- I just paid my annual hosting bill for this site. It’s a bit depressing, because when I calculate how many posts I make per year, it averages out to like ten bucks per post, unless I make a whole bunch of entries in the next two months.
- The Apple Airpod Pro release made me think I should make a lengthy post about every pair of headphones I’ve bought in the last few years, and why they ultimately didn’t work out. I have a bit of a problem when it comes to headphones, and can never find something that works perfectly. Then I spend an inordinate amount of time shopping for something that maybe would.
- I’m 100% sure if I did buy Airpods, they would fall right out of my ear and I’d lose them, anyway.
- I am not near the fires, and I haven’t lost power, so let’s not get into that.
- Fitbit got bought by Google, which really pisses me off and depresses me. I have used a Fitbit since I think 2012, and now also have one of their scales. I have a lot of data in my Fitbit account, and it basically got sold to a company who is 100% going to kill it. Or every time I want to check my steps, I will have to watch an ad.
- Caviar got bought by DoorDash. This also pisses me off, because DoorDash is a horrible company and Caviar has been great. I realize food delivery is lazy, but I am lazy.
- There is this outdoor mall thing about a mile from my house. (Bay Street in Emeryville). Anyway, they at one time had like a dozen restaurants, and now they have one. In the last couple of weeks, Buckhorn and Fuddrucker’s closed, and Rubio’s closed a bit before that. Now there’s an upper level where every single store is closed except California Pizza Kitchen. I eat at CPK way too much, but when that closes, I’m done.
- There’s also a Barnes and Noble in that mall, and I used to hate B&N and see them as this company that killed indie book stores (I talked about this before, sorry) and anyway, it’s only a matter of time before they shutter that place, too.
- This outdoor mall was literally built on an Indian burial ground. I used to go to Weight Watchers with a retired Archaeology professor who was hired by the builders to dig around and identify graves and whatnot. Maybe that’s why they can’t keep any restaurants going there.
- I think they discontinued the deodorant I have used since like 1993, and I have to switch to another. That kind of thing really pisses me off.
- I hate to sound like an old person when I talk about this stuff closing, but it’s depressing, and makes me think a lot about how everything dies, including all of us, and I can’t process that. When I hit 50 soon, look for this worry train to go completely thermonuclear.
- Speaking of DoorDash, I just placed a Caviar order at a place that’s usually pretty quick to fill deliveries, and got a text now saying the order will be late. The last time I ordered from DoorDash, they did this like three times and then completely no-showed. And so it begins.
When I lived in Seattle from 1995 to 1999, Northgate was sort of my default mall. It wasn’t my favorite mall, and it wasn’t the best one in the area, but it was the closest to my house, and I ended up there at least once a week. When I first moved to Seattle, I stayed at my friend Bill’s place in Mountlake Terrace for a month, and took the bus down I-5 every day for work. And every day, we’d pass this sprawling shopping center, just off the highway. One thing I remember clearly is it had a giant two-screen movie theater on the north side, with a changing-letter marquee where the words were taller than me, advertising the movies Clueless and Apollo 13. So when I got a car and had some time on a weekend, it’s the first mall in Seattle I visited.
After I moved to First Hill, this mall was a straight shot up the highway for me. Hop on I-5, drive a hundred blocks, exit, done. Even though I worked next to the much smaller Factoria mall across the lake, I ended up driving to Northgate pretty much constantly. Between the Denny’s and a smaller local pancake place, I always had a default diner there too, so every Saturday was spent at this mall, more or less.
Northgate is arguably the first mall in America. There are like a half-dozen different malls that claim this, and I’m too lazy to research which one is right. But they built two strips of stores in 1950, then covered it with a “sky shield” and eventually sealed off the whole thing in the early 70s, making it an enclosed mall. They later built one of the first Nordstrom stores, the big two-screen theater, and the other anchors. Later additions while I was there in the late Nineties included a Toys R Us, a food court, and a general remodel. In the 00s, Simon did their usual “lifestyle addition” thing with a Potemkin village of outward-facing smaller anchors on the west side of the mall (one of them always being an Ulta Beauty), and removal of the theater (and the giant totem pole that was in front of it.) A Target and Best Buy went in across the street, and the surrounding landscape of the area has completely changed five times since I left. There were also various anchor and store flips in the last twenty years. I wasn’t there, you can look it up.
I honestly found the architecture and layout of Northgate to be a bit boring, and deceiving. It looks small, but it’s gigantic. When I lived there, they had four anchors, all of them softlines, which bored me. (JCP, Nordstrom, Lamonts, Bon Marche.) And the entire mall was a single hallway, a straight 1,500-foot shot with stores on either side. It didn’t have a winding floor plan, so it seemed smaller, but if you walked from anchor to anchor twice, that’s over a mile. It had no vintage charm, just high ceilings and faded white everywhere, like an airport concourse. It also had few stores where I really shopped. But I still ended up there a lot, and spent an insane amount of time walking up and down that long hallway, looking for… I don’t know what. The drab non-decor was replaced during the 97-98 remodel with fake-ass timber accents on the high ceilings that made it look like a ski lodge, which was all the vogue in the time in the PNW.
What attracted me, other than the proximity to my house, was that Simon malls all had this universal emotional antiseptic feeling to me. Wandering that place felt very similar to walking through College Mall in Bloomington, or University Park Mall in South Bend, even if they layout and the stores were different. Especially in my first year there, I was extraordinarily depressed, missed Bloomington a lot, knew almost nobody, didn’t know where anything was, didn’t have a TV, and was always broke. I later found other malls further out, and other stores to buy music and books and food. But it became a default place to mope around, walk a few laps, and then go home and try to write.
