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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More Film, and digiFilm

I got my first batch of film back from the shop the other day. I sent in six rolls, 36 exposures each, for a total of $76 for developing and a quick scan to CD.

The shots from this Vivitar I bought are tremendously weird. I mean, they look like they were all shot in like 1994. They have this weird, faded quality to them, a perfect vignetting, and just look old, way more than Hipstamatic or Instagram could make them. Like they all have this dreamlike, lo-fi quality to them, much more so than my old old 35mm gear does. The Vivitar has really good Series 1 glass, but a plastic body. It also has all-auto, no-adjustment shooting, but a modern motorized drive system to it. If it was just slightly smaller, it would be a perfect camera.

I wish I still had the original one. Or I wish I had an exact model number, another copy. This one is very similar, but not exact, which bugs me. But what’s weird is sometimes I forget it isn’t the same camera. I was walking around the Port of Oakland the other day with it, and thought how strange and nostalgic it was that the same camera I had for most of the Nineties was with me now, but then realized, it isn’t the same camera. That old camera went to a lot of strange places with me. It moved from Indiana to Seattle to New York. I have pictures from the Trinity test site where the first atomic explosion happened, from Vegas, from the Empire State Building, the Milwaukee Metalfest, Kent State, Bloomington, New Mexico, Boston, Disneyland, Washington DC, and hundreds of points in between.

Anyway, I dumped a few shots on Flickr here. That album also includes some old 120 film shots taken with a Diana F+.

Another topic: the Yashica digiFilm Y35. So a group in Hong Kong bought the Yashica name and did a kickstarter for a digital version of the old Electro 35 camera. The gimmick was that it was going to have this stuff called digiFilm, which was a little film canister you could swap out and change what kind of pictures it would take. Like you could switch to B&W, 1600, 6×6, whatever. You could also put a switch or button on the camera to do this, but they thought it would be a neat thing to make it “like” film. I thought it might be a fun toy, and the camera looked cool, so on a whim, I backed the Kickstarter.

Ugh, I hate Kickstarter. I’ve backed maybe a dozen things in the past, and maybe two have turned out okay. And I always feel like I get burned, and I always vow to never do it again, and then something comes up. And like clockwork, they met their goal, got their money, and then said, “Ok great! Now we’ll go design it!” and the wait began. There were a few sketchy updates, but it looked like this thing would never come to fruition.

Well, it showed up the other day. My verdict is that the camera is garbage. I think the appeal of the old Electro 35 was that it was metal and compact and had a certain tactile feel to it, like old rangefinders of that era. This camera is all plastic, and very cheap plastic. It’s light, and feels like one of those toy squirt guns in the shape of a camera you’d get from the Archie McPhee catalog. It has a non-operational film wind knob that’s molded into the top of the camera. The viewfinder has no optics, just a clear piece of plastic. The doors feel like they will break off in the next fifteen minutes.

The camera uses two AA batteries (not included) and an SD card (not included), plus the digiFilm thing, of which I received four. You then “wind” each shot with an advance lever, and press and hold a really cheap shutter button, and have to hold it and hold still for like a second and a half. The pictures look roughly like what my Windows Mobile cell phone took back in 2008. The B&W looks okay. The others, just use your iPhone and Hipstagram. It does marginally look okay from a distance. If I ever put my cameras on display on a shelf, it would look okay next to my Trip 35 and Canonet QL17. But, ugh. What a waste of money.

I’ve got another four rolls of film to shoot, and might stock up on more for the holidays. I should probably get some 120 film at some point and try that one again, too.

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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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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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The Other Northgate

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.

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pre-digital observations

A bunch of thoughts, no particular order:

Try going in your kitchen or bathroom and finding a product with a printed package that doesn’t have a URL on it. Pick up food boxes, condiments, pet food, candy bars, canned drinks, toothpaste… anything. Everything has a web address on it. It’s like an address having a ZIP code now, or a two-letter state abbreviation. If you find some old-timey sign for ethyl gasoline from the 1930s, it might say “Oakland, Calif.” instead of “Oakland, CA 94607.” Now it seems like the URL is the way to date if a package is from the mid-90s or earlier.

