The Death of Northgate

Bon Marche at Northgate, 1950 (Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)])

Looks like Northgate mall in Seattle is quickly winding down. The JC Penney already closed, and the Macy’s and Nordstrom are in the process of shutting their doors. The plan is to demolish the main stretch of the mall, leave some of the external “village” buildings that were tacked onto the front in the mid-00s, and then build an NHL practice facility and some housing. I hate being nostalgic about this place or any mall in general, and I have mixed feelings for a few reasons.

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…

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End of 2018

I’ve been back from Indiana for a few days now. Been slightly sick, working on unpacking, cleaning, resetting, all the usual crap before I get back to work on Wednesday.

The trip was probably my longest visit to Indiana since I left in 1995. I was there from Friday night to the following Saturday morning, with all of it in Indiana (save a quick spin through Edwardsburg and an afternoon in Dowagiac.) I had family stuff pretty much every day, and we tried to find new and neat things to do during the week, museums and other things I’d never seen. But I also had a lot of time by myself, and the heavy nostalgia thing I mentioned in my last post was problematic.

As far as stuff to do, we went to the Studebaker museum, which I’d seen years ago, but has since moved to a new building they share with a South Bend history museum. Spent some time downtown and went to The Griffon, which is an old RPG/D&D game store I last went to in maybe 1990, and it’s great they are still up and running. Went to the old Orbit Records in its new location a few slots over, and the whole vinyl thing has kept them running. Ate at Tippecanoe Place, a giant mansion turned restaurant, which I last visited on the night of my senior prom. Dinner buffet on Christmas night at the new Four Winds casino in South Bend was solid. Didn’t play anything, and then my sister played a slot machine for like two minutes and won $260. Also visited the history museum in Dowagiac. And malls. Lots of malls.

John Sheppard came out for a day, and we did the whole Jon Konrath Reality Tour, visiting every place I lived and shopped and worked and whatever else back in the day. The highlight was stepping into a completely vacant Concord Mall, which was like breaking into a tomb that had been sealed shut a thousand years before.

We started off our day by visiting fellow writer Steve Lowe, who now owns and operates South Bend Brew Werks. Had a great lunch, took the tour of their brewing operations, and saw a great example of how downtown South Bend is on the upswing. At the end of the tour, we hit Bruno’s for a pizza after walking around University Park mall, which seems like it has doubled in size since I left, with almost no vacant stores and every single thing except JCP and Sears replaced by a higher-end chain. It was a stark contrast to Elkhart, where things have closed and not been replaced.

The rest of the trip was me going stir crazy, walking around the mall, wondering what would have happened if I never left Indiana, and wondering what there was to do except eat, watch TV, or spend money. Family stuff, I guess, but I have this conversation with myself every time I go back, and it never goes well. Anyway, I’m back home, away from the snow, so there’s that.

* * *

End of year crap – don’t really want to get into that. I quit Goodreads, so I can’t tell you how much I read. I did exercise every day, although my total distance walked wasn’t as high, and I ended up gaining almost six pounds over the year. So I need to work on that. All the usual new year new me crap. Stop reading news. Stop obsessing over nostalgia. Write more. Whatever.

This year will be tough on the nostalgia front, because it’s thirty years since I graduated high school. and there are lots of various anniversaries there for me to obsess over. I need to find some writing project to distract me from this crap. Maybe I’ll blog more, although I don’t know what I’ll write about. I have a project that’s maybe 80% done, but stalled. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. I have no idea.

OK, going out to dinner in a minute. I’ll probably be asleep by ten. Hope you all have a good new year.

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Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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Toys R Us

I was not a Toys R Us kid.

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.

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Death of a Kmart

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.

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New/Old Camera

So, in the “buying old crap I had twenty-five years ago and threw out at some point,” I found another Vivitar camera that is (almost) the same as the one I had from 1993 to about 2000.

