very enthusiastic and enjoy telling me about them — things like how they got their names, when they came to live at the bodega, a fun fact or story. I usually show them my website to explain what I do and why I’m so interested in talking with them. Sometimes they seem a bit confused as to why I am so interested in their cats, but I can understand that — they are trying to run a business and I’m trying to show them a bunch of drawings of cats. They’ve always been kind and friendly though, which makes the process even more enjoyable.
Why do you think people find bodega cats so appealing?
People become very emotionally attached to their bodegas because it can be such a big part of life in New York City. It’s where you go for all your early morning and late night needs; you get to know the people who work there. There is a sense of ownership and familiarity, especially if that particular store has a cat.
There is also something somewhat taboo about having a cat inside a store, like it shouldn’t be allowed. If you ever had an outside cat growing up but would sneak them inside when your parents were home — it’s a feeling like that.
Plus, what could be better than petting a kitty while you wait on your bagel and coffee in the morning?
Are there any special rules for approaching a bodega cat for the first time?
I’ll try to ask permission before I pet the cat because sometimes the store owner will warn me that they aren’t very friendly or calm. I’ve never been scratched but I’ve certainly been swatted at! Like any animal, be cautious and slow. Most bodega cats are used to people, but better safe than sorry.
It’s also my personal rule to always buy something in the store. I’m sure it’s frustrating to have people come into your store, pet your cat, and leave. Even if it’s just a $1 bottle of water, support the bodega!
Which famous Internet cats do you think would make a great bodega cat?
I think Lil Bub would make a fantastic bodega cat. Not because I expect her to catch that many mice or be a vicious defender of the space, but because you would have a line around the block of people trying to come into your store and see her. I can only image how many sodas and sandwiches you’d sell with that kind of foot traffic in and out!
Out of all the cats you’ve illustrated so far, who’s the ultimate bodega cat?
I’m most fond of Mars from Carroll Gardens because I see him almost every day. He sleeps hidden in the plants out front of the store, and he knows everyone! People are always stopping to pet him and say hi. He’ll also wander across the street to the park and hang out with people there. He’s quite friendly and personable, which is important in a store cat!
Read more about cats in art:
About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.