I didn’t buy stuff in that mall much. I only went to that movie theater a few times (I remember seeing Event Horizon there) and I used to pop in the B. Dalton every time I visited. Bon Marche had a Vans shoes section, and I’d buy a pair each year like clockwork. A Wizards of the Coast store was always worth a browse, even though I didn’t play D&D or Magic at the time. An office supply/craft store provided me with a lot of fancy pens I’d later lose. The mall had an attached drug store where I’d frequently load up on cold medicine, and a QFC grocery was good for a frozen dinner or two. After Toys R Us arrived, I’d pop in there for Nintendo 64 games. But more of my shopping was around the area, like the Silver Platter records just south of there.
Aside from the strange nostalgia for the place, and the fact that it will all be gone soon, is the fact that the coverage around the remodel sort of pisses me off. People in Seattle have always hated malls, it seems. They’ve always talked about how horrible Northgate was, even when it was a top-grossing mall. Now, the YIMBY crowd is super excited about the death of the mall, mostly because we’re all supposed to ride bicycles and something with a parking lot somehow triggers them. I don’t follow Seattle redevelopment news much, but we have our own vocal YIMBY contingent here, so I imagine the more-housing-at-any-cost crowd is celebrating the mall’s death enthusiastically. Seattle has 100% changed since I left, and I get it — cities change. Since I left, Amazon has hired more people than my home town has, period. So, housing crunch, people hate malls, yada yada, you already know the rest.
It’s been over twenty years since I saw that place, or any of Seattle. I still miss it, because it was such a key time in my life, my first four years out of college, which felt more like a decade. But it’s an extreme case of “you can never go back,” because so much of the city has changed.
Wish I had some old pictures of the place, but that was in the film era. I do have some pictures of my VW in the parking lot, and you can almost sort of see the east entrance of the mall in the background of one shot. I used one of the pictures for the third edition cover of Summer Rain, but you can’t see anything but the pavement in the zoomed-in shot. (And fun fact: the license plate in the pic is a photoshop job. And Indiana didn’t had front license plates in 1992, so that’s wrong, too.) Anyway…
I’ve been back from Indiana for a while, but I’ve been thinking about something I can’t exactly shake, something I saw during my drives around old stomping grounds. This was further drilled into my head when my pal John Sheppard came out to Michiana for a day-long Konrath Reality Tour leading all through Elkhart, Mishawaka, and South Bend. As we drove around, and I pointed where things were, what used to be something else, I noticed a common theme: holes.
By holes, I mean a few things: abandoned properties, massively downsized operations, national-brand grocery stores that were now Mexican bingo halls only open a day a week, the endless regional-brand drug stores that are all a sad Dollar General now. There were also blighted properties, weather-beaten properties, faded and un-maintained properties. But beyond that, there were holes: Blighted properties that would never come back, or that had completely vanished, plowed under and destroyed, vacant lots that would probably remain vacant forever.
It was disheartening and depressing comparing the geography of my childhood in my mind to the current landscape and what still remained. For example, the area of Dunlap that was once the main drag when I was in high school is largely bulldozed and gone. The two-mile strip of US-33 from maybe CR-13 to Hively has lost a majority of its businesses. I’ve already covered Concord Mall a million times, but there’s that. Then there’s my old Taco Bell, sitting abandoned for years; the Arby’s next to it is a vacant lot; the tile place on the other side was torn down by the city because it was blighted. The Astrobowl bowling alley is leveled; the Shakey’s pizza is leveled. The Aldi’s grocery store was abandoned, then was briefly a Guatemalan fruit stand, but is now abandoned. The place next to it was I think a Goodwill; abandoned. Optical store, empty. Bank, empty. Martin’s grocery store, they started rehabbing it, hit asbestos and a leaky roof, and abandoned it half torn apart. Movie theater, abandoned. There’s a small strip mall that had a band instrument place and a furniture store; half the slots are empty, and it has a gold and pawn and a tattoo place. A long, long stretch of this highway was eminent domained to put in a US-20 bypass exit, and is eerily vacant, never redeveloped. This is all within two miles, and there are a lot of other parts of the city also pock-marked with similar holes.
I don’t want to get into a political argument about the wage situation or how Elkhart is being made great again by wage-labor jobs that will all vanish when gas hits four bucks a gallon again. That’s not the point; the point is, it seems like a lot of retail landmarks have vanished, and haven’t been replaced by anything. Some of this is because of Amazon, I’m sure. Some of it is Walmart killing off mom-and-pops. Same with big venture cap hostile takeovers to pick the old retail giants clean of any value and leave them for dead. (I’m talking about you, Sears.) Some of it is that the remaining nationals and regionals have moved to other locations, like the swath of businesses south of Elkhart, or the constant growth in Mishawaka and South Bend. There’s also the possible case that the area was just massively overdeveloped when I was a kid. In the pre-Reagan years, a good investment was developing real estate like malls and using accelerated depreciation to reap a greater tax deduction. (See also.) Elkhart may not have been a city big enough to support two malls, a vibrant downtown, and the suburban Dunlap retail corridor, all of which are gone now. (The two Walmarts are doing okay, though.)
Other reasons: a lot of gas stations of my youth are gone, scraped bare and vacant. That’s probably rusty underground tanks that were easier to abandon than clean up. A lot of these have also become used car lots, the u-work/u-drive type that quickly flip auction sale cars at predatory interest rates. But if it can’t become a car lot (or a church – lots of those there) it becomes a vacant lot. The same environmental issues are also an issue for rehabbing old architecture for new use. The Martin’s grocery store I mentioned is a prime example, and one that has happened many times. Asbestos, perpetually leaking roofs, piss-poor insulation and bad HVAC (try heating 100K square feet when it’s 45 below zero out, like this week), sinking and broken foundations that were laid on the cheap back during the construction boom. and just bad configuration and layout which would require more than just a full gut.
There’s also the “white flight donut” going on. In the Seventies, everyone left the inner city for the suburbs, where subdivisions were hastily built from plowed-up cornfields. (That’s where I spent my childhood.) When those quickly-assembled houses fell apart twenty or thirty years later and their owners retired, they moved further out into the country. In some American cities, when this happens, you get the “donut” effect, when the core downtown is gentrified by yuppies. (See also Chicago, or even Goshen.) This hasn’t happened in Elkhart, but the suburbs that were created when I was a kid aren’t as active as they used to be.
