Misspent Youth: Mall-Hopping on Ritchie Highway

This week’s column is brought to you by the fact that having a small baby is tiring and I haven’t had time to watch the next episode of War of the Worlds, so I needed something I could write entirely from memory.

mallRecently — though he’s been getting better about it since his birthday — when it’s late, and we tell Dylan that he’ll have to wait until tomorrow to do something or watch something or eat something, he’ll have a minor little freak-out to the tune of, “But what if I don’t want to tomorrow?” All a-panic that he might not get to do something because he’ll have stopped wanting to.

This sounds, on the face of it, very silly. But I get it. I totally get it. I remember. I remember begging my mom to remind me tomorrow when I woke up about the thing I had really wanted to do the previous night. I remember being very young when I became conscious of morning amnesia, the strange phenomenon wherein your brain has a go at blanking itself out while you sleep, so that you wake up wondering who you are and what you’re doing here, rather than waking up horrified at knowing who you are and what you’re doing here. I remember being very young when I realized that, quite often, just as I was getting ready for bed, I’d suddenly remember that the previous night, I’d desperately wanted to do something, only to forget overnight, and only remember just now when it was too late to do anything about it.

Time works differently when you’re a child, that’s what I’m getting at here. The past is another place and you were another person when you lived there. I remember it taking me a long time to hold onto the idea that summer had more than one saturday in it — I had enough of a sense of it being wrong to ask about it, but I could never quite internalize the answer. My son coined a wonderful little neologism when he talks about the non-immediate past: he refers to things having happened, “A few whiles ago.” Time was mostly an endless, indistinct blob of “the same” punctuated by irregular intervals of “different”. Not that being an adult is all that much different, except that the “the same” happens a lot faster and more often, and you’re more tired.

So you can perhaps take it with a grain of salt when my childhood memories tell me that it takes a shopping mall freaking forever to die. There were no shopping malls on Kent Island when I was growing up, and there still aren’t, unless they’re hiding. There’s four or five strip malls, depending on how you count, and, of course, the ghost mall. But an actual proper shopping mall required going Across The Bridge, which made it the most attainable experience in my childhood that still fell into the realm of “exotic”, and I imagine that’s why shopping malls have always held a certain special kind of nostalgia for me, despite the fact that I don’t especially like shopping.

Actually, I guess that a shopping mall is itself only the most attainable and least exotic example of a whole class of thing I like. I don’t know if it even has a blanket name. “Arcology” is the closest thing I can think of, but those are largely hypothetical constructs that bring a lot more specific things to mind than what I’m really going for. I’ve always been fascinated in enclosed spaces that have more than one thing inside them — this is itself probably a special case of my odd obsession with variety and diversity, and maybe also that I’m kind of claustrophilic. Shopping malls, sure, but also train stations, cruise ships, casino hotels, and underground cities. But not big box stores, supermarkets or department stores, once they ripped out the acoustic ceiling tiles and tore down the walls between departments at least (Odd fact about me: going inside a Bed Bath and Beyond causes me physical distress. Not so bad that I can’t work past it, but something about the design, with the high ceilings and shelves stocked to the roof does something to my depth perception. I feel like Malcolm MacDowell in that movie where he’s H. G. Wells time traveling to the ’70s to catch Jack the Ripper and he comes over all dizzy when he realizes that the future is full of crime and gangs and war rather than being a crystal-spire-and-toga Sci-Fi future. And it’s gotten significantly worse since I stopped wearing aviator glasses).

Annapolis MallThe primary mall you’d go to back in the days of my youth, and still today I assume, is the Annapolis Mall, now called Westfield Annapolis. The mall was built in 1980 on the site of the former Best Gate station of the old Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railway. As far back as I can recall, it was anchored by three stores: Montomery Ward, Hecht’s, and JCPenney. Only Penney’s remains: after Ward’s closed up shop around the turn of the century, Sears moved in from its former location in the nearby Parole shopping center (Which was subsequently demolished and turned into a supergiant high-rise apartment block)Shop Parole sign, and Hecht’s became Macy’s when the May Company’s new owners consolidated the two divisions. The mall was extended in the ’90s with a new wing, adding Nordstrom as a fourth anchor and adding a movie theater above the food court. Another renovation in the 21st century added a second hall in parallel to the main corridor which runs from the back of Macy’s through the fifth anchor, Lord & Taylor (Another refugee from Parole) to the Nordstrom end of the mall. At one point, I think it ended up with two Starbuckses and four Gamestops. I liked looking up at the darkening sky through the large skylights as we walked from one end to the other and back, pizza at Sbarro, looking for games in the Commodore section at Babbage’s, begging for Transformers at Kay Bee Toys, free samples at Chik-Fil-A, pretzels from Hot Sam, and watching the currency exchange rates on the LED screen at the American Express place across the hall from where mom got her hair cut. Sbarro is still there. It was and remains a popular weekend hangout for cadets at the nearby US Naval Academy. I can, of course, track my own age by whether my instinctive reaction to seeing little cliques of midshipmen walking the mall in their whites was impressed reverence, apathy, or “My God what are those little children doing dressed up like sailors?”