I talked a bit about my history with analog film a few years ago, when I last fell down the analog film k-hole. I bought this Vivitar camera during the summer of 1993, after not having a camera at all for about three or four years. I was working at Montgomery Ward that summer (in addition to another full-time factory job) and had an employee discount, so I picked up the most camera I could get for about $100 at the photo counter in their Electric Avenue department at the Concord Mall.

That hundred bucks bought a 35mm point-and-shoot. It had a plastic body, but a decent Series 1 glass auto-focus lens. It was a power zoom, so it could zip from 38 to 70mm focal length with motorized control. The film load/wind was also motorized; you dropped in a film cartridge, closed the door, and the camera automatically sucked the film into the takeup reel. When you hit the end, it automatically rolled it back into the canister. The camera also had blue-teal accents to it, which was Nineties as fuck.

I bought this camera with the intention of documenting shows. It was the height of death metal and the zine scene, and I wanted something I could sneak into concerts. I was going to a lot of shows with Ray, and getting free passes to stuff to interview bands. In practice, I never got to take pictures at shows, because security was always really shitty about it, even when a record label gave me a photo pass. And this was a fairly worthless camera for taking pictures of bands, except maybe candid, backstage stuff at a close range with a lot of light.

Ultimately, I didn’t take that many pictures with this camera. I think maybe two dozen rolls went through it during those seven years. I took a trip across the country in 1995 and shot maybe six pictures total. A Disney trip in 1997 was about two rolls. The 1999 cross-country trip was another three, maybe. Getting a camcorder in 1996 reduced the amount of film I shot. Getting a digital camera at the end of 2000 relegated this thing to the back of the closet. I don’t know when I got rid of it; maybe when I moved in 2005.

Ironically, the most-seen photo from this camera is one you may be familiar with.

I was hunting for this camera online, and found this 5500PZ on eBay for seven bucks, including postage. When I got it, I realized it’s not exactly what I had. Mine was slightly thinner, with the zoom controls on the back, not the front. I’m sure it’s optically the same. But it bugs me that it’s not identical, and scanning through other eBay auctions, I can’t find the model that is exactly like mine. Maybe Vivitar sold some oddball model exclusively to Wards. Anyway, for seven bucks, close enough.

I put a battery in this one to test it. It uses a small lithium battery that was hard to find online. The zoom motor is much louder than I’d expected, and the zoom itself is not smooth and very slow. It’s not exactly the auto-focus that my new Canon has. I didn’t have any film in the house, so I ordered a few rolls, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also gone back and started scanning some of the old photos I didn’t have scanned from this era 25 years ago. It’s a reminder how much of a pain in the ass film was. It also makes me think too much about exactly when and where photos were taken, since EXIF wouldn’t be invented for another half-decade. Trying to not get into too much of a nostalgia backslide, which leads to the regret that I didn’t take more pictures back then. But it’s understandable when I go to pay for film developing. Anyway.

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Death of the Concord Mall, Redux

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.

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The Amazon Store

We’ve had unreasonably nice weather all weekend, sunny and in the seventies, perfect for walking. I went to Walnut Creek yesterday to get in the daily miles, and eat at Veggie Grill, this overly bright and cheery vegan place, which I thought was only in LA, and I used to eat all the time at the one in El Segundo. The weather, and the fact that the ten-year anniversary of the move from Denver to Playa Del Rey is coming up has given me a strong sense-memory nostalgia for my brief time in Los Angeles, and I always try to find different places to walk that remind me of Southern California.

Walnut Creek is a point of scorn for a lot of people in the Bay Area, because it’s not “real” and most of the housing is either those same three-story townhouse apartments they build everywhere, or is multi-million dollar stuff hidden in the hills. There’s no ghetto or dead people in the street or graffiti, and that’s a little too Disney for people. I don’t know if this would have bothered me when I was younger, but it’s fine by me now, whatever.

There’s also a weirdness to Walnut Creek in that a lot of neighborhoods can be defined by the businesses they have that would not survive in any other neighborhood. Like if your neighborhood has multiple computer repair shops, it sets the demographic. In my neighborhood, if your computer is broken, you throw it in a pile of garbage on the street, and break into someone else’s house and steal a new one. West Oakland also doesn’t have multiple piano stores. When you mention that a neighborhood has a Steinway showroom, you don’t need to say much else to describe it.