I remember about the time when Coke cans started putting their URL on the cans. I started a Coca-Cola fan web site in 1994, and was getting more traffic than their site for a brief period. It really pissed me off when they started a site, started putting it on every can or bottle. Pissed me off more that it was “Netscape enhanced” and didn’t work for shit on a text browser. It wasn’t a site for information; it was for pretty pictures and layout that took forever to load on a slow modem. Now, cocacola dot com redirects to coca-cola dot com, and that is a site picker with a big world map and all the regional sites. All the information there is either for shareholders, or trying to convince you that you can be healthy and drink 6000 calories a day.

My site was something at bronze.ucs.indiana.edu/~jkonrath I think. It’s long gone. Bronze was a VAX machine. The machine is long gone; VAX machines themselves are long gone, for the most part, unless you work at some insane bank that could not transition away from them. Hell, UCS is gone now, part of some crazy merger/renaming thing twenty years ago.

I don’t think a civilian could register a hostname back then. I don’t remember how it was done before the late nineties, but I registered rumored with Network Solutions on 11/16/98. I remember it not being cheap, something like a hundred bucks a year. This was when they pretty much had a monopoly on it. There’s no way I could have paid that back in college.

Speaking of putting hostnames on things, I knew a guy who had his email address on the back of his car. This was in like 1990, way before that made any sense. I worked with him, and he was this funny Malaysian grad student who I’ll call K for plausible deniability. He drove some old beast of a seventies car, like a Monte Carlo or something, and had “k___@copper.ucs.indiana.edu” across the back of his trunk, in stick-on letters, the kind you would use to put your name on a mailbox. I have no idea why. He wasn’t running a business, in a band, anything like that. He just thought it looked cool, I guess.

I had to get checks printed in 1992 or 1993 – this was back when people still used paper checks, and to get new ones printed, you looked through a Parade magazine in a Saturday newspaper, and there would be an ad for a place that would print your checks on a design with an American flag or some kittens or Peanuts characters or whatever else. I picked this design that was a bunch of colorful geometric shapes – do a google image search of “90s graphics” and that’s basically what I got printed.

Anyway, I remember I called the 800 number to place the order over the phone. (No internet order form, no web site.) My name and address were three lines, the phone number was the fourth, but the check had five lines, so you could put a business name or something on it. I told the lady on the phone I wanted my email address. She had no idea what that meant. I then told her, my email address was jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, and I wanted that on my check. It was like I was speaking Klingon. I had to slowly spell out  jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu over and over, jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, jkonrath@bronze.ucs.indiana.edu, jkonrath  at symbol bronze period ucs period indiana period edu. The whole transaction took twenty, thirty minutes.

I got the checks a month later, and the printer completely butchered it. Like I think they left out the @ and put two spaces after each period, so it was just a jumble of incoherent words with no meaning. And only 4% of the population knew what an email address was. I should have thrown the checks in the garbage and ordered new ones, but that would have taken another month, and more importantly, another twenty dollars. So I used the checks, until I moved to Seattle and got new accounts. And every time I wrote a check, which was often back then, the cashier would ask “what the hell is that?”

Also, I think those new checks I got in 1995? Had the bank’s URL on them.

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KONCAST Episode 7: Andrea Donderi

http://koncast.libsyn.com/episode-7-andrea-donderi

In this episode, I talk to long-time friend Andrea Donderi, a recent graduate of The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

We discuss: the IU support center; the early web; knowledge bases and creating content; Jorn Barger and the invention of the blog; Gopher versus the WWW; the ChiNet BBS and other internet BBSes; social networks before social networks; hoarding old email; identifying as a writer; learning how to capture life as a writer; the Stanford Stegner Fellowship program; the Warren Wilson MFA program; how a low-residency program works; Victor LaValle and David Shields as teachers; the one fellow graduate student/actor who has been in everybody’s MFA program and shall not be named; Zeroville by Steve Erickson; the inevitable UFO discussion; the government keeping secrets in the desert versus the internet; Don Donderi; and is an MFA worth it?

