punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Weekend wrapup: Springfield Mall

This weekend, I went back to an old familiar haunt: Springfield Mall.

It's funny, I have always looked at Springfield Mall as my "home mall" even though I grew up near Tyson's Corner. Tysons changed so much, I can't even recognize it anymore. When I was a kid, and went there, it was like most malls in the area, dark with pebbly walls. Sometime in the late 1980s, like most of McLean, it decided to go upscale, and hasn't looked back. Springfield, while it's changed a lot, hasn't changed a lot of its character.

My first taste of the mall was in the 1980s, when our local Sci-fi club usually picked that mall for movies. We had closer movies theaters, sure, but for some reason we usually went to Springfield Cinemas. I recall thinking Springfield Mall was more spacey, like the mall in Fast Times at Ridgemount High and Valley Girl. There were a lot more ... uh, non-upper class people there, which suited us just fine. Some of the stores were also pretty weird. I recall one we used to go to, "Hong Kong Imports," which sold a lot of ... more "heady" things, like roach clips, bongs, and had a book of tee-shirt iron-ons from the 1970s. The walls were covered with the HUGE (like 4" x 6") posters of your favorite rock bands, and behind them were swirly psychedelic patterns. That store lasted until like 1999, when they were finally closed down in the mall's attempt to purge all the "undesirables" in an uprising of "mallitics" (mall politics) during the 1990s.

Fast forward a few years. When I lived at the FanTek house, we lived nearest that mall, and watched them change the mall from a dark, 1980s neon spacey-look to something a bit more sterile. I watched Tysons go through the same fate the few times I visited it, and I felt kind of bad about this because the mall lost a lot of its original character. But a lot of the stores stayed the same, which was good.

One place was "Pizza Delight." What a place. They were fairly large, and their food was so cheap, teens hung out there all the time. I mean, a pizza that could serve six people was like $3.98. For a WHOLE PIZZA! A large drink was like 50 cents. Even back then, that was mega-cheap. The pizza was okay, but the $3.98 price tag made it a lot more palpable. A lot of people wondered how they stayed in business. How indeed ... more on them later.

My first job in a mall was Chesapeake Knife and Tool in what was then the "new wing," which patrons who frequent the mall call it the "Food Court" now. It replaced a long abandoned department anchor store called "Corvettes" or something. I worked at CK&T for two years before being moved to Crystal City ("the penalty box"), and then being laid off. The next job I had was working at "The Gamekeeper" one Christmas, and then in 1993, I was back full time as the manager of Cargo Furniture in a fairly dead wing of the mall (which is still dead).

During these times, I got wind of the "Mallitics" that run within malls. Big malls like Springfield run almost like a little community. You get to know the managers and store politics of the people next to you, plus mall management. I have always had the gift where people dump their problems on me, so I learned a lot of juicy stuff about how the mall was being run. The corporation that owned that mall were classic corporate suits who cared little about people and more about money. I mean, it was like out of a teen movie. Two big events that happened in the decade I worked there was the opening of the Macy's wing, the recession of the 1990s, and the purging of all "undesirables," which were stores that did not fit Springfield Mall's "new image."

See, when Springfield Mall opened in 1975, it was almost vacant. The mall management made a huge deal with local merchants, giving them cheap 30 year contracts just to get them in the door. In the 1990s, they started to renege on a LOT of those contracts, and a lot of the more... "individual" stores, usually mom-and-pop outfits, were driven out in place of corporate clones. The last fighters were Young Fair (a children's clothing store), Hong Kong Imports, Luci's (a gift figurine place), and the Tobacco Barn (which were slapped hard when the mall went all no-smoking). Last I saw, Tobacco Barn and Luci's were the last there. Why the purge? Well, part of it was said to be started in 1990... at started with Pizza Delight.

Now how about Pizza Delight? That place was always packed. In fact, they opened a "Pizza Delight Junior" upstairs, which always seemed to be filled with angry-looking Greek men hanging around the meat shaver. They paid rent. They played nice. The chefs even had their knives sharpened at CK&T. I mean, you'd really never suspect anything was odd, except they food was always so cheap ... slightly bland, but cheap.

One day, on my way from Gloria Jean's Coffee Beanery to work, I passed by Pizza Delight Junior, and saw something very odd. The place was closed, dark, and yellow police tape covered the gate. A notice from the sheriff stated that this was evidence in a Federal crime investigation. Huh. I went to work, and would have forgotten about it until a mall official stopped by and stated that we were not allowed to talk to the press about Pizza Delight and Pizza Delight Junior. WTF? Both of them? Now, of course, everyone was talking about it. People speculated that the health department got them. Then the local paper gave us a shocking answer: They were closed in a massive sting operation that went from New York to Miami. Pizza Delight was a HUGE money laundering port for some Eastern Coast mafia. That's how they could afford to stay in business! Brilliant. See, you sell food for below cost, people flock to your restaurant, and then when it shows you were passing tons of money through there, it won't look as suspicious, right? Damn.

That signaled the end of cool places in the mall. Over the years, the mall has taken quite a beating. Anchor stores just started going bankrupt. Montgomery Ward, which was a staple in our area for so long, went belly up. Macys went bankrupt (but recovered). Whole chains died in the 1990s, and at one point, I'd say 30% of the mall space went unoccupied.

When I worked at Cargo, a store across the hall was some sort of Toy and Hobby shop. Apparently, there was some issue where the owners were husband and wife, and were fighting constantly. Then they had a ton of financial difficulties and they started to drink heavily. The mall had enough, and forced them to close. I recall, by the end, the owners fired all the workers and outright abandoned the place. The mall had to step in and liquidate their stock to recoup some cost. The owners showed up one day, and it was a debacle that brought the police in to mediate.

In 1996, I ended my retail career. Malls seem to be doing better now. I see less dead space, and part of what may have helped that is the expansion of people in this area due to tech and defense jobs. I mean, the real estate situation is insane! They keep building housing and they keep filling up! Some friends of mine looking for a simple 1-bedroom apartment had to be put on a "waiting list." My local strip mall (literally behind my house) is usually packed, and parking is hard to find during the peak days. I heard in the 1990s, it almost went under as well.

So as I strolled through some memories on Saturday, pointing out what this store "used to be," I felt kind of old. What was Pizza Delight is now part of a second food court next to a huge Art Supply Warehouse (which used to be Sam Goody's). What was my Cargo store is now a tee-shirt shop. CK&T is still there. Jerry's Subs in the food court used to be run by a guy named Dave (who never could get good help), and now seems to be run by some Hispanic owner (who also seems to be short on help). The Sunglass Hut that my wife used to run is now a Japanese fast food place.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000176.html
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