Trends in shopping were changing, as they basically had been for at least a decade by that point, probably forever. The recurring theme of my disappointing attempts at recovering childhood wonder is that since I was a little boy, more and more things have consolidated, combined, and homogenized. If I were older, I’d be complaining about the demise of Hothschild Kohn’s and Hutzler’s (Fun fact: Hutzler’s is credited with inventing the concept of “everything has its own standard price that every customer pays rather than haggling”). But I’m not, so instead, I’ll complain about the demise of shopping malls.
The overwhelming trend in retail during the tail end of the 20th century and the first seventh of the 21st has been toward larger names and larger stores in smaller numbers. This has two primary aspects: the rise of the big-box — supergiant warehouse-style stores selling middle-to-low-end everyday goods — and the rise of the “Festival Center”, where two or three high-end specialty retailers open large, opulent showrooms.
These developments are both intensely, inherently suburban. That is, they are based around the assumption that you are going to drive to them, spend a lot of money in one place, pack your purchases into the back of your SUV (It’s always an SUV) and go home. And if you intend to buy more than one sort of thing, you mean to drive between them.
Shopping malls aren’t exactly urban, what with the need to place ten acres of building and forty acres of parking somewhere. But I think their existence is a sort of historical accident. Because shopping malls evolved directly out of the downtown shopping districts in cities. In fact, the whole concept of a shopping mall started out as “Hey, let’s put a glass roof over this narrow, shop-lined street to improve business on rainy days”. The modern fully-enclosed shopping mall first appeared right smack in the middle of the 20th century, pretty much immediately after the big postwar White Flight to the Suburbs, and I think you can make a pretty solid argument that the whole point of shopping malls was to give middle-class suburban (predominately white) folks the breadth and variety of shopping experience without having to venture into the Big Scary City. Which probably means I should boycott malls on principle as being Part of the Problem, but thankfully, the point is moot because downtown shopping districts pretty much died out thirty years ago when they converted the old department stores into condos and all the little corner stores got turned into antique shops and comically expensive restaurants. (I dislike suburbs in principle, but having lived in the Big City for a decade, I just don’t have the temperament for it. And if my moral opposition were worth cutting my life short for the good of the planet, there’s more efficient ways to do it than moving to a place where the stress would kill me)
So in this view, the shopping mall is essentially a little chunk of the city, carved out, sanitized, and plopped down in suburbia. Its downfall (Insofar as a downfall has actually happened and isn’t just in my head) came because, sixty years on, the suburb has become the default cultural model of middle-America, not the city, so a controlled emulation of the city is no longer as appealing. On top of that, in 2016, if I want to buy, say, boxer shorts, the Bloggess’s latest book, a new battery for my watch, the third season of MacGyver, and a Voyager-class Optimus Prime, I can get it done in one trip by going to the mall… Or I can get it done in zero trips using this neat little gizmo in my pocket. And in a couple of years, I’ll be able to do that and have my purchases brought to me by a robot.
What I’m getting at is that the writing was probably on the wall for the tiny little malls of my youth. The nail in the coffin is a subject of some considerable irony. It was called Marley Station. Named for the neighborhood on the outskirts of Glen Burnie and Pasadena where it stands, Marley Station was “the new mall” when it opened in 1987. It was exciting. It was shiny, and new, with marble tile and blue neon accent lighting, and a big glass elevator. And a movie theater! In a mall! I’d never heard of such a thing (the Annapolis Mall wouldn’t get a movie theater until some time after I moved to Baltimore). And a Friendly’s. With a faux georgian facade inside the mall. Oh, how we’d demand to go to Friendly’s. I’m pretty sure my parents hated it (Mom liked the ice cream, but not the food), but me and Kate loved it. My primary memory of the Friendly’s at Marley Station is my dad getting mad at yelling at the manager one time because it took something like an hour to get our food, and his was the only meal that came out hot. He’d ordered a reuben.
Ironically, the most charming thing about Marley Station isn’t even in the mall. Ann’s Dari-Creme, a ’50s-style hot dog stand, predated the mall, and somehow managed to remain in-place, situated between the lanes of the mall’s entryway. I’ve never actually been there. I always think I’d like to, but in the heat of the moment, can’t work out how to get in. But that’s because I’m an idiot: they’re doing perfectly good business. They will almost certainly still be there when Marley Station finally, mercifully closes.Marley Station, when it opened, was anchored by a Hecht’s and a Macy’s. The mall is a sort of abstract letter-M shape (I don’t know if that’s intentional), clearly designed to accommodate four anchors. There were two places near the center of the mall where the major corridor would just end at a blank wall. Later, they added a J. C. Penney, and eventually a Sears.
It was new, it was fancy, it was exciting. It had all the usual things too, the Kay-Bee Toys, the two bookstores (Waldenbooks and B. Dalton), the Boardwalk Fries, the inexplicable shoe repair shop, the Arby’s, where mom would order a roast beef sandwich and throw two thirds of it away for not being well-done enough (Mom has an animal protein allergy and can only eat meat that’s been cooked enough to denature it. I was thirteen before I found out that it was actually okay to eat beef that had even a trace of pink to it). It was cool enough that we didn’t really notice or care that it was choking the life out of the other malls. It was more convenient than driving to four different places anyway.