Links from this episode:

– Andrea’s blog: http://loosestrife.dreamwidth.org

– Jon Konrath: http://www.rumored.com

– The Warren Wilson MFA program: http://www.wwcmfa.org

– Don Donderi’s site: http://www.ufoets.com

– Zeroville by Steve Erickson: http://amzn.to/2eEMTFW

– The UFO documentary I couldn’t remember was Mirage Men: http://www.miragemen.com

 

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Donald Cried (2016)

Donald Cried is a film in the “you can never go back” camp, but it’s also more about the estranged relationship between two friends who were inseparable as teenagers, but took completely different paths into adulthood.

Originally a short by independent filmmaker Kris Avedisian, this was expanded to a feature-length affair with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film starts with the protagonist Peter returning to his home town in Rhode Island to handle the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. He left the small town a dozen years before, and went to New York City to reinvent himself, forget his past, and work on Wall Street. The problem with his quick overnight trip: he’s lost his wallet, so he’s stuck at his grandmother’s old house with no cash, no ID, and a to-do list of funeral home, nursing home, realtor, and everything else involved in closing the last of his involvement with his old life.

With no other options, he turns to his last lifeline, and meets up with his old pal Donald, who he hasn’t seen since high school. Donald is a stoner dropout who lives in his mom’s attic, works part-time at a bowling alley, and is the opposite of Peter, stuck at the same point he was back in the glory days of high school. We quickly find out that Peter was once cut from the same cloth, and had the same love of heavy metal and juvenile delinquency. Peter just needs a ride to pick up his grandma’s ashes and empty out her nursing home, plus a few bucks for bus fare back to the city. Donald is ecstatic about the triumphant return of his old friend. Antics ensue.

I always have a certain nervousness when returning back to Indiana, and that’s captured too well in this film. It’s a mixture of “this could have been me” and flashbacks of the past that bring out the “man, I was an idiot back then.” My nostalgia issues are a bit contrary to Peter’s in the film, though. He’s trying to remain unseen, and not get entangled in the past. For example, the realtor he gets is a woman he went to school with, and that he had some feelings for back in the day, but he initially acts as if he doesn’t remember who she is at all. I’m not saying I seek out people and reunite with them (I did have an ex-girlfriend sighting at a mall a few years ago, and I ducked in another store to escape) but I do seem to seek out old landmarks and get too mentally involved with the ghosts of the past.

The real star of this movie is Avedisian, who plays the character of Donald. He’s this lanky, bearded guy with an awkward Ray Romano-sounding voice and a Keith Moon haircut, and he’s completely cringe-worthy in his total lack of a filter. This starts as a truly hilarious character, like a Mark Borchardt from American Movie, except with no ambition to make films. At first, he’s just the funny guy to the straight guy, but then you become sympathetic to him, feel sorry for him. My feelings bounced between “wow, what is with this dude” to “wow, how could Peter help this dude get his shit together.” And the latter is a strong one for my personal experience, so it really got me.

The small town setting was also big for me. Warwick isn’t a “small” town — it’s the second-biggest city in Rhode Island. But, it’s only 80,000 people, and what is captured in the film is the small town feeling of cruising at night, bowling alleys and convenience stores, little houses, and that feeling that a lot of people never leave, never forget high school, never move on. The duo go, on Donald’s insistence, to visit another one of their high school buddies. When they get there, he’s sitting in bed, unmoving, watching cage fighting matches on TV, like he’s never left the house in fifteen years. Or there’s the bowling alley manager, a burly guy actually played by former WWF wrestler Ted Arcidi, who’s in his office showing a teenaged cashier his grainy VHS tapes of when he used to be a powerlifter back in the Eighties and could bench 700 pounds. It’s an interesting backdrop, and really sets up why Peter left, and why it is such a strange yet compelling place to visit.

Overall, I have only one big problem with this film: I wanted to write a book that was almost exactly this. I started outlining it two years ago, when I went back to Indiana for a weekend. I had the backdrop, and I thought I had the characters. But I never could quite break the story correctly. And Avedisian showed me that I really didn’t have the depth needed to get the characters down. I gave up on the idea a while ago, and now I’m stuck on the thought that I really should do something with it, but of course if I started working on it, I’d unconsciously ape exactly what he did.

Anyway, it’s on iTunes for rent right now. Not for everyone, but I found it pretty entertaining.

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