Right before that furniture store that used to be a Dick’s, I come to a section where the west side is recessed further back than the surrounding wall. And I am transported. It is December, probably. 1984 or maybe 1985. They’re doing an event at the mall. They’ve partitioned off the recessed section of the hallway and created this little holiday gift shopping area where parents could send little kids through and the attendants would help them buy Christmas presents for their parents in secret.
It was all too much for me. I was small, and I was overwhelmed. My parents had given me some money, but I didn’t really know how much, and I only really understood how money worked in an abstract sense. I had this idea in my head to be deathly afraid of breaking my budget. I had no idea how much money I actually had. I had no idea how much things cost. I couldn’t do the math. I don’t know if I didn’t know how to do the math or if it was just anxiety. I was scared I’d get to the end without finding anything. It was too much. I was over my head. I was afraid to touch things. I don’t think I even fully perceived the goods on offer. I saw a tiny little candle in a ceramic holder with a picture of Garfield on the lid. I liked Garfield. I pretty much grabbed it and booked, relieved that the ordeal was over. I payed my money and got my change and they gift wrapped it and I rejoined my parents.
Mostly I was relieved. There was maybe some little sense of pride in there at having bought a present for my parents “all by myself”, but it was tempered by a very secret shame that I’d failed in my task — that a tiny little Garfield candle wasn’t really good enough as a Christmas gift to my parents, that I’d cheaped out and chickened out, and that probably my parents knew this. Or worse, knew almost this: that a small child might feel overwhelmed in the face of being sent out all alone with a big responsibility like Christmas shopping all by himself was one thing, but I’d spend years quietly obsessing over the idea that what they really thought was that I’d simply been selfish. That I’d picked out something with Garfield on it because I liked Garfield, and I’d picked the cheapest thing I could find in hopes of pocketing the change. I couldn’t articulate the difference between how I felt I’d failed and how I assumed (And let me be clear here: these were the assumptions of child-me, not an evidence-based assessment of their actual feelings) they thought I’d failed.
Over the years, the details of what really happened faded in my memory, and my brain kept evolving so that the basic premises of my actual feelings and behaviors no longer made sense. I forgot how to imagine panicking at the inability to do basic arithmetic, or at being on the other side of a partition wall from my parents, so I edited my memories to say that maybe my hypothetically-judgmental parents were right and it had really been about me being selfish. I only came to really understand and articulate how I’d felt back then last Christmas, when I took Dylan to a dollar store to pick out a present for his mother. He was excited by the idea of picking out a present all by himself, but faced with the reality of it, he tried immediately to convince me that she’d really like a rawhide dog treat, because it was literally the first thing he saw, and he just desperately wanted this to be over so he could get on with the fun part where he got to pick out a toy for himself. It wasn’t that he was being selfish: “What would mommy like for Christmas out of this collection of ALL THE THINGS IN THE UNIVERSE UNDER FIVE DOLLARS?” was too big a concept. We went home and ordered her a mom-themed mug from Amazon instead. Dylan got a dinosaur hat.
Keep walking north through the mall. You pass the Permanently Closing Furniture Store that used to be a Dick’s that used to be a Murphy’s. Not too far past that is a kiosk that serves coffee drinks and light fare, the only inward-facing food place in the mall. There’s also a video game place. Google Maps tells me it’s called “Power Gamer II”. It looks and feels basically like a GameStop, but with a lot of counter space devoted to very old used games. Like fourth and fifth-gen stuff. There seemed to be a whole lot of nonstandard Playstation controllers on sale. There’s also a shoe store, and I think one of those places where they pluck your eyebrows using dental floss.
I should point out that although the mall feels very abandoned and lonely, I don’t actually think there were many shuttered storefronts. The mall may actually be way less empty than it seems. Because they basically turned it inside out, it can be hard to tell if you’re looking at an unoccupied space or just the back of an outward-facing one. In any case, the place seems hauntingly out-of-time. If anything, the fact that it’s well-maintained somehow adds to that: it doesn’t feel like you’re wandering into a long-abandoned mall so much as a freshly abandoned one. The paint is fresh, the plants are still alive, there’s no cobwebs or dust, but somehow, in here, it’s still the ’80s.
