I love you, Evie.
I love you, Evie.
One of my minor disappointments living in the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, is that while it’s an exceedingly nice place to live, it’s sort of… Characterless. Like, if you were writing a nondescript mid-atlantic medium-large semi-urban community to use as a setting for a TV show, and you didn’t want anything too distinctive or quirky that might make take your audience out of the vague sense of familiarity with the setting. You’d basically be writing Columbia, except for the fact that it might come off a little too generic without any specific named points of interest to send the characters to. I mean, we’ve got just about every chain restaurant you can think of, but hardly any non-chain restaurants. And we’ve got a Wal-Mart and a Target and multiple GameStops and a Pier One and Home Depot and a Lowes, but I can’t think of a single mom-n-pop store. The town was built with a deliberation that “normal” towns aren’t, so it largely lacks the character that comes from a long history of piecemeal development and redevelopment. And it’s only about ten years older than I am, so it doesn’t really have much history of any other sort either. I know this sounds like the whitest white guy complaint in the history of white guys complaining about things that aren’t coal mining jobs, but that’s part of the problem. Columbia is the khaki-wearing white guy of towns. Not that it isn’t a racially diverse community in the literal sense, but in the sense of being a projection of our dominant cultural image of what “generic normal entity with no distinctive features or rough edges” looks like (This is not an endorsement of “white guy in khakis” being or dominant cultural image of what “default human” looks like. Again, it’s part of the problem). Even the whimsy (there’s part of town where all the streets are named for things out of Tolkien) feels manufactured.You know how some cities have “Keep [city] Weird” bumper stickers? You’d never see a “Keep Columbia Weird” bumper sticker. I think the last Columbia-themed bumper sticker I saw bore the legend “Choose Civility”.
I should probably also moderate myself a bit by pointing out that Columbia does pretty well in terms of cultural events. Mostly at Symphony Woods. But there’s plenty of concerts and local theater and wine festivals and art festivals. And this is great, but it’s also very temporally bound, and that can be a big burden when you’re a parent with a full time job and basically have the time you have, and also kinda hate people as a class and are more interested in the experience of place rather than event. This is why I’m glad that a couple of weeks ago, the dad of one of Dylan’s friends tipped me off about the James and Anne Robinson Nature Center. “Nature Center” maybe isn’t something I’d naturally seek out on my own, having memories of boring field trips to the local wildlife refuge to see local trees and fauna which, being local, I could already see by going to my back yard.
That is, I think, part of what the Robinson Nature Center is about. It’s got nature trails and gardens and tree planting projects and scenic overlooks the Middle Patuxent River, and oyster shell recycling, and an area where they demonstrate compost. But in addition to all that, there’s also this big L-shaped building right at the center, and that’s the part that made this a thing I wanted to do with my son.
The indoor part of the Nature Center is essentially a small nature museum. It’s kinda like they just ripped the nature room out of a really good science center and plopped it down in the middle of a park. The indoor exhibition is small, but it’s really well done. As you enter, there’s a small gift shop on your left next to the admissions desk. We didn’t stop at the gift shop on this trip because I was pretty much letting Dylan drive and he didn’t notice it. To the left is a sort of small reading room, cozy and softly lit, lined with bookshelves, with a fireplace and comfy chairs. Reminds me of the first floor lounge in the Humanities building back at Loyola, in the part of the building that still retains its original Tudor stylings from when it was the Jesuit residences half a century ago.
The temporary exhibits are beyond. Currently, they’re exhibiting some mixed media photographics by local artist Denée Barr. There’s also a large wooden tractor on loan from Port Discovery for the kids to climb on as part of the “Here We Grow” exhibit, running until July. The rest of that exhibit, downstairs, consists of a beanbag toss game based on Maryland agriculture, and a collection of wooden parts and plastic connectors with which children can try to invent their own novel piece of farm equipment. Other agriculture-themed displays line the downstairs hallway.
The first permanent exhibit you come to is on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The main feature is one of those tilt-table displays where you tilt the table to control a helicopter as it flies around the Chesapeake Bay area, hovering over points of historical and ecological interest to bring up little information screens. I think this maybe could have used an audio component for younger visitors, but Dylan had plenty of fun just flying the helicopter around even if he didn’t care to hold it still long enough for me to read him the text about the fate of watermen or the dangers of agricultural runoff.
