April 17, 2013

Shopping centers in the 1980s: Before every store was food-related

There sure is a lot more variety in the kinds of food places you can go to these days -- Thai restaurant, Hawaiian barbecue, coffee house, smoothie shack, just to name a few. But we shouldn't mistake all this diversity at the level of food places with diversity at the overall level of our daily commercial destinations, like a shopping center.

It seems like in most shopping centers, food businesses of one kind or another take up 50% or more of the spots. Throw in a reliable handful of hair salons and cell phone stores, and that's about it. There's usually only one store whose business type is not only unique within the other stores at that shopping center, but the only one of its kind within a five-block radius. The lingering ACE Hardware store, the vanishing Blockbuster movie rental store, the odd tanning salon.

Were shopping centers always this monotonous? I mean, it's nice to have so many food and beverage options, but they've crowded out all the other variety that used to be there. They don't have that organic feel where stores offering a wide range of goods and services cater to the local community that they're located in. They're more like the frivolous "lifestyle center" concept, where you just make a quick trip to indulge your senses and then go back home to fart around on the TV, internet, or Xbox for another couple of hours.

I've got a list of stores in and around various shopping centers and malls, for the suburban Columbus, OH area in 1988. I'll leave out malls since that wouldn't be a fair comparison (they had everything). And I'll pick from across a decent geographical range, two on the small and two on the large side. Let's take a quick look at what kinds of businesses you could expect to find within walking / biking / short driving distance, and then sum up the main differences.

If I have time, in the future I might track down what stores are in these centers today, for a more direct comparison. Still, you can't help but notice how much variety there used to be back then. Some of these store names don't tell us or even suggest what they sold, but here goes.

Olentangy Valley Shopping Center (Worthington)

Arbour House Travel
Avant Garde
Buckeye Health Foods
Forever Green Foliage Co.
Franco's Pizza
Hearth & Eagle Tavern
Howard Brooks Furniture
Lola's USA Deli
McKenzie's Supermarket
Roger Perry Realtors
Ski America
Soccer & Sports Outlet
Tom's Hallmark House
Vrables Pharmacy
Worthington Hills Cleaners
Zin Bridal Gallery

There are 5 of 17 that are food businesses, though no obvious chains. If any of them were, they must have been local chains, not national. Ditto for the non-food stores. There are non-immediate gratification services like a travel office, film developer, and realtor. Sounds like a landscaper in there too ("Foliage"). Furniture could be bought in just about any shopping center back then, and sports / athletics were big too. A good fraction of the shopping centers I've looked through had a Hallmark store.

Hilliard Square (Hilliard)

Animal Crackers Pet Shop
[Unnamed] Chiropractor
Christine's Styling Salon
Cord Camera
Coyle Music
Fits-Inn Health Club
Hillard Street Blues
ITT Financial Services
Little Caesars Pizza
Majestic Paint Center
Print Inn
Rosemary's Hallmark
Swan Cleaners
TCBY Yogurt
Video Barn

Only 3 of 16 are food-related stores, all major chains this time. Nearly as many are professional services (chiropractor, financial). What happened to pet stores? Especially ones that weren't a huge chain. Music stores and camera stores were separate, not crappy departments within a big box electronics chain like Best Buy. Most of the paint stores I saw were different, not all part of a sprawling chain (though there was a Sherwin-Williams here and there). For that matter, paint stores had not become another crappy department in Home Depot. Most of the printing centers were unique too; I think I only saw a couple of Kinko's in the lists. Video rental stores were all over too, each with their own selection, almost none of them chains in the '80s.

By the way, when in doubt if it's a chain, the less pretentious, or the more that a store's name makes you smile or giggle, the more likely it's a mom & pop spot that thought the name up themselves.

