Misspent Youth: The Centre at Glen Burnie, Part 1: The Octonauts and the Inside-Out Mall

Previously…

  1. They knocked down the Severna Park Mall and the Jumpers Mall.
  2. Marley Station is creepy.
  3. They knocked down the Harundale Mall.
Charmingly Optimistic.

Charmingly Optimistic.

It is April 1, 2016. In Mississippi, the final version of House Bill 1523 is passed by the House, granting broad protection against prosecution for open discrimination against LBGT individuals based on religious beliefs. The governor will sign it next Wednesday. The law, a pretty brazen end-run around Obgerfell v. Hodges, singles out the specific religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman, that sex is only permissible within marriage, and that gender is fixed at birth. It is on the basis of the privileging of three specific religious beliefs to the exclusion of all others (For example, the law noticeably does not allow discrimination against divorced people, those with tattoos, or cotton-poly blends) that US District Judge Carlton Reeves would issue an injunction against the bill at the end of June. Hope Solo and four other US women’s Soccer players file a lawsuit against US Soccer for wage discrimination, on account of they’re paid way less than the men. Google releases, then quickly withdraws, a “Mic drop” feature in Gmail, after the April Fools’ Day joke enrages users by tricking them into mistakenly attaching clever GIFs to important emails.

There is jack-all on TV tonight. Syfy airs an original movie, Dead 7, an inexplicable Zombie Boy-Band Western. Written by Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, it stars members of 98 Degrees, O-Town, ‘N Sync and All-4-One, and I can’t imagine I even have to tell you who produced it. Harold Cronk’s latest, God’s Not Dead 2, is released. Cheap Trick releases Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello, their first album since 2009’s Sgt. Pepper Live. Axl Rose performs live at the Troubadour with Slash and Duff McKagan for the first time in 23 years. There is an excessive amount of Justin Beiber on the Billboard Charts. Patty Duke died this past Tuesday.

But why are we here — or rather, now [Not where, Constable. When?]? These meanders of mine are all about nostalgia, and April of the current year is not the sort of time period one normally gets nostalgic about. See, it’s like this: we’d had a potluck lunch at work the day before. And we also had one today, so it’s got me thinking back. Not that this is really here nor there, but I remember it because half of the tray of chicken and swiss wraps I’d brought in were left over the next day, and I was taking them home with me to feed my family over the weekend.

Anyway, it was Friday and it was a slow day, and people I needed to coordinate with had already left for the weekend, so I decided to knock off right before lunch. And since I had a few hours where I wasn’t expected to be anywhere in particular, I decided to tick off something from my list of not-especially-important things I wanted to do eventually.

Which is how I found myself driving up Ritchie Highway early in the afternoon on a Friday in April. This is when I got the pictures of the Harundale Rock that accompanied my last article in this series. Also a couple of pictures from the Marley article, though most of those were from an earlier trip. But this was hardly enough to justify the trip, so I reckoned I ought to hit up the remains of the one last mall of my youth. So I pulled out of the parking lot at Harundale Plaza and headed north.

I don’t recognize much of this stretch of Ritchie Highway. My dad, as I previously mentioned, soured on the road during the years when it was his daily commute, and once I-97 opened in the late ’80s, we avoided it like the plague. I preferred the southern part of Ritchie Highway from Annapolis up through Pasadena for my occasional drives to and from school as an undergraduate around the turn of the century, and when I was commuting to grad school for the first couple of months before I moved to Hampden — seemed like a safer place to be in case my ancient Subaru with enough miles to make it most of the way back from the moon broke down — but I always hopped over to route 10 just south of Marley.

I’m not at all sure how much has changed and how much has stayed the same and I’ve just forgotten. There’s a handful of landmarks I kinda-sorta recognize. The bowling alley where I bowled for the first time. A building right around 6th Avenue which isn’t really all that big, but is so much taller than the surrounding buildings that it seemed like a skyscraper. Keep going, and about two and a half miles north of Harundale, not too far south from the MVA headquarters and the ramps to the Baltimore beltway, you come to a quadrangle that was basically the old Big-Box district, back before Big Box stores were really a thing. The Best I mentioned last time was around here somewhere. For about three years, there was a place called Leedmark.

leedmarkLeedmark was a French-owned “Hypermarket”, an enormous, sprawling store that sold food and furniture and clothes and consumer electronics, and everyone thought it was utterly ridiculous back in 1992, because hur-dur, do eggs go on top of VCRs or underneath, and who wants to go food shopping and clothes shopping in the same place at the same time? It’ll never catch on. Also, you had to stick a quarter in the shopping cart to un-dock it from the cart corral, something I have only ever seen one other time. Dad suggested that a kid could make a decent living wandering the lot and offering to return the carts of shoppers whose time was worth more than getting their deposit back. We only went there once or twice. It closed in 1993 and the site is a Wal-Mart Supercenter now, which sounds more like a punchline than reality.

