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?