An alcove to the left houses the “Changing Lives, Changing Landscapes” exhibit, showing, I think, the history of human inhabitants in the Howard County area. Dylan pulled me through too fast for me to get a good look. It’s pretty brief, close as I could tell, basically just one panel on Native Americans, and then a somewhat larger one about European settlers. A reproduction flintlock rifle and ax are mounted to the wall, but I didn’t get a chance to read the text. It was kinda similar to the first part of the Chester River room at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, but a lot more abbreviated. It also contains an animatronic model of an 18th century grist mill, which Dylan liked a lot, but not enough to stand still for the entire length of time it took me to explain the process of grinding wheat into flour. You turn a big wall-mounted wheel to set the thing off and watch elevators and archimedes screws and grinding stones all move and turn and it’s kinda cool and I wish I knew of a nearby museum that was all just this kind of exhibit.
The real centerpiece of the collection is the “Life of the Forest” exhibit, though. This is a big section all about the various things that live in different parts of the forest environment. It’s subdivided into three distinct sections. The upper gallery is this large, open, naturally-lit room where images of forest life appear on leaf-shaped tiles hanging from display trees. Information panels describe life in the treetops, with buttons scattered about that activate birdsongs. Binoculars mounted in places give you a chance to look out into the surrounding woods to see the local inhabitants firsthand. Dylan grew increasingly excited as we proceeded through this section, almost enough that we didn’t really get to see much as his anticipation kept driving him onward.
You descend down a long ramp to the lower gallery which focuses on the forest floor. This was probably my favorite part, and Dylan lingered here longer than anywhere else as well. The upper gallery is very beautiful, but the lower one is very dense and full of lots of individual things to look at. Dylan was, for reasons of his own, really excited by the sticks. Because there were sticks. I mean, duh.
One word of caution here: when you reach the bottom of the ramp, the very first thing you will see on entering the forest floor is a dead deer being eaten by buzzards. It’s under a sign bearing the legend, “Nature’s Recycling”, or words to that effect, explaining the whole circle of life thing, and it’s a good and important exhibit and very well-made, but I don’t know what they were thinking making it what they chose to lead off on. In this section, mounted flashlights illuminate messages carved into tree trunks about nature. Spring-loaded panels can be pulled out from below the displays to read information about the animals.
I was particularly impressed by the quality of the water displays. Lucite-filled cavities in the simulated forest floor give you a cross-sectional look into shallow pools and rivers. There’s a small pond prominently displaying stages of amphibian life, with frogs and salamanders frozen in various stages of development, and a larger section displaying beavers hard at work building a dam. There’s a hollowed out log in which one lizard protects its eggs as its mate loses a fight to a snake, and a hollow tree trunk you can step inside to see baby bats asleep on the ceiling. All the animals are models, just in case you were concerned. I’m sure a place like this would only have used ethically taxidermied animals if they were real, but the use of models removes any worries about that.
I’d stayed up too late making a shepherd’s pie for dinner that night. And bolting the DVD cabinets to the wall in the basement. I don’t know what I was thinking. Leah had been sleeping in the guest bedroom — she’d been growing progressively more and more dissatisfied with the queen-sized bed she’d bought years ago not long after she moved to Maryland, but it would be a few more years until we replaced it — or trying to sleep, or whatever, and she came in and said, in a one-in-the-morning sort of noncommittal way that it was possible that her water had broken, but she wasn’t sure. Though she’d be pretty confident about it when talking to anyone else. She called the OBGYN once they opened, and they said we should come in, so we did. The nurse midwife was surprised that we’d come in, despite having been told to, because she reckoned it was pretty straightforward at this point that what we ought to do was to go to the hospital and, y’know, have a baby. So we did that. Fortunately, the hospital was right next door. So about twelve hours later, we had a baby.
And then one thousand eight hundred twenty-seven days passed. A bunch of stuff happened in the mean time. Back in the days before I almost always had a camera in arm’s reach, there was this one afternoon where he looked up at me from playing on his activity mat and then flopped forward onto his hands in a pose so cute I really wished I’d gotten a picture so I could post it to the internet with a black matte around it bearing the caption “Baby Facepalm: He doesn’t even have object permanence, yet he knows what you just did was dumb”. A couple of years passed. Leah went up to take a shower, and he started hopping on the spot, explaining, “Mommy jump in shower. Didi jump in kitchen.” That’s what he called himself back then, until he mastered L-sounds. One Easter, he found a chocolate egg intended for the hunt early and when asked where he found it, he held up the flattened foil wrapper. “It was inside this.”