After lunch, I wandered through Broadway Plaza, which is an outdoor mall anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus. It’s very upscale, very clean. There’s a Tesla store. You could probably perform surgery on the ground, it is so clean. Everyone looks like a yoga model. It’s a very strange place. And as I was walking, I passed by… an Amazon store.

An Amazon store?

Yep. An Amazon Books brick-and-mortar store.

I’d heard a bit about this experiment. In a strange twist of fate, the University Village shopping center in Seattle got one of these, the first one, right after the Barnes and Noble there closed. I haven’t been back to Seattle in almost twenty years now, but back when I was single, broke, and had no TV, I went to this B&N pretty much every week. It was a massive two-story thing, with a big cafe, a full record store, lots of fiction, open late, the whole nine yards. That outdoor mall was doing well, but B&N had lease troubles in 2011, so it went. (Oddly enough, Veggie Grill took over part of their space. Or maybe it’s the next building – the area has been so overdeveloped, I can’t recognize it anymore.)

I had to go inside. And… it was weird. It is a real book store – paperbacks, hardcovers, a magazine stand. There’s a Peet’s coffee bar, and a ton of space dedicated to the Amazon electronics ecosystem: Kindles and Fires and Alexas and whatnot. There was an Amazon Basics section, in case you needed a cheap HDMI cable or battery. And… books. Actual books. Like, the smell of brand new books, something I barely see anymore, especially since most of Barnes and Noble these days is filled with calendars and Lego and dusty Nook displays.

Not only was this a time machine to a different place when book stores were a big thing, but it was a specific time machine, because this place looked like a bizarro Borders. There are differences – Amazon has polished concrete floors, and a slightly darker look, while Borders had the light gray carpet and more light wooden shelving. But I’d imagine if Borders was alive now, their stores would have moved from the early 00s look to this new style.

What really threw me is that the signage is really similar. Maybe it’s mandala effect, but Borders had these black signs hung from the ceiling, with their distinctive sans font laying out the book sections, music, etc. Amazon has similar dark signs with white letters, in their familiar serif font. It’s strange, because the font and design is burned into my head from using the Amazon site for years, but it’s on the signs in a physical store. It’s like waking up in an alternate dimension where the Nazis had won the war, walking into a McDonald’s and seeing the familiar menu in all German.

The store isn’t big – maybe 5,000 square feet of retail space. It didn’t have tons of couches and chairs like a late-90s lifestyle book store. But something about the layout, the look of so many books on shelves, and just the smell of fresh paper, made it seem inviting. The staff was overly helpful and nice, and they had some discount system for Prime members, although I’m not sure how it worked. Granted, this is like a flagship store in a very upscale mall; by the time it filtered down to where they had an Amazon store in Kalamazoo or something, it may be a whole other experience. But it was interesting.

It is a can of worms, though. On one side, there’s the strong fear that Amazon is Walmart-izing the current landscape, dropping in stores to kill off the last of the brick-and-mortar. (Side note: it is Walmart now, officially; they finally killed off the hyphenated spelling of the parent company. Copy-editors rejoice.) On the other hand, it seems like Amazon has grasped onto the fact that book buying has a tactile or community experience that people miss. I don’t go to Walnut Creek often enough to shop at the store regularly, and I wouldn’t have minded if it was twice as big with a bit more elbow room. But I could definitely see popping into one to pick up a charging cable on the cheap, and maybe a top ten book.

