Pitt alum fosters photography community through small business Bankrupt Bodega


John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

Outside the Bankrupt Bodega on Main Street

By Trinity Foster, Staff Writer

For Pat Bruener, resident of Bloomfield and founder of Bankrupt Bodega, the clothing and film hybrid store was a dream come true 一 literally. 

“I had a dream and woke up in the middle of the night and was like, ‘I need to combine film and clothing,” Bruener said. “I started it out of my house, where people would drop film off, still under the name Bankrupt Bodega. Now, we’re a camera shop, film lab, art gallery.”

Bruener, a 2015 Pitt alum, founded Bankrupt Bodega in 2018 as a clothing brand, printing his original photographs onto hoodies and shirts and selling them at art festivals, music festivals and pop-up shops. Then, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to add a film element to the brand and relocated to a shop on Main Street in Bloomfield. The outside features bright red and yellow signage. Inside, apparel and photography hang on walls surrounding a glass display case of film cameras. 

Bruener said although running a small business is sometimes difficult, he loves it. 

“It’s the best. I wouldn’t do anything else,” Bruener said. “I used to have an office job developing and designing maps that would control Uber driverless cars, which was sick, but the office environment really wasn’t for me. I always had a vision of having a store and being my own boss. But it’s so much work, always, always, always.”

Bruener has a history in photography, shooting music festivals, architecture and street photography prior to starting his own small business. He learned about film at a now-closed spot called Pittsburgh Filmmakers in North Oakland, where Pitt students could take classes for credit, he said. The name Bankrupt Bodega is based on the store’s community focus.

“I always wanted it to be a community spot. We’ve done a lot of fundraising throughout the years, really trying to give back to the community and give artists a chance to show their stuff,” Bruener said. “There’s a real neighborly vibe here, and you can see that at a lot of our events.”

Jacob Patalive, resident of Friendship, is leaving Bankrupt Bodega after nearly two years as a store associate. He said the experience working at the shop has opened his eyes to the photography and film community in Pittsburgh.

“While I’m working, if there’s someone who knows a lot about film and a customer is in and has a lot of questions, they will even pipe up and help them choose the right camera or choose the right film,” Patalive said. “Everyone just wants to help everyone.”

The store’s central location is also an asset, Patalive said. Unlike competitors, the staff at Bankrupt Bodega genuinely care for their customers and their photography.

“I know that a lot of the CVS and Walgreens and Rite Aids you can send your film out to be developed but they have zero customer service, zero accountability, they just don’t care about you,” Patalive said. “We really care and want you to be happy with your film.”

Dylan McDermott, South Park resident and 2022 Pitt alum, agrees. He started seven months ago as a store associate at Bankrupt Bodega, running the store on the weekends. A longtime lover of photography, his combined interest in film and the store’s welcoming environment motivated him to get involved. 

“It seemed like a super cool and creative space. Everybody that’s always in there is super friendly,” McDermott said. “Also, being paid to do something that I enjoy was a big perk, as well.”

Bankrupt Bodega often combines community, photography and philanthropy through their photography shows featuring local artists. The store raised $10,000 for 412 Food Rescue in 2020 alone. 

Bruener explained that he’s inspired by his grandmother, who valued giving back. 

“We started out just doing solo shows, and we would pick and choose who we thought had good work and was ready to do a show,” Bruener said. “In the fall, we did our first group show, because we want it to be a community space. We had 60 photographers on the walls, which was a bit different than usual, but was cool.”

McDermott shares Bruener’s views on the importance of philanthropy.

“Every show that we do, whether it’s an art show or a raffle, there’s always some type of giving back to the community,” McDermott said. “The most recent show was an International Women’s Day show. 412 Food Rescue is also a usual charity we donate to. The community’s always helping us, so we want to give back to them as well.”

The shows are also an opportunity for the staff to express themselves creatively, especially Bruener, the store’s creative director. Shows aren’t always pure photography submissions, Patalive explains. In one instance, Breuener partnered with Cameron Smith from Studio 4, who sculpted robots that Bruener then photographed in a show called “Bodega Bots,” according to Patalive.

“Every show is Pat’s little brainchild. He’s wildly creative and I can say that every show he puts on is very well-attended, and people really look forward to them because they’re so different and new,” Patalive said.

The store is celebrating its two-year anniversary on April 7 with an art show called “Light Up Night.” Patalive, who started at Bankrupt Bodega when it opened in 2021, met Bruener 11 years ago as a first-year at Pitt. He will greatly miss his time at the store.

“I love working with Pat, I love everything he does. He’s just so creative and so handy as far as his creativity goes. What he puts together, it’s really cool,” Patalive said. “I love the store. I’m going to miss it.”