I recently read the book Obsolescence: An Architectural History by Daniel M. Abramson. It brought up this concept that I never really thought about, and is contrary to most of the old retail/dead mall/preservationist thought I see on various blogs. The thesis was that architecture has planned obsoleteness, just like that three-year-old phone of yours that won’t keep a charge anymore. There is an idea that a building or a house is built for forever, that it is a landmark that will last an eternity. But historically, starting in the Sixties, architects moved to a frame of thought that buildings had a shelf life. It was cheaper to make something that only lasted thirty years, and this also fit into the general tax code, as I mentioned above. But also, if you designed something trendy in 1961, it would be played out in 1991, and you’d level it and start over.
There’s two sides to this school of thought, and I’m sure this horrifies some people. Just the idea that something would be destroyed after one paid so much, both in money and ecological impact, would seem disturbing to some. But it’s something I think about a lot when I see these buildings that basically implode and vanish. There’s no money in rehabbing these buildings, replacing them with vibrant businesses. It’s more economically viable to leave them blighted. It’s a real paradigm change to think of housing and property to be a temporary investment, an expendable purchase, instead of something you buy forever. Most people can’t deal with the mental concept that a purchase like a phone or a car isn’t designed to last forever, so this school of thought is beyond them.
I guess the thing that’s sad to me is that it’s one thing to think that buildings become obsolete and should be replaced when their time is up. I see a lot of that here in Northern California, but here the movement is upward. Single-story houses are replaced by townhouses; single-floor stores are replaced by shopping centers. Old corporate headquarters buildings are torn down and replaced with modern ones that are several times the size. (See also my old office.) But the value of land here is so high, it’s a no-brainer, aside from the nostalgic component, to scrape an old building and replace it with a higher-grossing structure that can do more, hold more, make more money.
In Elkhart… that isn’t happening. Houses don’t get scraped like they do in Palo Alto. Commercial development doesn’t seem to be over the top. Maybe factories are expanding, but the retail corridors look vacant or underutilized. Like I said, there are probably numbers to counter that, but from what I saw, it was depressing. It makes me wonder what will still remain if I visit again in another ten or twenty years.
No, I wasn’t one of those weird religious kids who weren’t allowed to play video games, and I didn’t have hippy parents who thought GI Joe was promoting war. TRU just wasn’t an option for my corner of Indiana.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, K-Mart was a big part of my childhood. The two K’s really — K-Mart and Kroger. This was before Target, before Wal-Mart, and those two stores were the bulk of my retail experience in the mid to late Seventies. I spent all my time in the toy aisle of K-Mart; I could probably still note its location on a store map, had the store not been gutted and turned into a Big R farm supply. I also did a lot of my toy gawking at a now-gone variety store called GL Perry’s, which was just down from the Kroger in the also-gone Pierre Moran mall. But it was a few years before I really got locked into a proper toy store for my Lego and Star Wars needs.
The Concord Mall didn’t have a Toys R Us, but did have a Kay-Bee toy store. I was definitely a Kay-Bee kid. They originally had a narrow little store just to the left of the anchor that was then Robertson’s, and was later Meis, Elder-Beerman, and most recently Carson’s, before dying. It later moved into a bigger location in the middle of one of the arm’s spokes.
In my mind, Kay-Bee was slightly more disorganized and second-rate compared to TRU. The aisles were narrower, the shelves were more floor-to-ceiling and packed tighter, and the front half of the store was this blue-carpeted dumping ground for pallets and bins of toys, with little walking space between them. All the video games were locked away in glass cases behind the front counter, which was counterintuitive to browsing them for hours. It didn’t have the flow or the larger footprint of a bigger, standalone TRU store. It was a bit of a mess, but wonderful as a kid.
Another thing is that in retrospect, they had a lot more discount/clearance stuff, oddball brands and closeouts. It was a bit of a dumping ground for weird brands on the way out. And I used to fixate on that stuff, both because it was weird, but because it had the magical yellow tag on it saying it was discounted, showing the old price slashed out in red, the perfect argument for convincing a parent that you needed to buy it. And these strange off-brand things are now impossible to find online.
One weird example I was thinking about: so there was this big market for third-party Atari joysticks back in the day. Atari used a common 9-pin connector on the 2600, and they used the same circuit on the Commodore 64. I was always on the lookout for a better controller, a cheaper solution for the C64, and Kay-Bee was the dumping ground for every small company that tried to get in on the video game craze and got burned when it crashed. I remember buying a pair of the garbage wireless 2600 joysticks when those got dumped on clearance. I also had a weird touchpad controller that was like a mix of an Intellivision disc-style stick and the Atari keypads used by Star Raiders and nothing else. It wasn’t that great, but I have some obsession for finding it online, and it’s impossible.
The other big example was that Kay-Bee was a big dumping ground for the liquidation of the Mattel Aquarius, which was my first computer. I’ve already written about this at length, but the bullet is that Mattel crashed and burned about fifteen minutes after they quick-released this underpowered, chicklet-keyboarded machine, and they started showing up at Kay-Bee for like a hundred bucks in a bundle with four games and joysticks and everything else. I got that for my thirteenth birthday, and that started a whole great career that led up to where I am now. (Not sure if that’s good or bad, but middle management at a software company is probably better than coal mining.)
Anyway, Kay-Bee became my default place to go in the mall. Any time there was Christmas money or extra allowance or a birthday coming up, I’d gravitate to that spot in the mall. And every obsession of my pre-teen world was there, almost like a cycle of things I fixated on as a kid. It went from Star Wars to GI Joe to model trains to model planes to D&D to video games. I know a lot of people talk or write about how music or punk rock saved their lives, but for me, in those years, it was everything in Kay-Bee. I don’t know what path, better or worse, I would have traversed if I had not spent the beginning of junior high memorizing the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but going to Kay-Bee (and to Walden Books) to pore over the collection of modules and figurines and dice was a major percentage of my time.
