Friday, January 25, 2013

A mall's closing can mean more than just bottom-dollar bargains

A few weeks ago, I read that the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, was closing at the end of the month, and that the bulk of the building was slated for demolition. I realized that I couldn't just sit idly by; I was compelled to do something. So I loaded up the minivan with the family and took the hour or so drive for one last look.
The sense of place has a way of weaving itself into the fabric of one's being, and certainly, the Shore Mall is woven into mine like fine, majestic denim.
I took the “back way” to the mall, the same route my dad always took when I was a kid. My dad never like highways. He would go miles out of his way, along roads with no shoulders or curbs, just to avoid a little traffic. I was amazed by the many housing developments that now populated areas that were considered the middle of nowhere decades ago.
The vast back parking area of the mall looked pretty much the same except for the notable absence of parked cars. This was the place where for many years my parents would take my brothers and me to watch Santa Claus land in a helicopter.
We pulled up to my old go-to entrance. I was thrilled to get one of the best parking spaces I'd ever gotten there. Inside felt like Mad Max meets Mall Rats. Workers were carting out a Tetris of display fixtures. Many stores were dark, empty, and gated. Those that were still open appeared sparsely stocked and disheveled. There were a few people roaming about possibly looking for bargains or, like me, reminiscences.
I showed my kids where the old Sears catalog pick-up used to be. My mom did all our back-to-school shopping by catalog. Weeks later we'd go to the small catalog pick-up area, take a number, and wait an eternity.
“That's where I bought my first pair of Levi's,” I told my kids. Since all our back-to-school clothes were from the Sears catalog, all my jeans were Toughskins, a unique type of denim that did not resemble anything my friends were wearing, which they often reminded of.
I pointed out where the music store used to be. That was the place I bought the Grease soundtrack record that got me in so much trouble. My older brother and I had taken the bus to the mall. The last thing my dad had said to us was to make sure we keep enough money to get back on the bus. When I saw how much the Grease album was, I had a dilemma. Needless to say, my father was very angry and yelled at me through most of the back roads home.
There were so many places with their stories. Here was the shell of a department store I worked at when I was in high school. They assigned me to the linens department. It was very awkward at first. But, let me tell you, I can still fold a fitting sheet like nobody's business. There was the space where the t-shirt kiosk used to be where I once bought a Cheap Trick t-shirt that my aunt thought inappropriate for a boy to wear until I explained to her that they were a rock band. And where I got a John Lennon t-shirt a couple of days after he was killed.
While my wife took our five year old daughter to the bathroom, I stood with my two youngest boys, put my arms on their shoulders and told them that how this mall was one of the ruins of my life in progress, my Parthenon, a monument to what was that helped create in me what is, and in a few short months, it will be a flat empty space.
I told my kids to look around, but not just here. I told them to remember to look around in their own lives, to appreciate the places they go because it will all be woven into who they will be.
As we walked out the door by the old pizzeria, my daughter looked up to me thoughtfully and said, “You mean we're not even going to get anything!”

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