These days, I reckon that if you were coming from Kent Island, the Annapolis Mall would be the only realistic choice if you wanted to go to a shopping mall. Located just off of US Route 50 about two miles past the Severn River, in amenable traffic, it’s about a twenty minute drive, give or take, markedly closer than the Salisbury Mall, even if it still existed, which it doesn’t. The much larger, much newer Arundel Mills mall is almost half an hour farther away, which, I mean, it’s doable, but that seems like kind of a trek just to go to Bed Bath and Beyond (It does have both a Medieval Times and a casino, though, so that’s a mitigation).

Back in the days of my youth, though, you had some other options. In that same window of 40-50 minutes it takes today to drive up to Arundel Mills, there were five shopping malls along the Ritchie Highway corridor you could go to instead. A few months ago, I decided one afternoon that I’d like to do something interesting, so I tried to drive down to the Laurel Mall. After twenty minutes of searching, I pulled into a parking lot and got out my phone and checked. Turns out I was there; the mall wasn’t. It’d been demolished back in 2012 to make way for a Towne Centre, which is the new hotness in commercial real estate, I guess. And by “new hotness”, I mean, “It was where the growth was back in 2003 when I was an IT temp for a commercial Realtor (Realtor is a proper noun. Really), which is where I learned the tiny amount of commercial real estate jargon I know.”

That’s what got me thinking about the malls of my youth. My particular interests run toward specifically old-fashioned shopping malls. Dark places with a lot of neon, and fountains lined with bathroom tiles, and built-in ashtrays every fifty yards (You used to be able to smoke in shopping malls. This all sounds like some kind of weird fairy tale now), and an inexplicable shoe repair shop twenty years after having your shoes repaired was a thing that was done by the sort of person who would visit a shopping mall.

Prior to the completion of US Interstate 97 in the early ’90s, pretty much the standard way to get from Annapolis to Baltimore was via Governor Ritchie Highway, the stretch of MD-2 from US-50 to the Baltimore line. When I was very young, my father had to commute to Baltimore daily and developed a strong aversion to that stretch of surface highway he maintains to this day. I did the same commute myself for three months in 2001 when I started grad school and found that I personally preferred the Ritchie Highway route, largely because I didn’t have a tremendous amount of faith in my 1990 Subaru Legacy with the broken power locks on the right side of the car and the broken manual locks on the left side of the car and the tail lights bypassed through the cigarette lighter and the spot you had to kick if the blower fan stopped blowing because it was on the same circuit as the brake lights. In favorable traffic, the two routes take the same amount of time to drive, but MD-2 is ten miles shorter.

About five miles after US-50 and MD-2 part company, after you pass an unusually large Safeway, and Anne Arundel Community College and a driving range where I think I played mini-golf for the only time in my life, you’ll come to what’s now “Severna Park Marketplace”, a strip-mall anchored by a Kohls and a Giant. Back in my misty water-colored memories, this was the Severna Park Mall.

Contemporary picture of the Severna Park Mall

I spent a few hours googling. There aren’t any pictures of the Severna Park Mall from back when it existed.

I seem to have a disproportionate number of memories connected to the Severna Park Mall for its size. It could be that we went there a lot, though I’m not really sure why. It’s a tiny bit closer than the Annapolis Mall, but an order of magnitude smaller. Never really intended as anything other than a local mall, its enclosed area was at most about 250,000 square feet, making it like a sixth the present size of the Annapolis mall. When I was young, the anchor at the south end was Caldor, who’d taken it from Grant City on account of Grant City ceasing to exist in the ’70s. It would later be a Zayre, Ames, Caldor again, and a Value City. I remember there were places where you could still see bits of evidence of the place’s past, like the shadow of the Zayre asterisk in the facade or a burnt-in “WELCOME TO AMES” on the cash register display. Some winter day between 1987 and 1990, my sister lost a pink and white knit tam hat there. Dad was very upset: he liked that hat. This was probably one of the inciting incidents in my lifelong disproportionate fear of losing things.