At a certain point, things changed, and the fixation went to the other wing of the mall, the one with the independent record store, Super Sounds. The toy store was somewhat forgotten. It changed its name at some point to KB, and the later, Mitt Romney and friends drove them into the ground, a story that would later repeat itself with TRU. I never shopped at Kay-Bee after a certain point, although sometimes out at College Mall, I’d duck into that location as a nostalgia trip. I remember Kay-Bee going under, but I was tuned out of the news for whatever reason, and never really mourned it in any way.
Much later, Toys R Us did come into focus for me, but it was a place to look for video games. I remember buying a Nintendo 64 there, at the one in Seattle at Northgate Mall, and I’d always check them out to see if they had any weird cartridges, in the pre-Amazon days when you could just look up every cartridge in the world and be a click away from owning it.
But Toys R Us never had that strong reverberation with me, that primal childhood pull, just because it was off my radar. I think Chicagoland had many locations, and there actually was one just north of University Park mall, but I never regularly went to UP until I started driving, and then the interest was in music (and girls, but nothing ever happened there).
I can relate to the same angst that people have about the TRU bankruptcy, and the various rumors about brand necrophilia, the stories that they might come out of bankruptcy court as a holiday pop-up, or a mini-store inside Target, or whatever. I went through this with Wards, which I really missed after working there for years. And some random mail-order place later bought their name and use it for this pickwick-like catalog of Chinese junk, which never sat well with me. Wards vanished quickly, and it’s impossible to find any traces of it anymore. I’m guessing the same will happen to TRU. Lots of people are taking pictures now, but they’re uploading them to cloud services that will also die or be killed. Try finding a picture you put on Kodak Gallery or MySpace ten years ago — that’s what will happen to all deadmall history in a decade.
There was a TRU in Emeryville, a few miles from my house, which is now becoming some sporting goods store. I took a few shots last weekend of the one out in Dublin, which is just sitting there. I’m always curious to see what will happen with these places, and what direction retail would go. I should archive more, but like I said, the more I get into this, the more depressing it gets.
The news has been out for a bit about the bankruptcy filing of Sears Holdings, and the massive list of Sears and Kmart stores closing. In my area, it’s a bit odd, but the one in Stoneridge mall, an upscale mall that’s doing well, got the axe; the one in Hilltop mall, which is complete devastation, did not get closed. I think all the Sears stores I used to shop last century are gone, but that’s another post.
The closest Kmart to my house, which is in Pinole, is slated for closure. I’ve never shopped there, so I decided to head up there last week. It’s in a little shopping center just east of Hilltop mall, just down from a Target, and sort of hidden away on a lazy stretch of big-box stuff, like a Best Buy, a Lucky grocery, and across from a Sizzler that looks like it’s also circling the drain. (To be fair, most Sizzler restaurants have looked like that for decades, though.)
There are like three eras of Kmart for me. As a little kid, we were there almost every week with my mom. This was the Seventies, before Walmart, back in the days of blue light specials and the K Cafe, the place where I got all my Legos and Star Wars figures. I have very fond memories of that place. I can almost smell what the store in Elkhart smelled like, the mix of tru-green fertilizer in the garden center, syrupy cokes spilled on the floor of the cafe, and the heavy starched denim of Wrangler jeans. And I can still feel the wobble of the wire cart, the one with the broomstick affixed to one corner so you couldn’t push it out of the store.
I worked across the street at Taco Bell, and later just south at the Concord Mall. I bought my first CD player there. And in the days before Target and before Walmart, I bought a lot of stuff there. And that logo is the Kmart logo I always remember, the slanted red K and the minty blue letters for the mart. Those old-school stores all looked the same, too, with the low-slung rectangular marquee, no curves and styling, and the big, all-glass front.
Then there’s the Nineties era of Kmart. By the time I got to college, going to Kmart was not a necessity; it was ironic. I would go late at night with my friends when we wanted to remember childhood, and goof on how crappy things were there. And Icees and corn dogs. Kmart tried to change then, with the big red K and the white mart in script inside the K. Some became a Big Kmart, with the Big in blue, and a yellow swoop under it, in true Nineties graphical style. They also made those marquees big and round and lofty, tried to look less like an early Sixties grocery and more like an actual department store. They added more stuff to compete with Walmart and Target, groceries and drug stores and whatnot. I’d still pop in back when I was back in Elkhart. And when I got to New York, there were magically these Super K stores, which was a weird nostalgic throwback for me to visit. (More stories about those at some point, maybe.)
Then there’s the new Kmart. And I have no connection to this Kmart. None. It’s like brand necrophilia, like someone said, “let’s make a store shittier than Dollar General, and just as a goof, we’ll call it Kmart, and put a monochromatic logo designed by a five-year-old on the front.” A scattering of Craftsman crap, a random layout, and a general feeling that makes the old Seventies redneck Kmart look like a Nieman Marcus. There’s a Kmart out in Concord I occasionally go to on a goof, mostly because it’s a nice drive on the outskirts of Mt. Diablo. But when I’m inside, there’s no connection, nothing that reminds me of childhood, and definitely nothing I’d want to buy.
So, the Pinole store. It was total devastation. There were gaudy clearance signs everywhere, inside and out. It looked like any name-brand merchandise they may have had, was gone. Maybe it was bought up already; maybe it was sent back to the vendors for credit. Entire aisles were closed and taped off. People were throwing stuff on the floor everywhere. Kids were putting on halloween costumes, running through the store, ripping open toys, and throwing them on the ground, while their parents ignored them. The entire store smelled like shit. There were large signs by the layaway department that said ALL SALES FINAL, and others with the Sunday circular, saying WE ARE NOT A PARTICIPATING LOCATION.