I had to hold him one night as he cried over a friend I’d never heard of before who just moved away. And another when we explained that in the event of a fire, no, he had to get out of the house right away and not stop to gather his favorite toys, even the magnet-handed shark that came with his bicycle helmet which he loved more than life itself. He lost the shark about a month later. He asked me easy questions, like “What’s your favorite color?” and “Can two men get married?” He asked hard questions like, “If the president does bad things, why don’t the police arrest him?” and “Which of your children do you love most?”
Yesterday, we went swimming and ate pizza with his friends, and then we came home and he opened presents, shouting “I always wanted one of those!” as he revealed things he’d never seen or heard of before in his life. And he went to bed. And a few hours later, I opened the door to his room, and for the one thousand eight hundred and twenty-sixth time (modulo about a month’s worth of overnight visits to grandma), I listened to make sure he was breathing, and whispered, “I love you, son.”
Happy Birthday, Dylan.
DYLAN and DADDY are on the way home from a craft fair.
DYLAN: I don’t believe Santa is real.
DADDY: Okay. I imagine he doesn’t believe in you either.
DADDY: Well, if he’s not real, how’s he supposed to believe in you?
DYLAN: Well, Santa’s supposed to be a good guy, right?
DADDY: Yeah. I think so.
DYLAN: But Santa comes into everyone’s house without asking. Like a robber.
DADDY: That’s… a good point. But wait, didn’t you write a letter to Santa asking him to bring you things?
DYLAN: I don’t think so. I don’t know how to read.
DADDY: But you saw him at the mall and sat on his lap, didn’t you? (Suddenly panics that he might be about to imply that sitting on a man’s lap grants implicit consent for him to visit you in the night)
DADDY: I have pictures.
DYLAN: Oh. But I don’t think that was the real Santa. I think that was a man in a costume.
DADDY: Yeah. I think Santa has helpers for stuff like that.
DYLAN: Okay. Then I guess maybe Santa is real, if he has helpers.
(War of the Worlds will be back next week.)
Like daddy, like daughter.
This exact mug (The Diner Style, which is, frankly, the platonic ideal of coffee mug shapes) is currently sold out, but the same pattern is available from the Diesel Sweeties store.
Scene: Interior, night. The kitchen. DADDY is washing dishes.
Where’s my ring? (Looks down to family room) Oh. There it is.
I never saw your ring before.
He runs down to look at it and comes back.
Oh. I’ve seen your wedding ring. You always wear your wedding ring.
Yes, except when I’m doing something that gets my hands wet
I never wear a wedding ring. Because I’m not even married!
Boys only marry girls. Boys can’t marry boys.
Boys can marry other boys if they want.
You’re telling a joke! That’s so silly!
No, really. Most boys marry girls and most girls marry boys, but some boys marry boys and some girls marry girls and that’s fine too if it’s what they want.
Oh. I think I’d rather marry a girl. I don’t think I’d marry a boy.
Especially not [REDACTED]. He’s naughty. Well, he’s getting better. He used to be a lot naughtier when we were in the four-year-old classroom. Also, he uses a lot of potty words.
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?
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.
Leedmark 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Head a bit further up route 2, and you get to a part of history where I get to rely on research rather than my own wildly inaccurate memories. Jumpers and the Severna Park Mall and Marley Station all loom large in my memories, but it’s been very hard to research them (Researching Marley Station is easy enough because it still exists, but it’s hard to get a historical perspective on it). They weren’t important or historical and they both ceased to exist long before the internet was a thing, and defunct shopping malls of the 1980s doesn’t seem to have caught on as a nexus of internet-age nostalgia.
But as our weird and personal little history draws to a close, we get to intersect some actual history for a moment, because the next thing you’re going to come to, provided you are making this trip about twenty-five years in the past, is the Harundale Mall.
And… I don’t really remember much about it. To me, it was mostly just the sign on the roof that looked like a nineteenth century frontier army fort. I’m only consciously aware of having visited it once. This would have been back in 1987 or 1988, when I first started wearing glasses. My dad took me to the eyeglass place there, New Deal Optical, I think. It was where he’d always gotten his glasses ever since he was a kid (The chain, I assume, not the actual shop, since my dad grew up in Hamilton, and it’d be weird to go all the way to Glen Burnie to buy eyeglasses). I took a pair of frames off the shelf to look at them, possibly try them on, and the clerk yelled at me for being a kid and interacting with the merchandise. My dad got angry at the clerk for this treatment and vowed never to shop there again.If you’ve been reading this column from the beginning, you might notice that I seem to have a lot of stories involving my father getting angry in a mall off of Ritchie Highway. In the interest of defending my father’s reputation, I should explain that the reason I remember these stories is because it was so unusual for my normally mild-mannered father to make a public display of anger. My wife has cautioned me to remember this when I become frustrated in the presence of my own children. Also, I don’t know, it seems like driving up Route 2 tended to put him in a bad mood. I ended up getting my glasses at the Pearle across the street from Marley Station.