The anchor at the north end of the shopping center was Giant. Not the same one that’s there now — they tore everything down except possibly the shell of the Value City (I’m not even sure about that) in 2000. The new Giant occupies the space that used to be the mall proper.

A grocery store is not something I had ever seen attached to a shopping mall before (Insofar as there is a “before”, this stretching back to my earliest memories), and only rarely since, although research tells me that supermarkets were one of the most common mall anchors until the ’70s. In my head, there’s a largely imaginary but very strong distinction between “the sort of place that is in a mall” and “the sort of place that is not in a mall”, and only a very few places are allowed to cross-over (This is one reason why freestanding Chik-fil-as weird me out. Every mall had a Chik-fil-a on the food court, but I never saw a freestanding one until I was an adult). It was a strange novelty for there to be a grocery store which opened directly into a mall — stranger still because this meant that it had two completely separate exits, with separate pools of check-out lanes on different sides of the building. Not that we did a lot of grocery shopping in Severna Park. I think maybe we went there for seafood back before they built the Safeway on Kent Island, because the Acme didn’t have lobster or shrimp.

Slush Puppie

I resemble but am legally distinct from Droopy Dog

The mall itself was, as I said, small. I think it had a fountain. I don’t remember it having a toy store. The only thing I ever remember us buying there was shoes. And Slush Puppies. That bit I do remember. I remember the promise of Slush Puppies being frequently used to keep me and my sister in line during shopping expeditions. If you don’t know, a Slush Puppie is basically the same thing as a Slurpee or an Icee, though I think maybe a little bit coarser, closer to a snow-cone in texture. Or possibly I have it backwards as I have not had any of those things since the ’90s. I always got Blue Raspberry, because blue was my favorite color (Which is basically straight-up Dylan-logic and why I totally get it when he does that). Only many, many years later did I realize this was stupid because Watermelon is self-evidently a better flavor than Blue Raspberry, as hinted at by the fact that there is no such thing as a blue raspberry.

The other two major fixtures in my mind about the Severna Park Mall were its two sit-down restaurants. They were outward facing with their own separate marquees and facades, though if I’m remembering right, the actual entrances were still inside the mall. This, again, was not something I had seen on any other mall at the time (I have since; they’re utterly commonplace now). There was a Horn & Horn Smorgasbord and a Kona Tiki.

Kona Tiki was allegedly a Polynesian restaurant, but the distinction between “Polynesian” and “Chinese” was lost on child-me. I mean, probably they had this whole neat menu of amazing cuisine from the Pacific, but because I was a small child and my parents weren’t adventurous eaters, they just ordered Chow Mein or something. I remember us eating there, though I’m not sure if it happened more than once. I only remember eating at three Chinese restaurants as a child: a distinctive A-frame building in Annapolis which still exists, one in the strip mall attached to the Safeway on Kent Island (As previously mentioned, this did not yet exist during the bit of my early childhood I’m rambling about), and Kona Tiki. If you click on the icon for the Severna Park Marketplace on Google Maps, it shows Kona Tiki’s marquee, though as far as I can tell, the restaurant hasn’t existed in close to twenty years.

I don’t know much about Horn & Horn. It always fascinated me, what with that big fancy name, “Smorgasbord”. Buffet-style restaurants weren’t especially common in my youth. Horn & Horn is the only one I’m actually aware of (And the term “buffet” itself doesn’t seem to have ever been applied to them until the ’90s; anything earlier refers to them as “cafeteria-style”). There was a Golden Corral on Kent Island for a few years, but they were still a sit-down restaurant back then. So I was interested.

Horn and Horn SmorgasbordAccording to my dad, Horn & Horn was related to the Philadelphia-based automat chain Horn & Hardart. I was about to say that this isn’t borne out by the evidence, but then I turned up a 1989 newspaper article which revealed it to be true, but only in a technical sense. The original Horn & Horn restaurant in downtown Baltimore — a favorite of shoppers, corrupt politicians and tired strippers, due to its location convenient to the old downtown shopping district, the local government buildings, and The Block — had been opened by two of the three Horn brothers: the third went to Philadelphia and partnered with Frank Hardart, allegedly because of a dispute over the amount of seafood on the menu. But I think — and I’ll accept correction on this if anyone has more information — that the Baltimore restaurant was sold to another local restaurateur back in the ’50s, and the Smorgasbord chain only opened decades later.

I always wanted to try out the Horn & Horn. We never did. My parents weren’t adamantly opposed or anything. Or if they were, they hid it, because it seems like the answer was always, “Yes, we’ll go some day, but it’s not a good time for it right now.” And then they tore the place down so I never got to go.