I went through the clothes department, and everything was on the floor. It seriously looked worse than when I went to the Astor Place Kmart on the morning of 9/11 and every secretary in lower Manhattan was trying to buy tennis shoes so they could walk home without the subway running. I picked around for any jeans that might fit, and they had no Wranglers left; they had a knockoff brand called “Rustlers” or something. The smallest size was a 50-inch waist.
I took some pictures, and hurried out. Honestly, the whole thing threw me. The entire dead mall, death of retail thing is really getting to me. So many things are shuttering, so many pieces of my childhood are vanishing. And so much of the history will be lost, because it’s only being instagrammed, and in five years, instagram will be cratered and unarchived. It really bugs me, and makes me want to archive more, see more, take more pictures. But the more I do it, the more it depresses me.
The other thing is that the more I dig around in these online dead retail communities, the more I realize I hate 90% of the people in them. Nostalgia groups are the worst. I sometimes creep in this Elkhart group, and it’s nothing but borderline illiterate people bitching about Amazon and technology, and waxing nostalgic about garbage food that will kill them. And maybe I shouldn’t say that. But there’s part of me that thinks that being obsessed about this stuff is only like a degree removed from hoping that coal mining jobs come back, which isn’t going to happen.
There needs to be progress, and there needs to be a future. And in looking back, I feel like we built too many malls because they were a convenient tax dodge, and we bought too much junk that’s now filling our landfills because we were told we needed to buy more plastic from China. And I’m torn, because I can waste so much time looking at pictures of old stores and reading about old malls. It scratches an itch that will always need to be scratched. But it prevents me from doing anything creative, or moving forward with my life.
I’ve had this stupid idea in my head for years, about doing a combination glossary, wiki, and blog about the Nineties, about my experiences and the places I worked and shopped and visited. And I feel some need to do this, before I forget all of it entirely. But I’ve written books that took place in the Nineties, and I did that glossary book, and they were my worst-selling books, and not in my voice. (Not that any of my books are selling anymore. Jesus christ my book sales are morbid these days. Another topic.) So I know I could burn a lot of cycles on this, but I feel it would be wasted time. But here I am, still writing about it.
Also, it hasn’t started raining yet, but when it does, that means lots more time in malls. I’m also going to be in Elkhart in December, so I’ll get one long, last look at Concord before they tear it down. Anyway.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a long eulogy for the mall of my childhood: Death of the Concord Mall. This was after I heard of plans of the de-malling of the forty-something shopping center. Well, plans have changed. Here’s an update.
First, since I last wrote about this, more stores obviously closed. The christian book store that was there was part of a national chain that went under. The bizarro book store that took over the old Walden’s books folded. A BoRics hair place that still had the old logo on the sign has vanished. I haven’t kept track of whatever else, but today, just for kicks, I went to the mall web site and tallied up their directory list. (It’s a bit deceptive, because they list stores by category, and then list the same stores in multiple categories, to sort of hide that nothing is left.) Anyway, a 2015 planning document showed 62 total spaces and nine kiosks. The current tally is 29 total tenants (including kiosks). That includes a few dubious spots, like the “conference center” that’s really an abandoned jewelry store. And that includes the various half-baked stores, like the place that’s just a bouncy castle indoors.
Also, one of the anchors, a Carson’s store, is about to close. This store was originally a Robertson’s, which was a local department store chain. Back before my time, they had a sprawling multi-floor old-school department store in downtown South Bend, the kind with a beauty salon and a tea room on one floor, a place where people would register their china pattern before their wedding. Then they moved to the malls, and scaled back a bit. The store was bought during the mid/late 80s mall expansion bubble, and it changed to a Meis store. I never shopped there — I wasn’t wearing Izod shirts and sweaters — but I do remember they had an electronics department with gray-market Japanese gear, like Sony Walkman tape players much smaller than the ones normally sold in the US. They got bought again, and around the time I left Indiana in 1995, they became Elder-Beerman. They got bought by the Bon-Ton corporation in 2003, and renamed to Carson’s at some point. And shortly, they will be gone.
One odd memory of that store: it is probably one of the first times I was ever on an escalator. In contrast to the rest of the single-story mall, it has a voluminous first floor, with a second floor far above it, and a set of massive escalators connecting the two. Most of my childhood was in single-story buildings and malls and stores, and I can’t think of a single place where I would have encountered an escalator other than that store. So that’s weird.
Next up, that big fifty-million dollar project to demolish the mall and drop in a bunch of freestanding stores that was supposed to happen in 2017? Well, it didn’t. It never got further than a bunch of renderings and some “coming soon” signs at the mall. No tenants got on board, and no financing happened. They did move the old Martin’s supermarket to a new building just over from the old one, and started rehabbing the old building to move the JoAnn Fabrics there. But nothing else happened.
And now, the big news is that the mall is in receivership. The owners have stopped making payments on their bank loan, haven’t paid property taxes, and there are multiple liens on the property, meaning they probably aren’t paying bills. Jones Long Lasalle is the new receiver, and will continue running the mall for the time being. (Oddly enough, they also were the receiver at my local deadmall, Hilltop.) The bank has asked to foreclose on the property, which means it will likely go up for a sheriff’s sale. This happened at Erskine Village, the old de-malled Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, in 2016. It was bought back by the bank, and I have no idea what happened to it, except it’s still running. But it’s just a Target and a bunch of other random stores spread across a parking lot.
I have a feeling not much will happen with Concord. They won’t be able to attract new tenants; there are Walmarts and a Target nearby, and any possible stores are either in nearby strip mall shopping centers, or wouldn’t pull enough customers to be viable. Nobody will be able to fill the old Carson’s store. The JCPenney can’t be too far behind. The only other national chains in the mall are Claire’s (which is going bankrupt), GNC (which is about to go bankrupt), Champs, Spencer’s, and Kay Jewelry. (All three seem to go down with the ship in a dead mall.) There’s still Hobby Lobby, which is going strong. (Except on Sunday, because, Jesus.) My guess is that each store’s lease will time out, and they’ll board things up and let it sit for a decade, until they eventually tear it down. I’m sure the Hobby Lobby will be decoupled and live on. But what else can they do?