But what we’re here for is a place called the Centre at Glen Burnie. Up until a few years ago, its parking lot housed the last Bennigans I’m aware of (It’s an Italian place now). It’s a medium-big strip center anchored by a Target and an Office Depot and capital-letter-eschewing-palindrone-aspirant hhgregg.

Only, it’s not, really. A strip mall, I mean. You wouldn’t know to look at it, but the Centre at Glen Burnie is not a strip mall.

Seriously adorable.

Seriously adorable.

My son is starting to drift away from it a bit, but for the longest time, one of his favorite shows was The Octonauts. It’s a slightly fanciful, visually distinctive computer-animated series based on a series of picture books by someone named Meomi, about an aquatic animal rescue team. “Animal rescue team” in that they rescue animals, and also are animals themselves. Cute, round-headed animals with distinctive accents, mostly from the British Isles, each with a handful of cute catchphrases. And they go around helping injured sea creatures or cleaning up environmental catastrophes, or corralling invasive species in their octopus-themed underwater base, often using small, specialized submersible vehicles called Gups.

The reason I bring this up is that there’s an episode (3×04 “The Octonauts and the Artificial Reef”) where there’s a coral reef that gets damaged in a hurricane or something, and they also wreck one of their Gups, so they decide to use the wrecked Gup as the foundation for an artificial reef for the displaced sea creatures. It’s a somewhat romanticized version of the real-world practice of sinking decommissioned ships to create a new habitat for sea life.

I'll have to check with Dylan, but I believe it is the only Gup capable of sporting a jaunty moustache.

I’ll have to check with Dylan, but I believe it is the only Gup capable of sporting a jaunty moustache.

The Centre at Glen Burnie is kind of like that. As we’ve already seen, in Severna Park and Harundale, they simply bulldozed the old malls and built anew. At Jumper’s, they didn’t go quite that far, but they remodeled and in-filled until the only evidence of the old mall is the excessive number of exterior doors around the back. Something different happened in Glen Burnie. Rather than demolishing the Glen Burnie Mall when its Montgomery Ward anchor closed in 2002, they put up a Target and let a collection of medium and small storefronts accrete around the nearly-dead husk of the old mall. But underneath the barnacles and coral and Quiznos and Boater’s World, the old mall still exists, intact but buried, a little slice out of history that’s been preserved and encysted, less by choice and more by accident of history.

Actually, the other maritime TV show equivalence that strikes me is this old episode of seaQuest DSV, where they find a sunken cruise ship from the early 20th century. Somehow, the last guy on board when the ship was going down managed to seal off a big section of the ship before it flooded and rigged up some kind of seawater electrolysis device to generate air and electricity and lived out his life at the bottom of the ocean inside the sunken ship. Which sounds scientifically dicey but would make a really neat video game.

The mall does not call attention to itself, which is probably for the best, since they’d surely close it down if anyone noticed it was there. There are four entrances. The three on the front have been updated to match the style of the strip mall, but you could easily mistake them for storefronts. Their signs read “The Centre at Glen Burnie” and “A Great Collection of Specialty Shops” — probably an overstatement — with a much smaller “Mall Entrance” sign below. One of the mall entrances used to bear the marquee of the Dick’s Sporting Goods which was on the opposite side of the mall.

The Glen Burnie Mall opened in 1963, just five years after Harundale, with 30 retail spaces, anchored by a Montgomery Ward that continued to exist until the company’s collapse in 2000. There was also an A&P grocery store, which lasted until 1983, and a G C Murphy’s.

wards

This is pretty much exactly how I remember it. Except in color.

I’ve mentioned G C Murphy’s before, and the one at the Glen Burnie Mall apparently managed to eke out an existence until the early ’90s. Murhpy’s was apparently a big chain in this area, but I’ll be damned if I can point to a single concrete memory of the place. The closest memories I have is of the Murphy’s Mart in Parole that I mentioned before. I remember half of a conversation with my parents explaining the difference between a G C Murphy and a Murphy’s Mart, only I think my young brain conflated “Murphy” with “Montgomery” and I got it in my head that the Murphy’s Mart was owned by Montgomery Ward. I assume that the fact that there were both at the Glen Burnie mall fed into this confusion, the result being that I was until recently convinced that the discount department store in Parole must have been a Jefferson Ward. It’s possible that my dad namechecked the two “Ward” franchises during the conversation as a “see also”. But by extension, this probably means that I have, in fact, been to a G C Murphy at some point and my brain just tangled it up with one of the other stores.

Picture via cinematreasures.org

Picture via cinematreasures.org

There was also a movie theater, which I dimly remember going to. Must have been something we really wanted to see, since it was kind of a haul. Until Marley Station opened, we were more likely to wait for movies to come to Jumper’s. The major movie theaters in Annapolis wouldn’t open until the ’90s. The one at Glen Burnie closed around ’84 or ’85, and I think that space is roughly where the Boater’s World is now.

