Vieques has more corner stores than it has corners.
Well not quite, but you get my point.
Our favorite, El Encanto, on Route 201 just beyond Nales, is a convenience store and bar rolled into one.
I’ve often tried to imagine walking into our local 7-Eleven in D.C. at 10:00 in the morning and finding a group of middle-aged men and women sitting around drinking beer and gossiping, a jukebox blaring in the background.
Somehow it just doesn’t compute.
And yet that’s what you’ll find at Encanto any day of the week.
The soft drinks and bagged ice are kept in the bar section of the store, and the first few times we ventured in there we didn’t quite know what to expect. After all, it was crammed full of people drinking, dancing and generally whooping it up at breakfast time.
But they just ignored us. On one occasion they even invited us to join them.
“Too early!” we cried.
They laughed at our abstemiousness and ordered another round.
Meanwhile, “across town” on Route 997 are two bodegas known to us, respectively, as the Store That Has Everything and the Store That Has Nothing.
It’s hard to imagine how the latter stays in business, since it has almost no stock. I sat in the car one afternoon while Michael dashed into this particular colmado with a list of six or eight items, all staples—toilet paper, milk, Windex. In other words, nothing remotely out of the ordinary.
He was back in less than five minutes with a miniscule carton of milk bravely defying its expiration date–and nothing more.
“What happened?” I asked.
“They didn’t have anything on our list except milk,” he said in his matter-of-fact way.
“What do you mean?”
“Their shelves are almost literally bare.”
“But how do they stay in business?”
He gave me one of his famous Looks. “I didn’t ask.”
The Store That Has Everything is tiny and absolutely stuffed to the gills with inventory.
You can barely get in the door without knocking something over. You’d think the proprietor of the Store That Has Nothing would drive over and buy a few items just to brighten up his shelves, but not so much.
Unlike El Encanto, there’s no bar in the Everything Store, but that doesn’t mean they don’t serve alcohol.
One day a courtly older man in front of us in line approached the register and spoke a few words in a low voice to the cashier.
Without missing a beat the young woman placed a small glass on the counter, reached for an open bottle of rum at her side and poured the elderly gentleman a double shot. With a charming flourish, he raised the glass, toasted everyone in his general vicinity, and knocked back the drink in a single gulp.
Price: one dollar.
There’s also the Green Store in Esperanza, which features an outdoor seating area for drinking and general breeze-shooting…
…the store in Isabel we’ve dubbed the Hot Store because it’s always at least 20 degrees hotter in there than it is outside, and the new so-called big box store across from the electric company that sells things in bulk like Sam’s Club, only at a smaller discount and with a wine bar attached to its front.
But the Vieques establishment that takes us roaring back to our childhoods more than any other is the “dime store” on the main drag in downtown Isabel. This place bears an uncanny resemblance to the Woolworth’s of our youth, circa 1968, right down to the gerbil on the treadmill…
…the chirping parakeets…
…and the pungent, all pervasive odor of plastic and linoleum.
It also closes for an hour at lunch time.
We love this place simply because it’s redolent of a world long past, when a Saturday afternoon visit to the five and dime was something we looked forward to all week.
Now, if the store were trying to be quaint in a time-warpy sort of way (think Colonial Williamsburg or any of the other calcified, self-conscious theme parks that pass for history in modern America), it wouldn’t be.
But it’s not trying to be anything.
It just is.