The demise of the American shopping mall over the past decade-plus has been well-documented. Closed, gutted, abandoned, defaced, obliterated, repurposed…use whatever action phrase suits you. It’s gone beyond syndrome, more than just a tag of “dead mall,” which used to belong strictly to the Monroeville Mall outside of Pittsburgh, the filming location of George Romero’s 1978 horror classic, Dawn of the Dead.
I suppose I saw the proverbial writing on the wall as far back as my visit to Monroeville Mall nearly 20 years ago for the purpose of making a pilgrimage to horror hallowed ground. Even then, retail stores were dying and this was before Amazon and Ebay started putting standard brick and mortar shops out to pasture. To my dismay, the famous interior clock tower had been removed from Monroeville Mall and the skating rink turned into a food court. Only a shell of the rink could be found beneath a table outside of an Arby’s we’d eaten at. Worse, the SunCoast Video (remember them?) had no copies available of Dawn of the Dead, nor were the staff at the time knowledgeable of the significance where they worked. I hummed “The Gonk” (as in the drippy, corny carousel-styled mall music ushering the zombie march in Romero’s film) and lurched around SunCoast in a deliberate shaming maneuver. Really, it was self-shaming. Semantics.
If you’ve been on the planet longer than the past 22 years, you no doubt left you heart at a certain mall in your area, even if there were six or seven within drivable proximity as we had around the Baltimore suburbs and its rural outskirts. Chances are, if you lament the great mall kill-off, you spent much or all of your teens in a mall, like Rat, Jeff, Stacy, Linda and Damone did in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, still in my top-five favorite flicks of all-time. To understand mall culture, sure, you can dive into Jay and Silent Bob’s goofery in Mallrats and Season 3 of Stranger Things did an excellent job capturing the mall phenomenon of 1980s. To get it entirely, though, is to submerge yourself in Fast Times.
I always like to refer to the original Hunt Valley Mall as my “Fast Times.” We had many malls available to us as far as our parents felt like driving us and each shopping complex had its own special “thing” separating them from each other (a prefab Gucci store, a more aromatic water fountain, see-through elevators in the middle of the doings, a maze of walkways), yet Hunt Valley Mall was my mecca, my mojo, my verve. Whether it was with my folks, my friends, a girlfriend or all alone, I came of age at Hunt Valley, shy of losing my cherry, which later came in a more idyllic setting.
Today stands Hunt Valley Towne Center, a next-gen “Avenue” type of sprawling commerce built overtop a splintered fragment of the original mall you only recognize if you’d been there through the mall’s closure in the 1990s. Instead of the Hunt Valley Mall food court where a gazillion teen romances were plotted, you have a more upscale hibachi grill to get cozy with your date. There’s a couple of sports bars, a California Kitchen pizzeria, Outback, Carrabba’s and Mediterranean grub, along with chain eateries having nothing to do with the burger wars. A Dick’s Sporting Goods and Wegman’s grocery store dwarf the old Sears location and one-ups to the old days, there’s a movieplex that’s had both prosperous and difficult stretches. Peet’s Coffee awaits if you need a kick start or a secondary jump.
Do I miss these goofball shenanigans? Absolutely not, but it is a little funny, as in the shaking my head brand of funny, to think about how shallow we teenagers were across the board. Today they do it more inconspicuously through texting and Snapchat, even standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Nearly none of it done in the shadows of a Burger King or Pizza Bob’s kiosk nor an arcade with quarter-to-play video games. Those latter things, I do miss.
X-box and PlayStation may be ten times more advanced in graphics, concepts and interfacing, yet no virtual link to some screaming eight-year-old being outdone by his thirty-year-old father after getting vaporized on Fortnite compares to physically being amongst your peers in a live arcade setting. Anyone growing up in Hunt Valley Mall will utter the canonized name of “Space Port,” where moms and dads could dependably drop their kids off while they got their shopping done. Space Port was its own rite of passage, much as I’m sure any American kid of the 1980s would wax about their own arcade.