Dublin Plaza (Dublin)

The Acorn
The Book Barn
Buckeye Federal Savings
Dublin Pet Center
The Framing Center
HER Realtors
Jo-Ann Fabrics
Keith Barnet, LTD
Lee Shoes
Le Flair Boutique
Leo Alfred Jewlers
Lil's Hallmark
Little Caesars Pizza
The Mattress People
McAlister Camera
Patty Jo's
Pip Printing
Roots, Inc.
Roush Hardware
Super X Drugs
Teddy Bareskins (greatest store name ever)
Top 40 Movies

Just 4 or 5 of 26 are food stores (if Patty Jo's is some kind of restaurant). Back then, regular shopping centers sold clothing, shoes, accessories, and jewelry; you didn't have to trek out to the mall or department store if you didn't feel like it. Framing stores were mostly unique, not chains, and had not been swallowed up into wherever they are now. It seems like custom framing is effectively gone, and you just buy the pre-made ones at Target, Wal-Mart, or other big box store. In addition to furniture stores, there were specific stores for mattresses (and waterbeds, naturally). Another mom & pop hardware store, still going strong into the 1980s (Teen Wolf worked at his father's for his after-school job, back when teenagers were workin' for a livin').

Bethel Centre (North Columbus)

Baryo Batik
Ben's Supermarket
Berry's Barbell
Bethel Dance Academy
The Box Shoppe
Busch's Bridal Fabrics
Buzzard's Nest (record store)
Callander Cleaners
Century City Comics
Chase Bank of Ohio
Community Dental Center
Cooker Bar & Grill
Custome Holiday House
Express Tan
First Choice Hair Cutters
Flicker's Cinema Pub
Four Seasons Florist & Gifts
I Can't Believe It's Yogurt (lol)
India Imports Cafe
KDS One Stop Printing
Michael's Music
Morone's Italian Villa
Norwest Financial
O.P. Gallo Formal Wear
Paper Party Outlet
Photo serve
Popcorn Outlet
Radio Shack
Revco Drugs
Saturday's Family Hair Care
Scott Hurt Photography
Serent Office Supply
Skyline Chili
Tangles Hair Designers
Tuy Van's Restaurant
20/20 Vision Center
Vergoff Jewelers
The Video Store

...Phew. Some shopping centers had as many stores as malls did. Now it'd be taken up by whichever three relevant big box stores.  Of the 39 stores, perhaps 6 to 8 of them are food-related, and few or none are chains, at least large recognizable ones. Ditto again for the non-food stores. That's not a Thai but a Vietnamese restaurant. We were still cool with Vietnamese things back then; only when political correctness set in during the '90s did we have to change our tastes because, um, hello, that whole war, y'know? Thai was similar enough, and wouldn't be served with awkward political baggage.

I think roughly 1 out of every 8 shopping locations listed had some kind of dance school. Folks are too unexcitable these days to catch dance fever, though. Comic book stores enjoyed a brief renaissance in the late '80s and early '90s due to a speculators' boom. Lots of services -- dentist, financial, optician, bank, photographer. Not-so-standard goods on offer -- batik, imports, florist.

The office supply store isn't a Staples, the Box Shoppe isn't a Container Store. The home / interior decorating places aren't a Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Only big chain is a Radio Shack, and they were and still are small in size, not a Best Buy. And of course the range of other stores that we already saw in the earlier centers -- two music stores, sporting goods, clothing / jewelry, non-Kinko's printers, video rental store, etc.

This representative picture should serve as a strong reminder of just how recent the whole big box, every-store-a-mega-chain trend is. Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, etc etc etc -- those only took off in the '90s. Without lists like these, you might have trouble remembering how little homogeneity there was as late as the end of the '80s. No Blockbuster, no Sam Goody, no Old Navy, no Supercuts. Also no trouble finding a mom & pop grocery store, hardware store, or bookstore.

I really miss the specialty nature of most stores back then. With separate stores for TVs, cameras, computers, and stereos, you could talk to four people who all knew something. Now those are collapsed into a Best Buy, where the four employees know diddly squat about everything. And lots of smaller clothing type stores allowed you to browse a wider variety, rather than the tentpole junk you find in Wal-Mart, Old Navy, etc.

Collapsing the specialty stores into a single big-box store also destroys the feeling of variety as you wander from one store to another. It all comes under the design plans of the same high committee. Malls avoided that, indeed combined the best of the single-structure building and independent store configurations. They were more like Middle Eastern bazaars, only in three dimensions (with escalators and glass elevators).

Shoppers these days like to drop buzzwords about liking "boutique-y" shops, but they're full of shit, as usual. Maybe for satisfying their taste buds or getting their hair cut, but everything else takes place in a sprawling mega-chain like Target and Whole Foods, or a neo-mid-century Totalitarian box like the Apple Store.

Despite all the paeans to diversity in the Millennial era, the increasingly OCD population cannot tolerate variety in daily life. Volatility, mystery, and surprise must be squeezed vice-like into a routine. Visiting the range of stores in shopping centers wasn't a mind-blowing pilgrimage kind of thing -- but we need variety as we go about our daily lives, too, not just experience it once a year. Shopping centers used to feel more like part of the overall ecosystem of a neighborhood, way before the New Urbanist crowd began preaching about mixed use. Intentionally or not, their followers have instead delivered us the homogeneous and frivolous "lifestyle centers."

Now shopping centers offer so little to do, so few reasons to stroll around and browse through each of the stores -- after all, today that only amounts to inspecting the menu to see where you'd like to eat before going right back home. We may have more treats to tickle our taste buds, but only by draining out our local commercial and architectural diversity.


  1. I've noticed this trend as well. Sad really.

  2. Not to mention the bajillion coffee shops on college campuses(and fastfood restaurants!)

    (though granted, public dining halls is one of the things I liked about college)


  3. Yeah, the proliferation of indie coffee shops is one of the worst trends. The crowd at Starbucks is fairly anti-social, though less so than the population at large.

    At the indie coffee shop, they're way more insulated with their cocooning devices, and way more into constantly monitoring and adjusting their public image. You've never seen such an irritating bunch of dorky posers.

    I miss the food court at the mall. So much variety, so little posing, and so much commotion. The pictures I've seen from the automats of the 1920s have that same feel.

  4. The shopping center near me must be a bit aberrant. It's got a couple of cafes, a couple of restaurants and a couple of big supermarkets, but it's mostly clothes retail, with a few jewellery, cosmetics, book and electronics shops thrown it. There was a big department store, but that has kind of gone the way of the dodo now.

    Idea of having anything like a estate agents or a cleaners or furniture store in a shopping center seems a little odd to me, also true of pet stores, etc. I've seen banks and things in them, but in my country they tend to put that stuff in walkable and drivable high streets. Anything like a bank where you might be making a special visit just to that place tends to be located somewhere where you can (I won't say easily) park near that place.

    The restaurantification of the high street though, that's more of a recognizable phenomenon.

    We were still cool with Vietnamese things back then; only when political correctness set in during the '90s did we have to change our tastes because, um, hello, that whole war, y'know?


  5. Although I have great memories of malls, I honestly can't remember every store that used to be in them. I can say that there was a mall here locally that they demolished and erected a "lifestyle center" in its stead. It's still a little weird for me moving back here and seeing this change. And also, they are in the process of demolishing the old movie theater I went to as a child. All those memories, just swept away.

  6. Malls used to have shoe repair, legal offices, other professional services, mini-churches, community meeting spaces, toy stores, novelty/gift stores, pet stores (as in, where you could buy a variety of baby animals), all kinds of stuff.

    You should check out www.labelscar.com -- it's the best site documenting the decline of malls over the last 20 years, though their writing begins in the mid-2000s. Each post is devoted to a specific mall.

    They sometimes get nostalgic, but never sentimental. They cover the whole country, and usually have lots of pictures. And they usually place the history of a single mall within the larger context. The comments section fills in a lot of detail as well.

  7. During the '90s, the topic of the Vietnam War became increasingly awkward. It showed up in Forrest Gump and a handful of war movies, but the '90s saw a shift away from Vietnam, which was murky, and toward WWII, which was more clear-cut.

    There used to be a decent number of Vietnamese restaurants wherever there was a Vietnamese community, all unpretentious and operated by recent immigrants. Then when people started to feel awkward associations with the Vietnam War, they needed a substitute, and that was the Thai restaurant.

  8. Yeah I remember the other mall here had a pet store before a major food court renovation which rendered the part with the pet store unrecognizable. Gosh, even KB Toys left that mall now that I think about it. There is a Build-A-Bear and a Disney Store there, but it isn't the same. Thanks for the labelscar suggestion. I've actually been there on a previous search. I'm sure you've seen it, but deadmalls.com is another decent resource.


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