The Borders thing really gets me, though. I was just thinking about this because Anita Dalton’s book TL;DR closes with a long thing about the death of Borders. (Buyer beware: it also contains a review of Sleep Has No Master.) Like her, I have many specific memories of Borders. I had a friend who worked at one in New York, and we used to go and get steep discounts on armfuls of books. They had a good location in the WTC, which of course is now gone. Another friend who was a manager at a location in Indiana got my first book into their store, probably one of the few times you could buy my stuff in a brick-and-mortar. And I spent a lot of 2007 going to the one in Stapleton in Denver, looking at computer books, baseball books. The last book I bought at Borders, at the one here in Emeryville, is the Philip K. Dick collection of five novels from the 60s and 70s, which is a mindfuck on its own.

But yeah, it is strange for me to think of Borders being gone. And then more strange to walk into this alternate reality Borders, run by the company that is at least partly responsible for their downfall (among many other things, of course…) and see actual books for sale again. Just bizarre.

 

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The Awl

So it looks like The Awl is no more. Another blog bites the dust.

The Awl started in 2009, originally some folks who left The Gawker and decided to do their own thing from their apartment in Brooklyn or whatever. It was a general culture blog, with emphasis on New York City, and a bit more about new media, comedy, and technology or online life, with a wry and sarcastic sense of humor, and less of an emphasis on the usual celebrity stuff that drags down a lifestyle blog.

I don’t remember how I got hooked on it — maybe some cross-posting from Boing-Boing or Wired or something. But I started following it religiously in 2010 or 2011, reading every day, commenting frequently, sometimes deep-drilling on research when I read a story that interested me. And I always kept it on my distant radar that I’d try to write something to publish there, some nonfiction or memoir piece, maybe a smarmy cultural analysis thing, I don’t know.

I think one thing that did come out of that was that in that 2011, 2012 timeframe, I blogged a lot more here, and was probably influenced by The Awl to write more article-like things. That always happens, through osmosis or kleptomania, maybe a mix of both. I was writing a lot in general then, trying to find a way to restart a mostly-dormant writing career that hadn’t released a real book since 2002. I didn’t want to be a journalist, didn’t want to fall into that “new media” category or anything, but it shows in a lot of my writing here that I was influenced heavily by that. (Go read an old post like The Death of Death and tell me I wasn’t reading The Awl when I wrote that.)

Another big takeaway for me as I think back over the last ten years of The Awl is how it fed some need to be a New York expatriate, in a weird way. I left Manhattan four or five years before that, which is six lifetimes in New York time, but I had some distant nostalgia for the city then. Magnify this even further by the fact that I started remotely working for a New York company in 2010, and would occasionally find myself in town again, but would also virtually be in the city every day. Reading stories about the hyper-gentrification and strange politics and book gossip and the struggles of living on The Big Smear partly satisfied that need for me, at least a little.

Like all online properties, The Awl got stupid at one point a few years ago, either flipped ownership or editors or something, and the ensuing reboot just wasn’t as interesting to me. I stuck with it when I could, but it no longer became a daily read. Some of this was just the way blogs changed over time: long reads became one-page reads; articles became listicles; opinion pieces became link-bait topics. Things slowly morphed as ads dominated page layout, comment sections vanished, and it went from being a bunch of cool kids exchanging smarmy jokes to a… well, whatever it became. Not really a blog anymore.

I’ve been in my head a lot lately about what’s going to happen when Facebook dies – that’s another article I’ve been meaning to write for a bit. And it makes me think a lot about the cycle of life of these web properties, like SomethingAwful or Fark or Digg or whatever. I know there are things that I used to use daily and then somehow abandoned, and I always wonder why they lost critical mass with me, and with everybody. When did everyone make a conscious decision to stop using MySpace? Was it because Facebook was so much better, or was it because everyone else stopped using it?

And it makes me think a lot about what the next thing will be. I am trying to make more of a conscious effort to blog here, because I will always have this blog, and can always keep going. But I’m shouting into the darkness here, and there’s no network around this, no way for me to follow others, draw in new readers, find like minds, or whatever. This is a single silo, connected to nothing. That’s fine by me, but it’s not the solution for others. Other people won’t blog. They aren’t idiots like me.