Or so I thought. In a weird little addendum to this already weird story, while I was researching this article, I found out that back in ’98, Horn & Horn renovated and rebranded itself as Cactus Willies, a local buffet chain which I’ve visited a few times. It was okay.


 

This isn't exactly right, but it's close.

This isn’t exactly right, but it’s close.

Get back on Ritchie Highway and head north. You’ll pass a somewhat complicated intersection where the grid of Severna Park tries to realign itself with a triangle of roads. A little ways back from the intersection is a McDonalds. It’s just an ordinary McDonalds now, but it used to be a little weird because it bore the marquee “McDonalds’ Hamburgers”, with “Hamburgers” in larger text than “McDonalds”. According to my dad, this signified that the place was independently owned by the franchisee rather than being owned by the corporation. I don’t know if that’s still true or even if the distinction still exists, but it stuck in my mind as a weird outlier because it was so clearly a McDonalds but its logo was wrong.

Keep going, past Earleigh Heights Road, where there’s a strip mall with a 7-Eleven in it where I used to get Garbage Pail Kids cards. The 7-Eleven is still there. The Garbage Pail Kids cards are not (Addendum: it turns out that Garbage Pail Kids are still a thing. Saw them in Target last week!). Four miles from the Severna Park Mall, you’ll come to “Jumpers Junction Mall Shopping Center”. Used to just be “Jumpers Mall”. This is a tricky thing to Google, because you have to be prepared to deal with pictures of people who committed suicide from the mezzanine levels of various shopping centers.

Jumpers Mall

Only picture I could find of the Jumpers Mall.

Jumpers Mall did not have a mezzanine. I don’t remember anything at all it had inside it, to be honest. At the absolute outside, it couldn’t have been more than 140,000 square feet, probably substantially less. The mall stretched only for the span of about 700 feet between its two anchors, K-Mart and Lionel Toy Town (Later Lionel Kiddie City. I did not like this change, as I felt “Toy Town” had a better cadence in their jingle, which ended, “Their prices and selection are among the best around / Let Lionel Toy Town turn that frown… Upside down!” “City”, of course, does not rhyme with “down”).

Yeah. This is pretty much my youth summarized in a single newspaper ad.

Yeah. This is pretty much my youth summarized in a single newspaper ad.

I have a hard time completely separating Kiddie City/Toy Town from Toys “R” Us, which we’ll run into later in my meander up route 2. They were basically the same place when you get down to it, the major difference being that Toys “R” Us’s mascot was a giraffe and Kiddie City’s was a Kangaroo. Their 1980s incarnations were stylistically similar, the logotypes on the buildings were similar, the decor was similar. Kiddie City is where we bought my first bike, back in 1985, while I was recovering from eye surgery. You might think that while you’re wearing an eyepatch is an inopportune time to learn to ride a bike, and… Probably you’re right. But it was about damned time I learned how to ride a bike, and at least in principle, I’d finally have consistent depth perception once the eyepatch came off. It might be where we got my second bike, years later. I’m not sure. It’s also where we got my Voltron. I can still, to this day, sort of sense my way to the action figure section. Turn left through the doors and walk down past the boring children’s clothes. Turn right when you’ve crossed about two-thirds of the store. Around the middle of the store, you’ll pass to the left of the section that would eventually house the video games. The aisle you’re walking down ends at the bikes. Turn right, and a couple of aisles after the bikes, action figures will be to your left.

Transformers G1 Jetfire

Yeah, I know he was just a Macross Valkyrie, but WANT.

There were no entrances directly from the Kiddie City or the K-Mart into the mall. The K-Mart had a semi-enclosed entryway which ended in a kind of turret with a door to the mall. Coming through there once I saw a boy carrying a G1 Jetfire box, and immediately wanted to go shop at the K-Mart. The kid was probably coming from the Kiddie City, because I was incredibly disappointed.

Kiddie City was liquidated in 1993 and the building became a Burlington Coat Factory, which is just about the single saddest retail transformation for a child to witness. There was also a Basics Food Warehouse there. Upon reflection, it was probably the grocery store that abutted the mall, because I remember trying to steer my parents to the grocery store when we were at the mall, thinking it would be a segue to the toy store. In keeping with our recurring theme of things that seem utterly mundane now being weird and exotic at the time, it was the first “warehouse”-style grocery store we’d ever seen. They had a huge salad bar, and a huge section of bulk foods sold from big barrels, which was an incredible novelty back then. No, I do not remember exactly why we’d be grocery shopping in Pasadena. Most of the rest of the mall was converted into a Babies “R” Us. Possibly some small amount of the mall lingered for a while afterward, but it’s all gone now. As far as I know, the existing structure was remodeled, not demolished and built anew like in Severna Park, so I used to like to imagine that little bits of the old mall might still exist, walled in behind current tenants.