In 1969, Interstate Department Stores opened a Topps Discount City at the opposite end of the mall. Interstate went bankrupt in 1974, and the store closed. Interstate, a holding company that owned Topps, White Front and a handful of other smaller chains, emerged from bankruptcy with only one surviving chain, Toys “R” Us. Half of the Topps space at Glen Burnie reopened as a Toys “R” Us, while the other half housed an Epsteins’, another one of those local department stores like Hutzlers and Hochschild-Kohn that went under at the end of the ’80s.

The Toys “R” Us is the main thing I remember. Generally, if we went as far as the Glen Burnie Mall, it was because we wanted something from either Montgomery Ward or Toys “R” Us, and it was something they didn’t stock at the Annapolis Wards or the Kiddie City at Jumpers.

A week before Halloween in 1981, a fire broke out at the Toys “R” Us end of the mall. The entire place was closed for months, except for the Montgomery Ward. That would probably be the last time the place was completely refurbished. Although the shopping center was extensively remodeled around 2004, much of the 1981 mall interior remains unchanged.

In 1991, Epsteins’ closed. A Best Buy replaced it a few years later, but they moved to a bigger location across the street in 2010. The space now belongs to the hhgregg and Office Depot. After the G C Murphy closed in the ’90s, their space was rebuilt as a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s closed in 2013. When I visited in April, the former Dick’s was occupied by a furniture discounter which was in the process of going out of business. The sort that always seems to be in the process of going out of business. Or maybe already had. The mall entrance was open, but there didn’t seem to be any staff and the lights were out. I’m fairly sure that if I were bolder and stronger, I probably coulda just strolled off with a sofa.

The south end of the mall was demolished after Montgomery Ward closed. The Ward space and the old A&P space were converted into a Target and a strip of 13 outward-facing stores. The Target is cater-corner to the mall and not attached to it.

The Glen Burnie Mall is, of all the malls we’ve considered in this meander, the only one I specifically remember as being “small”, which is weird on reflection because I don’t think it was actually any smaller than Jumper’s. I was disoriented when I parked at the south entrance to the mall on that April afternoon. My memories and the geography didn’t properly align: the handful of little flashbulb memories I had of my youth placed the mall to the left if you were facing the Toys “R” Us from the parking lot. In reality, the Toys “R” Us is at the north end and the mall extends to the right.

The south entrance is nestled between a Great Clips and a Lane Bryant. Both are attached to the mall but their entrances are on the outside. When you first enter, it looks pretty much like any modern mall. The main thing you might notice that hints something is up is the ceiling, which is corrugated metal painted black with a few small skylights, rather than the mostly-glass ceilings you see in normal malls. I’d never thought of it before, but as I looked up, the first of several powerful childhood memories struck me — not a memory of this mall, but of Marley Station. That first time there, decades ago, being awestruck by those huge skylights that took up so much of the ceiling. How much brighter the place was than I was used to in a mall.

ABANDON EVERY HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

ABANDON EVERY HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

The mall is clean and well-maintained, but the property management hasn’t gone the extra mile like Woodmont has at Marley to stop the place from feeling creepy and abandoned. There’s only a few shops inside the mall. Most of the retail bays are covered by panels optimistically promising great new stores someday, accompanied by stock photos of happy-looking shoppers from the 1990s. There’s a small performance stage at the corner where a hall branches off toward the Bonefish Grill. Nothing else is accessible from that hallway, and it’s creepily dark, enough that I was haunted by the fear that a mall cop was going to challenge me any minute. I did not actually see any mall cops during my visit.

The place gives off a weird vibe of accidentality. Like no one actually meant for there to be an arcade here, just, like, the movers left this stuff here when they went out for lunch and got lost on the way back

The place gives off a weird vibe of accidentality. Like no one actually meant for there to be an arcade here, just, like, the movers left this stuff here when they went out for lunch and got lost on the way back

Once you’re past that side hallway, things start to change a little. The hall widens, but the renovation doesn’t. While the center of the hallway features modern white and gray ceramic tile, a strip along either side is still tiled with 1980s terra cotta. I feel like I haven’t seen terra cotta floor tiles anywhere but Hardee’s in decades. There’s a women’s clothing store and a cell phone store. An unattended coin-op arcade. Since I was visiting at the beginning of April, there was one of those pop-up tax preparation places there, which I assume is gone now.

Near the middle of the mall, a narrow and very long hallway leads back to the security office and the public restrooms. Walking down the narrow hallway is like walking back in time as the floor tile changes from ceramic to terra cotta to linoleum and the ceilings change to drop-panels probably made of asbestos. Built-in ashtrays have been simply covered by painted plywood.

To Be Continued

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