If I was struck by dredged-up childhood memories at the south end of the mall, it’s nothing compared to the north end. There is no memory involved here: the Toys “R” Us end of the mall has simply been lifted out of my childhood and dropped in 2016. It is unchanged in every substantive detail. There have undoubtedly been some minor changes to the trim and facade in other parts of the mall, but not here. Rather than the sort of large, open entryway standard for shopping malls, the entrance is similar to old grocery stores, a row of standard-height (rather than floor-length) windows flanked on either side by a single automatic sliding door. It’s got to be an artifact of its origins as a Topps. Above the sliding doors are illuminated signs which raise the door arch to the level of the top of the windows. It’s the kind of sign that’s made from a translucent plastic rectangle in the front of a deep frame, behind which are fluorescent tube lights (It turns out these are called “lightboxes”, and there’s a bunch of places that make them, which surprises me just a little because it feels like I never see them any more. Maybe it’s just that modern ones mostly use a dark background and old ones used a light one). Used to be a really common form of business signage when I was young, but they’re uncommon enough today that the “Welcome” sign feels ancient, despite the fact that it shows the post-2007 version of Geoffery the Giraffe.
The entire facade is outlined by four rows of ceramic tile — men’s room tile, essentially, blue, green, yellow, red. The large marquee above is the modern Toys “R” Us logo, the version with a large blue “R” with a star for its loop. There’s also a hanging sign orthogonal to the storefront, for the benefit of anyone on the cross-hallway. That one shows the “classic” 20th-century version of the logo, the one with a yellow R in scare quotes. I didn’t check if it was still there, but Google Street View shows the transitional version of the logo, a yellow R in a blue star, on the outside of the mall in the front.
Inside, the Toys “R” Us is also largely unchanged. In the picture, you can maybe sorta see that even the light indicating where the checkout counters are is very retro. I mean, obviously, the toys are different and the displays are different, but the store hasn’t had a major refit in a long time. It seems weirdly small. It’s just not as big as the enormous big-box stores that dominate retail these days. It seemed bigger back when I was smaller. There was somewhere around here that you could get an Icee when I was a kid. Maybe a cart in the front of the store?
When I come back out of the Toys “R” Us is when my brain finally finishes reorienting itself, and I figure out why I’ve been so geographically confused. The mall once ran from the Montgomery Ward at the south end to the Toys “R” Us at the north end. There’s a smaller hallway which runs across the front of the Toys “R” Us — there aren’t any retail spaces along that hallway now, because the hhgregg and the Famous Footwear take up those spaces, and their entrances face the outside. There’s a couple of coin-op ride-on toys though, including Spider-Man’s race car. I bet that there was a similar hallway at the Montgomery Ward end. The Wards is now a parking lot, and the shops that would have been along that hall are now outward-facing.
The modern strip mall faces Ritchie Highway. I parked in the empty space that used to be Wards and entered the mall roughly where the mall entrance from Wards would have been, because that was a natural place to enter having approached the mall from the front.
But, of course, traditional indoor malls don’t have an explicit “front”. I’d gotten all turned around and confused because I was working from the assumption that back in the early-to-mid 80’s, we’d have approached the mall the same way that I did in 2016. If you’re facing the Toys “R” Us and turn left, the cross-hallway will take you to the front of the Glen Burnie Town Centre, where all the marquees are and the parking lot and the entrances to all the strip stores. But if you were back in the early ’80s, it would have taken you to the movie theater.
Turn right instead, to the eastern exit. The nostalgia is sort of crippling by now. When you walk out those non-handicap-accessible doors, you find yourself under a long, long awning that shades the sidewalk for the dozen or so yards you have to walk to get clear of the building. To the right, the outside of the mall is painted brick. To the left, there’s a stone veneer that’s also visible one or two places inside the mall. There are square lamps set into the awning. As you come out from under it, a triangular plastic sign above a door announces the parcel pick-up for the Toys “R” Us. It uses the old logo. The sign is as old as I am. There’s a second, identical sign around the corner. The ’80s marquee still hangs on this side of the building, large light-up letters, most of which have cracks and holes in them.
This is why I got confused. This is where we entered the mall. It’s “around back” now, the parking lot almost deserted. Employee parking. Thirty years ago, it just would have been “The entrance by the Toys “R” Us.” This entrance hasn’t been remodeled like the ones on the strip mall side of the building: it’s a coat of paint different from how it looked thirty years ago. Even the sodium lights in the parking lot look dimly familiar — they’re certainly an old design if not actually thirty years old themselves.
There’s a fractal of good luck, here, at the northern end of my meander down route 2. The Severna Park Mall is long gone — nothing familiar remains. Jumpers bears only the vaguest familial resemblance to the mall of my youth. Marley remains, maintained but abandoned, like a smart-house after a nuclear war in a Bradbury story. But the Glen Burnie mall remains, hidden, full of memories preserved in situ. A kind of Colonial Williamsburg of 1980s retail.