When the Harundale Mall opened in October, 1958, (for the first four months, it operated under the name “Arundeltown”, a fact that is missing from all but one of my sources) the only other mall in the US to bear the designation was Minnesota’s Southdale Center. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.
Built by James Rouse’s company, which would go on, rather famously, to build the town of Columbia, it offered around 20 retail spaces and a half-dozen kiosk spots. Parts of the mall had a second floor, but only Hochschild-Kohn had retail there. The rest was used for offices and storage, as well as a rentable public meeting room. It was a small mall by today’s standards, around 300,000 square feet, half of which was taken up by its three largest stores, originally Hochschild-Kohn, G.C. Murphy and S.S. Kresge.
Hochschild-Kohn, which I mentioned very briefly before, was one of the famous Baltimore-regional department stores from the old days. They went defunct in 1983 and the store at Harundale was sold to another Baltimore chain, Hutzler’s. Hutzler’s didn’t last out the ’80s. The mall tried to attract J. C. Penney to replace them, but Penney had a new building constructed at Marley Station instead. The space went to Value City instead. In 2007, the Value City closed, replaced by the Burlington Coat Factory from Jumpers.
G. C. Murphy was a five-and-dime chain. Their Parole location (Actually their discount department store version, “Murphy’s Mart”: commercial Realtor documents still list it as “Murphy’s Mart Shopping Center”. Now a Shoppers or a Kohls. Or maybe both. I don’t remember which end of the building was theirs) has a bunch of little flashbulb-images stored away in my memory, mostly involving the capsule toy machines near the registers, but that’s a story for another day. Murphy’s had survived the Great Depression, but couldn’t survive the ’80s. They got sold to Ames in 1985, who sold the smaller stores to McCrory’s. The G. C. Murphy at Harundale became a McCrory’s in 1990. I don’t know when exactly it closed, but McCrory’s was bankrupt by ’92 and the last of their stores shuttered in ’01.
S. S. Kresge was another five and dime, which seems mildly extravagant to me. You think you’ve never heard of them, but you’re wrong: Kresge is the “K” in “Kmart”. I’m not sure if the Kresge at Harundale was still there when they stopped using their original name in the late ’70s. Maybe they moved to become the Jumpers K-Mart.
The rest of the mall was mostly local chains and non-chains, most of which don’t exist any more. From the list of original tenants, I recognize Lerner, Thom McAn, and Baltimore Gas & Electric. Annapolis radio station WNAV (Fun fact: currently part-owned by Pat Sajak) had a broadcasting booth on the concourse. There was also a grocery store — first Food Fair, later Pantry Pride — and an Italian restaurant with a sunken seating area at the south end.
The court at the north end featured the mall’s architectural centerpiece, a large fountain in the center of which was displayed the Harundale Rock, a dedication stone engraved with the names of the builders, a list of architectural awards, and a brief history of the site. The stairs to the second floor wrapped around the fountain, so you could pitch coins from landing. Next to the fountain was a large birdcage where they kept talking birds, which turned out to be exactly as good an idea as it sounds, and the mall eventually became famous for its profanity-spouting Mynahs.
Harundale’s star had slowly waned over the years. None of the small malls up and down Ritchie Highway had posed serious competition, but the place was showing its age. It wasn’t positioned to survive when Marley Station opened. The well-known, upscale retailers who’d been among the early tenants fell on hard times: Kresge had become Kmart; Murphy was gone; Hochschild-Kohn was gone; Hutzler’s was gone; Oppenheim-Collins was gone; Read’s Drug Store was gone; Equitable Bank had been eaten by Maryland National, then by NationsBank, then Bank of America. Their replacements had been progressively less prestigious: Erol’s TV and Video Club; Record Town; Value City; Dollar Tree, etc. Horn & Horn briefly reenters our narrative, taking over the Severn Room restaurant and turning it into one of their cafeterias.