I can still see myself frantically twisting the joystick commanding those light cycles of Tron to mash the MPC’s guard to bits. I can feel my wrist getting tired hammering the snot out of the cannon fire button on Galaga–twice as fast during the bonus stages. There I go, dropping piledrivers, clotheslines and suplexes as Dynamite Tommy against video game wrestlers dubbed “The Piranha,” “The Insane Warrior,” “Coco Savage” and “Golden Hulk,” winning the championship belt in Mat Mania and defending it so many times I had to give my game up to some other kid when it was time to go.
Anyone habiting Space Port is wont to remember the days Punch Out! and the fully animated Dragon’s Lair arrived. Video gaming the Eighties wasn’t the same afterwards.
I’ve since loaded most of my music library onto a USB thumb drive, but Camelot Music will always have a special place in my heart. Yeah, mall music stores all around were overpriced. Yeah, they were often lacking depth as far as underground music goes, but Camelot was usually more on the dime than its mall-bound competitors of the day like Music World and Tape World. Maybe not as diverse and rich in selections as a Tower Records emporium or your local specialty music shop where punk, alternative and metal ruled, the mere name of Camelot Music brings automatic glee to any mall rat blowing his or her allowance on vinyl and cassettes of the day. Best album I ever bought from Hunt Valley Mall’s Camelot branch? Testament’s The New Order. In fact, I blared it as loud as I could push through my cheap speakers in my ’81 Escort in the Hunt Valley Mall parking lot. Two of my headbanger buddies joined me in a three man slam pit until the mall security chased us lunatics off.
I remember flirting with girls at The Gap and Big Sky clothing stores as I was just starting to build my confidence through my grit appearance. I remember eating at Friendly’s more so than the food court, sometimes with my family, other times with my girlfriend’s family, sometimes with a mixed group of friends from school who looked past my headbanger guise and welcomed me to the table. We bonded over Friendly’s famous “Happy Ending” ice cream desserts before taking anywhere from eight to ten laps around the mall, always right up to closing time. Store owners and security guards hated us, but we all played our roles and knew our boundaries, even if we would sometimes dash beneath lowering store gates daring to close a minute early like Indiana Jones inside the dropping temple barrier in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I remember a tobacco store I didn’t care about other than to stop and look at their Laurel and Hardy statues in the front window nearly every single time. My stepfather, a diehard Stan and Ollie fan, eventually landed that set and they’ve stood watch over his bar for nearly forty years. Not a time escapes me when I pull up with Pop for a beer downstairs that I don’t think about those statues’ original location. There was also Sir Walter Raleigh’s, one time more important than Macy’s and Hecht Company for the mall’s sustenance. One of the swankiest restaurants in Baltimore County, my father’s side of the family were frequent haunters of Sir Walter Raleigh’s and I relished any time I was invited along.
The days of rad are nothing you can teach future generations, but you can tell them about it, assuming they’re willing to take their AirPods out of their ears first. You were a mall rat or you weren’t, but most of us were and it’s not unheard of to hear mourning amongst many Gen X’ers over the death of their local mall as they would a best friend. A Five Below at the revamped Hunt Valley Towne Centre is cheap pacification, but it’s just not the same.
Time and tide, so the saying goes. Fact, traditional retail has lost tremendous ground to online shopping. Today’s specialized tastes and service wants and needs are seldom able to be fulfilled in a mall, whereas most people would rather click for sales in their pajamas instead of slugging it out for a parking spot. I’ll be a hypocrite and say I’m a frequent flier at Amazon, Ebay, Etsy and other electronic retailers for the simple fact I can find, more often than not, things you just can’t get in a hands-on store setting. Change is inevitable, change is often convenient. Sometimes change is for the good. Other times, change has you saying “gnarly” a lot, not as an embellishment, but as a twilight holding-on habit.
–Ray Van Horn, Jr.