But like I said, retail was changing. The traditional mall’s days were numbered, at least as the dominant retail force. The small malls had two anchors. The big malls had three. Marley Station had four department stores. When Arundel Mills opened in Hanover in the fall of 2000, its design included space for seventeen large anchor stores. Only one of them was a traditional department store (A T.J. Maxx that kinda looks like it may have been there already and the mall just grew around it). The money wasn’t in a mall with a hundred tiny shops; it was in a Power Center with a dozen high-end luxury retailers, flanked by a couple of warehouse stores. And a casino.
I don’t know when exactly Marley Station entered into its decline. Probably right after Arundel Mills opened. Macy’s sold their original location to Boscov’s in 2006 when they merged with Hecht’s. Boscov’s went bankrupt two years later and closed most of their stores. The location is now a data center owned by AiNET, who’ve indicated that they’d like to buy the rest of the mall. I realize that this would entail gutting the place, but I really like to imagine them just leaving the mall exactly like it is but filling all the individual little store bays with racks of servers.
The mall has sort of drawn itself inward, if you can imagine it. The core of the place, the center court, still looks perfectly healthy, with the usual array of clothing stores and jewelry stores and stores for every major cellular carrier. But as you move away from that center court, the mall shows signs of evolutionary divergence, like an animal that got stranded on an island somewhere and is slowly evolving flippers to suit its new niche. On the AiNET side, the mall is largely vestigial. Its lower level features only two stores on that wing, an anemic video arcade and a really rather nice dollar store. The upper floor has a fitness place. Most of the rest of the space in that wing was leased by the casino over at Arundel Mills for training spaces. The Friendly’s facade still remains, but what’s inside now is, near as I can tell, a private collector’s model railroad layout.
The Macy’s end of the mall is less empty, but the character of the place is very odd. A large section of what were once small shops have been consolidated into a two-story gym. There’s an As Seen On TV store, and a place that buys gold. A bounce-house place for children’s parties. An inordinate number of hair places — salons, braiding, beading, and plucking. The shoe repair place is gone, but there’s a tailor. There’s a tag and title place. I’m pretty sure a tag and title place was one of the last businesses to leave the Severna Park Mall before its demise. Probably the weirdest thing (aside from the model railroad) is a large shop catering to racing enthusiasts. A big chunk of the place is NASCAR licensed gear, but the bulk of the store is taken up by an enormous slot car track, and it looks like a lot of their trade is in high-end slot car stuff.
Once it opened, back in 1987, it promptly drove the other malls out of business. I think maybe even Annapolis felt the strain as they became the boring pedestrian “old mall” compared to the new, exciting modern two-story mall fifteen minutes up Ritchie Highway. But time passed and wasn’t kind. The mall has expanded a bit, but never had a major renovation: the only change to the design and decor in almost thirty years is that they don’t have built-in ashtrays. In 2013, Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings against the Simon Property Group, owners of the mall. The Woodmont Company was appointed receivers of the mall, to take care of it until the bank and the owners settle. They’re largely responsible for the mall hanging on as well as it has — under their management, the mall’s vacancy rate dropped from 66% to 15%, and they’ve done a lot of work to keep the place clean, well-maintained and decorated, which has probably spared it from turning into a creepy dystopian horror movie set like most declining malls.
They still hold community events at the mall, most recently, a Halloween party for children with Trick-or-Treating. The management company has affirmed that they’re focused on retaining their current tenants and attracting new ones, denying any interest in closing down and selling the retail space to AiNET. I don’t really know what the future is for Marley Station. Since, unlike the other malls we’ve stopped at so far, Marley Station still exists, it’s a bit easier to get information about it, though historical information is obviously harder to come by. Maryland independent filmmaker Dan Bell has been doing a series of videos on the dead malls of the mid-atlantic, and Marley Station is one of the malls he visits. Check it out. The southern terminus of MD-10 is less than a mile south. Route 10 is essentially a bypass for Ritchie Highway from Pasadena to Baltimore, meaning that Marley Station isn’t really “on the way” anywhere any more. It’s sort of out-of-the-way, set well back from the road on a section of Route 2 that’s much more residential and less built-up than Severna Park or Glen Burnie. And, though Macy’s, Penney’s and Sears are basically burned in my mind as the archetypical mall anchors, none of them are doing especially well (Sears, in particular, somehow managed to completely fuck up the internet age, somehow deciding, after more-or-less inventing mail-ordering basically anything, that the future of retail was 1980s-style department stores, and completely gutted their catalog business), and frankly, it’s a matter of time before one of them pulls out. Without anything in particular to serve as a big draw, the only retail future that really makes sense for it is to serve as a direct replacement for the extinct local malls it helped to kill off: a place to gather small, lower-end or specialty shops that can’t afford the overhead of stand-alone site.