It’s so sad to me, because I spent so much time there as a kid, and have such vivid memories of the place. When I look at pictures of it now, the decor inside is exactly the same as when I worked there in 1993, when I was unloading trucks at the Wards store at six every morning. We’d work for four hours, and then I’d go out into the just-opened mall to grab a drink, and it would always be empty, just the mall walkers and the day shift of store managers getting their day started. This strange calm would be there, a vacancy, an odd quiet, when nobody was there. It contrasted so much with the hellish rushes we had at nights, on holidays, going into the holiday season. In those boom times, I would work twelve-hour shifts, long lines of people for the entire twelve hours, everyone on their late Eighties Greed-is-Good kick, maxing out their plastic to live the Reagan era of excess. And then when I was there in the day, in those early hours, there was so much tranquility and quiet, just hearing the sound of the central fountain echoing through the halls. It was so magical, yet so out of place. And now, when I go to these malls, it’s like that same feeling of calm, except all the potential is gone, all the shoppers have vanished, and all the stores are abandoned. For me, it’s like the quiet of a battlefield long after a war. It’s eerie, and it’s sad.
I have a lot of problems with nostalgia, and with memories, and with looking back. I think it becomes more painful as things like this vanish. I don’t want to go back; I never would want to live there again. But it still bothers me. I can’t explain it, but I can’t get past it.
Anyway, we’ll see what happens here, but it probably won’t be good.
Had the day off yesterday, and I’m still trying to keep this walking thing going, but the weather’s a bit off here. (Not as bad as it is in the Midwest, but still.) I’m getting bored of the usual malls, so I decided to head to a new one out in Marin, which is oddly named Northgate.
Why “oddly?” Well, Seattle’s big mall is named Northgate. It’s one of the oldest indoor malls in the country. Now owned by Simon, it has had several major expansions and remodels, plus the area surrounding it has grown considerably. I spent a lot of time there during my Seattle years, and it was more or less my default mall.
The Northgate mall in San Rafael is a little different. It’s actually pretty close to my place, maybe a thirty-minute burn across the bridge in Richmond, and on into Marin. It’s nestled in the hills about a dozen miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, an area filled with trees, very quiet and secluded.
The mall itself is not huge: a single floor, about 700,000 square feet, a lot of that being in the three anchors. It’s a corridor mall, a single straight shot, with a few dozen stores. It’s clear this used to be two rows of stores, with a hasty roof thrown over the middle to enclose the center. The interior still feels a bit exterior, with concrete floors, monstrously high ceilings, and an “open” climate to it. It’s not exactly comforting, and the concourse is not that big. It’s got two cavernous food court/common areas on the east side, each the size of an aircraft hanger, both largely empty. The interior food court is maybe four booths, and very sedate.
The anchors include a Kohl’s in a neighboring building (which I didn’t see; Kohl’s is Kohl’s), a Sears, and a Macy’s. The Sears is interesting on the outside; it looks like it was built with the original mall in 1965, and has that early Sixties light brick look, plus old-school old Sears logos in red. The interior of the two-story looked very run down, like it hadn’t been touched since 1987. It reminded me of the downtown Oakland Sears that was shuttered, gutted, and turned into office space for Uber (who have since flipped it, and it hasn’t opened, but that’s another story.) The Macy’s was okay. The rest of the stores inside were pretty uneventful.
The mall was gutted and redone in 2008, which is probably when it was given its current livery. It looks like they tried to make it look upscale, like a ski lodge, to attract high-end luxury tenants. If you read the Yelp reviews, people are nostalgic for the 90s look and population of the mall, when it had a book store, an arcade, and better fast food. The only pictures I could find of the old version of the mall look very Peak Mall, like it had been designed in 1993 or so.
One odd feature of this mall is the Century Movies theater. It is plopped down in the middle of the concourse, right before Sears. It’s almost as if they took an existing movie theater, split it in half, and kit-bashed the two pieces on either side of the hall. I was walking down the bare concrete and abandoned stores, then was suddenly on the red carpet of a movie theater, with the smell of popcorn in the air, posters for the new Star Wars all around me. Then, twenty feet later, back to concrete.
There’s also a bunch of food of the 2008 era of mall-building, perched on the west side, facing outwards. There’s all the usual suspects: Panera, Chipotle, BJ’s, Applebee’s, etc. These all seem to be doing well.
The mall was a bit of a bust for walking, although the weather was nice and sunny, so I walked outside, and that worked fine. The mall doesn’t feel like a dead mall per se, like one filled with brown tile from 1974 and a non-functional brick fountain in the middle. But it has a strange, vacant, surreal feeling to it. And who knows what will happen to it, once the Sears shutters. It’s not on the latest list, but it doesn’t look great.
Anyway. The trip was interesting, but it made me think too much about the other Northgate, which was a bit of a bummer. I haven’t been back to Seattle since 1999, and keep thinking I should visit, but I’m a bit scared to see what I will find.
I guess I wrote about this years ago (see Surge, Vault) when they half-ass relaunched Surge as Vault about ten years ago.
I used to be extremely obsessed with different sodas. I also used to weigh 250 pounds and need thousands of dollars of dental work a year. Surge was like the apex of this addiction. Seattle was a test market for Surge back in the late 90s, and I got onboard in early 1997. Then I quit soda and caffeine entirely for most of that year, and stopped drinking it. But about a year later, I fell off the wagon, starting with the occasional soda during writing sessions.
In 1998, I was going hard on the Rumored to Exist manuscript, and trying to figure out exactly what rituals would put me in the right frame of mind to finish this insane book. Like I used to write starting exactly at 9 PM, and then stop at midnight and go to the 7-Eleven on the corner of 16th and Madison to get a Coke Slurpee. And I started chipping in on the Surge during writing sessions, and managed to get a decent (although disorganized) second draft of that book done before I left for New York.
There was no Surge in New York, and no 7-Elevens at that point in time, either. I would have occasional Surge sightings – one time I had rented a car for some reason, and drove on the Long Island Expressway way the hell out to Syosset or something, and stopped at a two-pump gas station with one cooler of sodas, and they had four cans, which I hoarded. And once when I was visiting my then-girlfriend at Cornell, I went to a Wendy’s that had it on tap. But by 2001 or so, it had entirely vanished from the region. And my writing dried up after I published Rumored in 2002, although one probably doesn’t have to do with the other, except in my head. Case in point: Vault came back in 2006, and I still didn’t get shit done.
So Surge is back now, although the distribution is still spotty and weird. I haven’t seen it in stores, but it popped up on Amazon Pantry while I was shopping for other stuff, so I bought a case. It was ridiculously expensive — $14 for a dozen 16-ounce cans — and I don’t know that I can even drink all of this. Back in the old days, I’d plow through it in a few nights. But now I’m logging every calorie I consume, and 230 empty calories is a pretty big hit. I also haven’t drank soda with sugar in it for almost ten years now, aside from a few odd occasions where nothing else was available. (Like I remember stopping at a beach cafe in rural Mexico a few years ago and buying a glass-bottled Pepsi, which was miraculous after spending a few hours off-roading on ATVs.) I haven’t drank any yet, and maybe I’ll only try a can or two.
The whole episode is a strange hit of nostalgia for me. It reminds me of Seattle, of the start of New York, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumored lately, how it was the perfect storm of weird writing and chaos. It also makes me think about the cyclical nature of these things, how Coca-Cola seems to be hitting these things every ten years on the dot, how they have these limited markets and test runs and special windows of time. There are times I’m heavily affected by how these things from recent history just vanish, how I can never go to Garcia’s Pizza again, or go to the University Park Mall Bally’s and play Smash TV. And then I’m thrown little bits of the stuff back, like a web page about a nostalgic item, an eBay auction for a Mattel Aquarius, a ROM so I can play a long-lost game on my Mac. They just rebooted New York Seltzer, which I thought for sure was long gone, and now I see the little squat glass bottles every time I go to my neighborhood diner.
I always wonder if we’re now in a hyper-accelerated version of a wayback machine, constant pings back to these limited-time-only items that are relaunched like a McRib as a cash grab. Or is this the same as when Fifties nostalgia hit hard in the Seventies? Will there be any satisfaction in a relaunch of an old product I missed, or will it be a pyrrhic victory, never bringing any real satisfaction? Maybe it even causes more distress, because I’ll get one little hint of a past that I think would make me happy (even though I know I wasn’t happy then) and it will give me a brief hit of dopamine and nothing else, making me want even more. We’ll see, I guess.
There’s a cruel irony in the fact that I’m now at the age where I need to old-man walk every day as per doctor’s orders, and I’d go to a mall and do the mall walking thing every day, but malls are all dying or dead. That — and the weather — is what brought me to Richmond yesterday, to see if the Hilltop Mall is feasible for my indoor pacing and maybe casual shopping purposes.
Richmond is about twenty minutes north of me, in the corner between San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. It was a town that quickly grew during World War 2 because of the shipbuilding industry, and then slowly died out due to lack of industry and racial tensions after the war. It’s in a state of flux right now, an up-and-coming bedroom community for the bay area that’s seeing lots of townhouses and condos suddenly appear. I’m not that familiar with the area at all, and probably should be. The outer areas on the water are beautiful, and I’ve hiked in Point Pinole and checked out the ship museum at Marina Bay. But I’ve never explored the mall at Hilltop.
Hilltop Mall was built in 1976 by redeveloping what used to be a Chevron oil tank farm. It is a beautiful location, a circular peak almost like a cupola in the hills. It’s a two-story mall with 1.1 million square feet of retail space. (Indiana folks: for reference, UP mall is 922Ksqft.) It’s another Taubman-designed mall, similar to Stoneridge in Pleasanton. Anchors include Sears, Macy’s, JC Penney, and Wal-Mart.
The first thing I saw when arriving, the true sign of a dead mall, was the police satellite station and many conspicuous “if you see something, say something,” “lock up your belongings,” and “private property – we reserve the right to kick you out” signs. The exterior or the mall is very 1976, with few updates. It’s very heavy brick and tan-painted stucco and concrete. It reminds me of Concord Mall in that aspect. There’s also a thick ring of parking lot lining the rim of the mall, with the asphalt tarmac largely barren of cars. The outer perimeter is built up with tons of newish townhouses. There are almost no outbuildings and absolutely no chain restaurants on the outer perimeter of the mall.
The interior of the mall is extremely dated, and has every trademark of a Taubman mall that was probably lightly updated around 1990 during those peak mall years. It was bought by Simon in 2007, and pretty much left to die after that. There are high arched ceilings with lots of skylights, but the narrow fingers reaching from the main mall atrium to the parking lots are all dimly lit and filled with vacant stores.
And yes, there are vacancies. There are about 150 spaces in the mall, and probably about 90-some occupied. But a lot of the stores are low-traffic, low-rent places, low-end clothing stores, cheap wireless places with basically no stock, empty military recruiting stations. There was some sparse foot traffic on a January Saturday afternoon, but not a lot. I’ve seen malls much worse, but this was fairly bad. Hilltop is tucked away from the highway a bit, and there’s zero foot traffic from nearby towns or residences. There are no grocery stores or external fast food or banking that would pull in crowds. And there are few stores that would attract any people. There were a couple of shoe places. Not much more.
The mall’s bones are interesting. I like the high arched ceilings, and the flow of the upper floor concourse, which is classic Taubman design. But it was incredibly dated and in dire need of a refresh, or even basic maintenance. White ceilings were yellow, with brown water stains from roof leaks. Trim was frayed and missing. Light bulbs were either turned off or dead. And the floors were a disaster, the tile looking like an outdoor bathroom in an Arco gas station. The entire mall had the faint smell of mildewed carpet that should have ben torn out and replaced in 1979. It was far beyond dated. One interesting point is that the center of the mall has a large, colorful merry-go-round, and a spiral ramp to get between the two levels that looks straight out of a 80s sci-fi movie. Good photo potential there.