And I don’t know shit about how to make money on this, and I never run ads here or strategize some grand scheme, like picking focused topics and trending keywords and how to flip these posts into a book proposal that will get me a deal, blah blah blah. This also is not a way for me to sell books — my writing here is much different than the writing in my books, and I’m a horrible marketer, so who knows what works. So I can’t pull the “I made a million dollars blogging and you can too!” scheme to get the rest of you creative and interesting folks to entertain me by writing your own blogs.

But yeah — the death of a blog like The Awl makes me think the trend is going in the wrong direction, and that’s frustrating. I feel like I have the lifelong dream of opening an indoor shopping mall in the Midwest, then getting in the car and cruising around the dying remains of the malls of Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania. It’s depressing. It makes me wonder what is next.

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Sears

Yeah, so that Sears in Marin I posted about? It’s on the new closing list. I think it has until April. I should probably go take more pictures, but the last trip was so depressing, it’s probably not worth it.

One of the other Sears store on the new closing list is the one in Shoreline, WA. I have a specific history with that one. In 1996, I was talking to this woman who lived in Southwest Washington, and she was going to be in Seattle to stay with some friends, in Shoreline. We agreed to meet for lunch, and for some reason, the meeting place was that Sears. I think it was the only public landmark I could think of in that area. Anyway, yada yada, and I ended up dating her for the next year and a half.

I really shopped at that store — it was sort of dumpy, and in a weird part of town. The part of Shoreline that is on the water is very affluent, with a golf course and lots of multimillion dollar houses looking out at the water. But the row of stores on Aurora — I think there used to be an outdoor mall in the area, and it was gone, and sort of isolated. The one thing I remember is that the inside of that store vaguely reminded me of the Sears in University Park Mall, in Mishawaka, Indiana.

The UP Sears is not closing. The thing I remember about that one — in my senior year of high school, someone called in a bomb threat right before first hour. When I was driving into the parking lot, firemen were waving people away, telling us to go home. So I drove to the mall in South Bend. It wasn’t open, so I slept in my car for a few hours, and then cut through Sears to go to the record store, because the Joe Satriani EP Dreaming #11 came out that day, and I had to buy it. I don’t know why I so clearly remember walking through that Sears, or why it looked different to me, but it’s a very vivid memory, thirty years later.

The Sears I would have compared that one to would be the one in Pierre Moran mall, in Elkhart, which closed last year. The entire mall was de-malled a dozen years ago, but the Sears remained. Ray’s girlfriend (now wife) worked there forever. I was also friends with someone who worked in the design department there, and used to go visit her, so I was somewhat familiar with the insides of the store, although it was enemy territory for me, being a Wards employee.

The Sears in Bloomington is completely gone, which is weird. The mall lives on, but the Sears was completely leveled, and a grocery store is going in there. That would be a sad thing for me to see, because I always parked in front of that Sears when I went to the mall. I think I parked in front of it the first time I went there, in the summer of 1989. I remember going there with a then-girlfriend in a cab so she could pick up one of those Brother word processors she ordered from their catalog, which really dates me.

Another closing last year was the Sears in Lynwood, WA, at the Alderwood mall. That was a frequent stop for me, because the aforementioned girlfriend moved to an apartment not too far away. I had a car at her place once that needed some work done, and it was a long weekend of wrenching on it, then realizing I didn’t have a good breaker bar or a metric socket, driving to that Sears, buying tools, going back and breaking a socket, returning to Sears to exchange it on that wonderful Craftsman unlimited warranty, repeat a few more times.

Also, Alderwood has strange memories for me because I used to shop there all the time, and the day before I left Seattle, I went there in my one-way rental car to buy some last-minute stuff, and ate one of my last Seattle meals there at the Uno pizza in the food court, which is so revolting and horrible and last-minute, but there you go. (The Uno is now gone, too. Probably a good thing.)

I feel dumb for obsessing over dead malls and retail, and nostalgia in general is such a high-carb k-hole for me to stumble down, with little reward and a lot of depression. But I keep doing it. I’m looking forward to the weather improving so I don’t have to walk indoors anymore.

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