To give you the idea of just how badly the mall collapsed, a 1990 article about the end of the mall points out that in its final eight years, thirty tenants moved out. The mall only had 25 spaces. Basics eventually became Shoppers due to a series of buyouts and consolidations. The former mall now houses a furniture store, Babies “R” Us, and Rugged Wearhouse. The K-Mart still remains, but it looks like they expanded into former mall space. The aerial photos on Google show one small hint of the former mall: the shape of a skylight that’s been tarred over.

This story was going to have an interesting and upbeat side-note here, because, although the Jumpers Mall no longer meaningfully exists, I am like 99% sure that the Ocean Plaza Mall down around 99th street in Ocean City has the exact same floorplan as the old Jumpers Mall. And the Roses’ discount department store that anchors it even has the decency to kinda feel like a K-Mart that hasn’t been redecorated in thirty years. The first time I went there, back around ’99 or so, I was pretty much bowled over by the uncanny resemblance. But looking it up now, it looks like the mall was shuttered ten years ago, leaving only the anchors, so instead of making me nostalgic, it just makes me feel old.

Ocean Plaza Mall

Not a damned thing for Jumpers or the Severna Park Mall, but you can find loads of pictures of the Ocean Plaza

Next to the Jumpers Mall but not attached was a second-run movie theater. I probably saw lots of movies there in my youth, but the one I remember is the 1982 rerelease of Bambi (I have to assume it was still playing second-run in 1983, because who takes a 3-year-old to a movie theater?). It was the first movie I ever saw in the theater (This is why I know it was the 1982 release and not the 1988 one, since I know I also saw Star Trek III in the theater. Probably this one), and I mostly remember it because I had an ear infection that kicked in halfway through and I mostly remember spending what felt like an eternity in the parking lot crying as my parents tried to comfort me, and not just because Bambi’s mother died. I think the spot is an LA Fitness or an Aldi or something now.

Across the street, more or less, was the Subaru dealer where my dad bought the two Subarus he drove from the mid-80s to the late-90s. The dealership is still there, but it’s a VW place now. One spring day, a very long time ago, dad needed some work done on his car, so he dropped it off there, and the two of us walked a mile up the road to the next mall (I feel like we also walked the half-mile in the opposite direction to the pool supply place, but I can’t imagine what we could possibly have done when we got there). I got a tick, which my mom found deeply ironic, what with me being a country boy out in the, ahem, “big city”.

The important thing to remember about all these little malls down Ritchie Highway is that they were always meant to be local malls. They weren’t feeding, I think, off of their strategic placement along the Baltimore-Annapolis commuter route, at least, not primarily. They were predominately servicing the needs of the people who lived in Severna Park, in Arnold, in Pasadena and Glen Burnie. So it probably wasn’t the completion of Interstate 97 that did them in.

No, I’m pretty sure what did them in was the 1987 opening of the mall me and my dad walked to that one spring day. Marley Station.

 

Marley Station Marquee

TO BE CONTINUED…


 

Footnote:

As part of my meander through shopping of the past, I’ve been trying to track down one particular half-memory. Back in 1997, I took a field trip to Arena Stage in DC to see the Flying Karamazov Brothers in a stage adaptation of the Marx Brothers film Room Service (Highlights include a bit where the passage of time is indicated by an old-timey Sun and Moon Faces being sent across the stage on a wire, followed by a zeppelin, which explodes halfway across, and an appearance by software magnate “Gil Bates”). Afterward, we had lunch at a restaurant at a small mall nearby. I didn’t catch the name, but I remember two distinctive things about it: first, the restaurant had a mini golf course inside it. Second, it had apparently had a second floor at some point but not at the moment, so there was an escalator in the middle that went up to a blank wall and ended at a door. Like, a normal six-panel interior hollow-core vacuformed door.

If anyone happens upon this article and has even the slightest clue what this place I’m talking about might be, or can even verify that I didn’t imagine the whole thing, please drop me a line in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Misspent Youth: Mall-Hopping on Ritchie Highway

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Roundup for March 25th, 2016 | The Slacktiverse

  2. Pingback: Misspent Youth: Marley’s Ghost | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

  3. Pingback: Misspent Youth: The Centre at Glen Burnie, Part 1: The Octonauts and the Inside-Out Mall | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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