The anchors were all in rough shape. Sears is obviously on life support, but this one seemed even worse than normal. The Sears was added in 1990, and looks as if it was never updated. Macy’s was Macy’s. I used to think of the Federated-owned store as being top-of-the-heap high-end department store, but their merchandising looks cheap these days. JC Penney was okay, but it had a large vacant furniture store that looked as if it hadn’t sold a couch since the Reagan years.
The oddest thing was the Wal-Mart anchor. It used to be a Capwell’s back in the day, which morphed into Emporium, then was bought by Federated. Instead of running two Macy’s stores (like they do at other locations, like Stoneridge), they consolidated everything into the one Macy’s, and left the old anchor empty for years. Wal-Mart then took it over about ten years ago. It’s a really odd jury-rigged store, which looks like an old two-story LS Ayres from the seventies, with WMT signs hastily nailed onto the beige exterior. The upper floor mall entrance was blocked with painted plywood. It’s unusual to see a two-story Wal-Mart, or one that faces into a mall. I’m also used to seeing them in purpose-built structures that are all identical, and not crammed into a repurposed department store. The Wal-Mart had a fair amount of traffic, which was the good news. The bad news was it was the most randomly laid-out and sketchy looking store of theirs I’d ever seen. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, and I’m not that familiar with the stores, but this one was a parade of sadness.
The food situation was pretty bad. There was not a real food court, just a few piecemeal non-chain restaurants, like a Mongolian grill and a teriyaki place. Subway and BK, of course. I was starving, but left without eating, because I didn’t want to catch bacterial meningitis.
High point of the mall was their large 24-hour Fitness, which was practically full. Lots of new machines, every one in use. Thirty bucks a month.
Hilltop was bought by Simon in 2007 as a package deal, who bought every area mall from The Mills Corporation. Simon later defaulted on their loans in like 2012, and Jones Lang Lasalle manages it now. (I think it’s still owned by US Bank, representing the financiers of the original 2007 buyout.) Last year, they listed the mall for sale, and it will almost certainly get demolished for some mixed-use development. It’s the perfect place, close to the I-80, for a planned community with a fake town center and some light retail.
Anyway, got a good 30 minutes of walking in, and of course by the time I was done, the weather cleared and it was beautiful out. Here’s a quick Flickr album of a dozen pics snapped with my phone: https://flic.kr/s/aHskQsQ4P1
I had yesterday and today off, and I was bored of walking in my neighborhood, so I drove to the nearest mall, like an honest-to-satan mall mall, and not a bunch of stores next to each other with a fake city square in the middle of it.
The closest mall to me is in Pleasanton, about thirty minutes south/southeast of here. There’s a Westbrook mall in San Francisco, probably technically the same distance away, but it’s tucked into the city and not the same experience as being in a suburban freestanding mall.
Stoneridge Shopping Center is the perfect example of a healthy and well-operating Simon mall. It’s got about 160 stores and four anchors (JCPenney, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears), with almost no vacancies. It was originally designed by A. Alfred Taubman, and it has the same look and feel as some of his other malls. I’ve been to Short Hills mall in New Jersey and Cherry Creek mall in Denver, and the interior has the same feeling and flow to it.
Walking around this place is a real mindfuck for me. First, it resembles University Park mall’s exterior, the way JC Penney and its champagne-colored brick juts out from the mall proper and Macy’s is around the corner. A parking lot wraps around the mall, the north side a level higher than the south, with stairsteps going down the evergreen-covered ridges. The mall sits in a bowl created by the Pleasanton ridge on the west horizon, and the 580 and 680 highways to the north and west. The exterior is decidedly Californian, and far more suburban than the rest of the Bay Area.
But walking the concourse inside — it’s very easy for me to get lost in the nostalgia of the place. It feels like a direct time machine to being in the late 90s in the Seattle area, shopping at Northgate, or Lloyd Center in Portland. And being there in the late morning, right before the Christmas holiday season, brings back old and strange memories for me, of stocking up new shipments when I worked at Wards, hauling out the lawn tractors for storage and setting up the Christmas trees.
There’s something hypnotic about the dead lull at about 11:00 on a weekday in a mall. It reminds me of the times I spent at IUSB, when I would skip class and drive to Scottsdale or University Park to hit the record stores and arcades. The only people there would be the career mall workers, the day shift people, along with a few geriatrics walking the loop, and maybe a mom or two with strollered kids. Everyone else was at work, at their jobs in the factories, and I would have the place to myself, like a post-apocalyptic movie. I like seeing a mall busy at night with holiday traffic, but having the place to myself always felt great.
Malls have a secret life few people see, like the hour before they open, when you see all the assistant managers walking to the bank with their locked up money pouches and drop boxes, stopping to get coffee, talking to the other lifers about the coming onslaught. I liked when I worked the 6AM truck unloading shift, and after unfucking 45 feet of furniture from the Franklin Park warehouse, I’d get a few minutes to go to the pretzel stand and get enough caffeine to finish the next trailer full of stereos and mattresses. Working in a mall paid nothing, even back in those peak mall days of the late 80s/early 90s, but it was a nice routine.
Now, finding a mall like this is a huge nostalgia trigger. I don’t really have anything I want to buy at a mall (other than pretzel dogs, which I really can’t have) but I really enjoy the walking, the people-watching, and the general atmosphere. And like I said, it’s a huge time machine that sends me back twenty years. It’s unfortunate, because malls are dead and dying, but when I get a change to spent an hour in one, it’s almost restorative to me. I know this isn’t very edgy and absurd and punk rock, but it’s a thing. I wish we had a place like this closer to my house. I should probably take more pictures before this one goes away.