In one of those rare instances of reality showing the kind of artistic flair that we require out of fiction, the mall itself is like a little microcosm of the whole trek. The southern anchors, like the Severna Park Mall, were demolished to make way for something more modern. That end of the mall was turned inside out like Jumpers, the original skeleton recycled but rendered unrecognizable. The middle of the mall is a haunted ghost town. But up at the north end, someone’s gone and taken a snapshot out of my childhood memories and had it 3D printed.
A few weeks after my trip to the Glen Burnie Mall, I mentioned it in passing to my mother. She wasn’t impressed — frankly, no one I’ve told about my discovery of a little pocket of carefully pickled ’80s shopping nostalgia has been, and good for them, shopping malls of the 1980s is not an especially worthwhile thing to spend your free time obsessing about. She asked me, sarcastically, if it was, “Everything I wished it would be.” Weirdly enough, it turns out that the answer was yes.
The goal in this wander was never really to relive the ’80s, or to recapture my youth or anything like that. This trek up a ten mile stretch of Maryland-2 was ultimately about hauntological psychogeography. Or perhaps geographic phenomenology. Or if that sounds too forthrightly like gibberish, I just wanted to see what child-me saw.
Prominent 20th century philosopher and occasional Nazi Martin Heidegger described human consciousness with the German term “Dasein”. It’s invariably translated as “human existence”, which is true, but I think it loses something etymologically important. Literally, the word means “there-being”. Sapience, human consciousness, always and only exists in relation to an outside. We are not abstract Cartesian brain-in-a-jar “thinking things”: to be is, fundamentally, to be somewhere: to be a part of a world. That’s what’s special about the kind of consciousness that humans have, that human consciousness does not merely have a subjectivity, but is a subjectivity. I am my relationship to the world: husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend.
I have two small children. My son, Dylan, is four years old. He’s a little older than I was in my very first memories, and a little younger than I was in these retail memories I’ve been sharing with you. I can’t see the world the way he does. Even when I remember my distant youth, it’s the person I am now who’s doing the remembering. So much of the mystery and romance is missing, because I’ve got a fully functional brain now, so stories and adventures that seemed surreal and carrolian thirty years ago are just perfectly sensible exploits upon reflection. And even in the rare cases where I can connect with a childhood memory in a child’s mindset, it’s still not the same. The world of my childhood is just too different from his. Television was temporal. The ultimate source of all knowledge was “trivia Dad had picked up over the years.” Getting really properly lost was a thing. Smoking was permitted in public buildings. Video games went “BLEEP BLOOP”, pixels the side of cats and plots like “You’re a gluttonous circle being chased by ghosts”. Televisions were square. Telephones had wires. People thought mullets were a good idea. And the only reasonable way to drive from Annapolis to Baltimore took you past five shopping malls.
So if I actually want to understand what it’s like for my little boy, how he can be smart enough to properly use the phrase, “Oh, so this is the thanks I get?” [Author’s note: he didn’t actually use it correctly, but the sentence he used correctly was way less interesting than this one.] but can’t remember the answer he just asked from one end of the sentence to the other, I can’t do it by seeing his world. The closest I can do is to go find the world where I was like he is. I wanted to find the there of my own being.
A lot of these wanderings have been disappointing. The places of my youth haven’t for the most part, been left abandoned to decay. That would have been haunting, but more helpful I think. No, instead, so many of them did over the last three decades exactly what I did over the last three decades: they continued to grow and to change and to evolve along with the there of their being. When I went looking for the past, I just found more of the present.
But not here. Here, the present didn’t wash over the past, it washed around it. I doubt it will last. It’s just an oversight, really, that it’s still here in this form. But when I stand in the Glen Burnie mall and face the anachronistic facade that a toy store inherited from a discount department store back in the ’70s, just for a little while, I am connected with a little boy who panicked at the idea of buying his mommy and daddy a Christmas present. I am seeing what he saw.
And yeah, it kinda makes sense.
The Glen Burnie Mall was also visited by Dead Mall Historian Dan Bell about a year before my visit. He doesn’t have the emotional connection to the place I do (Watch his Marley Station video if you’d like to see him emotionally connect with a dead mall), but he’s a lot better with a camera than I am. You too can revel in the terra cotta floor tile, see the Permanently Closing Furniture Liquidator with its lights on, and get a look at the posters of happy ’90s shoppers. The place today looks basically identical but for a coat of paint on the outside (And it looks like the Toys “R” Us marquee on the back was repaired and then re-broken between our visits). Check it out: