Monday, December 28th, 2009

The End of the 00s: Chains of Fools, by Maura K. Johnston

BUH BYEWhen I was younger, Long Island seemed oddly resistant to chain stores, or at least the standalone types that couldn't be contained by a shopping mall. It was a big deal when, during my high-school years, the Island got its first K-Mart. Wal Mart didn't arrive in the 516 until 1995. After that, a series of big-box complexes rushed in, as did new streets to lead people inside their hulking parking structures. (I still have to swallow hard before I can give people directions that incorporate "Corporate Drive.")

It might be this weird arrested development that makes me a bit romantic over the suburban chain store.

And this decade was not kind to them; the rapid expansion of shopping centers led to the perhaps-inevitable demise of chains small and large. Many still have hulking ghosts scattered around this country's byways. (My sister and I, taking a drive through Suffolk County last week: "What do you think that store was?" "Oh, I dunno. Maybe a Circuit City? Or it could just be the Home Depot that moved across the street." "I guess it's good that this year there are no liquidation sales going on." "Yeah, this year, just the car models are going away.")

In an effort to further lessen the divide between patriotism and capitalism, I present to you memories of a few stores that shuffled off the turnpikes during this decade. (B. Dalton's middlebrow book offerings won't be leaving this nation's malls until early 2010.) The stories share a lot of parallels; most collapsed under the weight of their own debts, which were racked up during pie-in-the-sky expansion efforts during a bubblicious period that many thought would never end. Never forget-and hey, Five Guys and Zara, please read this as a cautionary tale.

Circuit City, 2009. My only sentimental attachment to the electronics chain, which had a much colder façade than the friendly blue hues preferred by its rival Best Buy, was its place as my sister's first stop on our annual Black Friday trip around the local environs, which was only because it was the closest place to our parents' house that had deals on DVDs. Yet the one thing that lives on in Circuit City's zombie incarnation is its curiously stoplight-ish branding. Did no one ever think about the subtle "stop before you spend your money" messages that were being sent out there?

Fortunoff, 2009. A northeastern chain that mostly specialized in the type of housewares that could be called "nice," Fortunoff was a Long Island business that had been established in 1922; in the '90s its branding was so entrenched in the Island's culture that it was able to anchor a brand-new mall that was named after its slogan. ("The Source.") The mall's mix of outlet stores, upscale casual dining restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, and a Jillian's probably should have been a sign that Fortunoff's premium pricing on jewelry, furniture, and wedding-registry-ready housewares would soon be out of fashion. In 2008 it was sold to the owners of Lord & Taylor, and it fell to liquidation earlier this year. Its anchor space at The Source is still empty, and the mall now claims a Dave & Buster's as one of its anchors.

Bennigan's, 2008. OK, so I'm pretty sure I haven't eaten at one since, like, high school. But you have to feel for poor Butters.

Linens & Things, 2008. A casualty of both the housing bubble and its own debts. The assets of the company went from $1.3 billion to $1 million in the space of three years-because, as in the case of Circuit City, at the end, the only thing worth a damn was the familiar brand name.

Steve & Barry's, 2009. In 2005, this Long Island-based chain opened 62 new outlets in 3.5 million square feet of freshly leased mall space, which garnered a fair amount of attention from the business press. Steve & Barry's specialized in super-cheap clothing that was more blatant than fashion-forward; it had racks of T-shirts emblazoned with odes to beer and the logos of local high schools, each of which cost less than your average Value Meal. Steve & Barry's would eventually try to upscale itself, co-branding its still-inexpensive wares with the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Amanda Bynes, and Stephon Marbury. (In the mall near my parents' house the racks of sub-$10 "Federal Body Inspector" tops were placed in a space formerly occupied by Nobody Beats The Wiz, another chain that came to an early demise despite its Seinfeld shout-outs.) The chain capsized under the weight of its debts in 2008; it went under before it could make its mark downtown, where it was slated to occupy the E. 4th St. space that was once the home of…

Tower Records. The most painful capsizing of all, occasioned by some completely dunderheaded corporate decisions, Big Music's brief, ruinous love affair with serving as electronics stores' loss leaders and a tanking economy for recorded music. The chain's last days were characterized by carcass-picking of cheap discs that had once been priced at $18.99 and higher, which only added insult to injury. (Especially when I heard tales of people finding things for super-cheap that I'd purchased at premium prices back when I had the money to do that sort of thing.) Tower had been something of a social space for me, even though I rarely talked to people on the trips that my friends and I would take there; I would stalk the aisles in search of music I'd only read about, band names that were trapped in my memory being unlocked after sidelong glances at divider cards.

When I went to Ireland in September, I was staying around the corner from an outpost of the store's still-existent Irish arm. The last day of my trip, I finally got there when it was open-and upon walking inside and taking my first breath, I was greeted with the uniquely Tower smell of molding plastic and record-collector folly. It almost made me burst into tears.

Maura, Maura, Maura!

51 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

OMG I loved this!!!

A few points of order:

1) Fuck Bennigan's.

2) Did anyone else grow up near a Service Merchandise? I miss mountain bikes and hibachis coming out on conveyor belts.

3) I'm pretty sure every town had that one store that could NEVER STAY OPEN for more than six months. The on in my town started out as a Ponderosa, then went through like six different restaurants, the longest lasting of which was a Vermont themed restaurant called 'Evergreen Eddys' where my mom and her teacher friends would go for Happy Hour and they gave her a plaque at the bar but she made them use a pseudonym because she didn't want her students' parents knowing she liked to (*glug *glug) – and now… it's a Ponderosa again.

The former Service Merchandise site nearest me was in a mall that was razed to become a Wal-Mart.

(It was extra sad because that mall had what my sister and I referred to as a "throwback Gap," which basically had all the merchandise that had just been put below on-sale status. So if you wanted to find those Boy Fit jeans that had been taken off the shelves, that was where you went! This was pre-Old Navy, which I guess took away the need for this type of store in the minds of the Gap's suits.)

HiredGoons (#603)

Oh god there is always a Sad Mall too! With a weird candy store, and a Sox Market, and a Toy & Hobby store (I actually LOVE Toy & Hobby stores).

davidwatts (#72)

I remember that Service Merchandise always had a bizarrely violent collection of sporting goods, even more so than Wal-Mart. Mainly I'm thinking of the giant glass case full of compound bows which I spent a lot of time staring at. A lot of amazing time.

Alex Pareene (#278)

There was a Bonanza (which eventually merged with Ponderosa, though, oddly, they were originally separate chains — and upon merging they did not all become one or the other) out by my grandmother's house in suburban Minnesota that I loved, as a child, because I think it was the only place I'd ever been with a salad bar, and I would just fill plate after plate with shredded cheese. I was inconsolable when it closed. To become, I think, an Old Country Buffet? These were the days before "classy" or "ethnic" casual dining chains had infiltrated the upper midwest. Now it's probably a Chevy's Fresh-Mex.

HiredGoons (#603)

"Bonanza (which eventually merged with Ponderosa)" so… Jetsons Meet the Flintstones?

Bennigan's had the deep-fried battered French Dip, which IMHO was the predecessor to all over the top heart attack casual dining entrees. Therefore Bennigan's shall forever occupy a special place in my heart. No seriously, I'm sure those fat deposits are still there to this day.

OMG French Dip? I mean that Monte Cristo!

HiredGoons (#603)

Bennigan's did have one good thing on their menu: booze.

Van Buren Boy (#1,233)

Personally, I have fond memories of picking at the carcass of Tower Records when they went out of business. A Be Your Own Pet album for $4.00?!? Sign me up. However, now I have to trudge to one of the few remaining independent record stores in Washington DC in order to find any physical media in a store. *Sigh*

Those lingering independents are the highlight of the bi-annual trips I have to make to DC.

six (#2,773)

I was just thinking about Service Merchandise yesterday and was wondering if it was just a figment of my imagination since I couldn't figure out why someone would call their store Service Merchandise.

Sad Mall was the one with the 'throwback' Gap and Foodtown. There was another one, for me, on Hempstead Turnpike that had the last remaining Roy Rogers in it's lot.

I know it's not the same but the guy who started Tower has started a new place here in Sacramento. He calls it R5.

HiredGoons (#603)

Roy Rogers! My Sad Mall only had a generic "Hamburger Place."

Roy Rogers still lives! It's even on Facebook!

katiebakes (#32)

Roy Rogers chicken nuggets are the best chicken nuggets.

While I typically bemoan the rise of national chain stores at the demise of locally owned shops, it's kinda neat that it's given everyone who spent anytime as a youth in suburbia an instant connection. Caldor's, Consumers (the Service Merch competitor), etc.

mathnet (#27)

There was a store called Consumers??

katiebakes (#32)

I am laughing at the concept of the Sad Mall. (or, as they call it in Mallrats, the "Dirt Mall.")

In my neck of the woods Quaker Bridge was the "normal" mall, Princeton MarketFair was the "nice" mall (it had a Sharper Image and a Platypus and its radio jingle went "Princeton MarketFair, where choosy people choose to be") and Mercer Mall was … Sad. I think that one has a Hooters now.

Also, it goes without saying, Maura, but I can't hear "Nobody Beats The Wiz" without thinking of every other commercial on a certain local sports channel.

HiredGoons (#603)

Sad Malls are usually a tan color.

hman (#53)

Quaker Bridge was the 'special' mall, meant only for when my uncle worked at the Lord & Taylor as 'holiday help' so we could use him for the discount.
Brunswick Square was my go-to.

Morbo (#1,288)

My Local Sad Mall (all pre-Internet memories):
- A McDonald's Express because the McDonald's across the street was just too far away.
- A Subway with no running water…it had been put in there as a quick fix after a Chess King went under.
-The normal, well-lit B. Dalton type bookstore that inexplicably had a vast selection of pornography within plain view and arm's reach for all the children….actually, these magazines were right above the children's section, come to think of it…
-The Old Country Buffet with a "do not serve" Polaroid wall of people that had been caught trying to sneak food out.
-The Sears that decided just to be one level, and walled off the escalators, promising a "grand remodeling" that never happened in five years.

This still doesn't top the mall north of the town where I live now, where they decided to bulldoze their Sad Mall, and leave one free standing anchor store amidst the rubble, for a shopping experience straight out of Fallujah. The developer went under, and the rubble remained for six months…and people kept coming to that one anchor.

As you can see, we have a higher tolerance for sadness in the Midwest.

Wow. Chess King!

NinetyNine (#98)

Are you kidding? I'm fairly sure in my growing up closet my parents have a metallic skinny Chess King tie bought for some 'formal' dance.

You mean skinny, leather tie? Because I had that.

Oh, I'm not kidding at all. We had a Chess King in our mall. It was where the jazz band members bought their concert clothes… until it closed.

Woolie (#2,807)

Our Chess King was a Merry Go Round. Or maybe we had both? I don't remember. Both gone now.

Maura, I think we found your new business card:


NinetyNine (#98)

Our sad mall has more 'local' stores, which sit awkwardly into former chain spaces, and can't even afford signage, so you peer awkwardly wondering if they are selling, say, photo frames or if it's a church group. And then I found out that some marketing wag managed to steal the "largest mall" crown for a couple years.

rhodan (#2,774)

This is genius. I have not lived in the US full-time since 1999 and still my favourite thing to do on visits home is go to big-box stores and marvel.
Anyway, the defining memory of my local (Schenectady, NY) Sad Mall: the annual GIANT SANDCASTLE when they would dump a load of sand in the middle of the mall (where there were no retailers any more, of course) and a guy would sit there for days carving a giant, intricate sandcastle. I wonder what he does for a living now.

mathnet (#27)


cherrispryte (#444)

Holy hell. Having been dragged to both Roosevelt Field and The Source today, it is a bit like you are living my life.
Does anyone remember when Bennigan's had this thing on St. Patrick's day where they hid coasters all over the restaurant, and if you found one, and scratched off a part of it, you won a prize? This was probably about fifteen-twenty years ago, but in my childhood memories, they had really good prizes.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

South Street Seaport and Manhattan Mall would kind of fit in the "sad mall" category if they ever got sick of living in the city. They are sort of a category all their own though.

I think I went to the WIZ closeout sale after spending the night at Tunnel.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Excellent post. And since this is one of the only posts on the Interweb I will ever be able to say this: I miss Titus Oaks Records! And Consumers Distributing!

Grew up in Brooklyn, but trips to Titus Oaks on Avenue U and hearing about the Long Island stores from friends was part of my music rummaging past.

*sniff* THEY SOLD USED CASSETTES!!! Like "Fly By Night" and anything by "Billy Joel"!

I bought "Exile On Main Street" at Titus Oaks in Hicksville for a dollar!

That lot is now a Dunkin Donuts.

thatsrealbutter (#2,095)

Awww. I really miss Tower Video

Do yall have WESTFIELD on the east coast? It is the meta-mall. All mall properties in LA are essentially owned by WESTFIELD. So our strip malls that have some pathetic attempt at local character, like the TOPANGA PLAZA (home to B. Dalton, and Tower, R.I.P.) get bought up and renamed THE WESTFIELD PLAZA.

When the revolution comes (HI, CHINA) and we are put up against the wall. That mall will be a Westfield wall.

Westfield owns the closest Sad Mall to me — Sunrise Mall in Massapequa. (It should be noted that the above photo was taken not too far from Sunrise Mall last year, some 11 months after that Tower had gone out of business.) I like the Macy's there a lot, in part because it still has some older iteration of the store's branding on its exterior, but man does it have a lot of empty storefronts.

HiredGoons (#603)


I can tell you that the smell of Hickory Farms is the smoked-sausage equivalent of Proust's madeleines for former mall kids like me. The ur-gift-basket was always Hickory Farms: skinny salamis and little cheeses and and and.

Woolie (#2,807)

Hickory Farms and the whiskey barrels of liquor-flavored candy.

brianvan (#149)

Oh god. First, let me punch a wall. Second, I'll relate a related experience: Westfield, the evil corporation who played a part in HOLDING UP GROUND ZERO RECONSTRUCTION UNTIL THEY GOT PAID OFF (because they had operated, by lease, the WTC concourse mall), also happens to own Garden State Plaza. GSP is the biggest and nicest mall in Paramus, NJ – the town with at least two copies of every store (big or small) and a GDP larger than many countries. It is the king of kings. Westfield bought it sometime in the 90's. They soon proceed to…

(really, stop here if you just ate)

1. Attempt to rename and rebrand it "Westfield Shoppingtowne – Garden State Plaza"

2. Put pictures of spokeswoman Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson all over the place, some of them 12 feet high. This is when she was in the lower left quadrant of the Approval Index, mind you.

Aside from the idea of taking all of your malls and giving them the same gay name, this was a colossal FAIL. The only way to have a bigger branding malfunction is to do something anti-Semetic. I say this not because anyone revolted or protested or switched to the **GASP** Bergen Mall (Paramus' version of a Sad Mall)… it's because all of it was completely ignored and everyone, to this day, calls it Garden State Plaza. Whatever they spent on trying to establish the Westfield name, it was pretty much lit on fire.

From a wider angle, this is a perfect example of a corporation runaway with its own ego. Malls are a very personal thing to a lot of people, and when they have names that have been established for 40 years to a regional customer base, it's not just difficult to change it, it's also unwise. Why WOULD you? People are more comforted by the familiar than they are appeased to travel to LA someday and find out that some mall out there has the same name and must be kind of the same (which it won't be, because both were built/designed separately prior to purchase, have different customers, different regional/national retail tenants, maybe even a different climate). In the latter scenario you will not get more sales. If there is a bigger and better mall, your name means nothing. So, aside from reinvesting in your property (which Westfield definitely does effectively), the thing that works the best is to keep the name that means the most to the most people.

Finally, in case you missed it above, WESTFIELD TOOK MONEY FROM 9/11 AND TRIED TO RENAME MY MALL. FUCKOS.

Well, Macy's did the same thing — by which I mean the rebranding, not the 9/11 chicanery — a few years back, when Federated decided that all of its stores would be rechristened as Macy's. (It had done this with Stern's in the Northeast a couple of years prior.) The renaming of Marshall Field's was probably the most notorious of them, what with its flagship being so crucial to Chicago's downtown. People still complain! And still call it Marshall Field's. I always think that forced-rebrandings like these represent crazy corporate hubris.

katiebakes (#32)

Great comment or the greatest comment?

KarenUhOh (#19)

Every time a chain closes around here, its receivers send hamstrung men, scarred by ineffable loneliness, out to the corners of suburban arterials to stand behind–always behind, so as not to be visible–cardboard signs screaming desperate pleas of LIQUIDATION PRICING and LEAVING BUSINESS FOREVER.

Inevitably, these men work in desolate weather: howling winds, relentless heat, sideways sleetstorms–and they have nothing at all to pass the time but to try to hang onto these signs, to grip tight their ephemeral jobs, until the stores are empty and they're released, to seek out the next doomed mark in the sucker's game of free enterprise.

And what do they get paid? $40 a day, even when the temperature is below zero. (Also from that link: "After [a phone call between a concerned citizen and the company hiring the sign-holders], the resident says he took the workers to Union Gospel Mission in downtown Sioux Falls, a place where the workers had reportedly been staying for food and shelter.")

mathnet (#27)

Our mall had an unfenced duck pond in the middle, and a three-story-high bird cage with peacocks.

HiredGoons (#603)

That is no Sad Mall.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

This reminds me of how people still refer to the MACY's on Fulton Street as A&S.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

Bleagh! Wrong context for this. Add to Maura's response to Brian Van in your mind for context.

Woolie (#2,807)

It's remarkable to me how quickly brand new malls become Sad Mall these days. (Or I'm getting old and actually remember too much.)
City Center in Columbus had Marshall Field's, Brooks Brothers, Henri Bendel, Laura Ashley (God, remember the floral prints?) and it was connected to the Lazarus flagship department store.
It opened in 1988, became a Sad Mall in the late nineties, and now it's torn down.

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