Saturday, feeling more introspective than usual, I embarked on a rare drive-around-aimlessly-by-myself day. I decided to head north, which eventually led me to 169 and Barry Road. I suddenly felt compelled to go in and see what has become of Metro North Mall.
Christmas music was playing—good, solid Perry Como and Bing Crosby stuff. No effing bubbly Mariah Carey crap was present. The music was not de rigeur, but it felt appropriate in that setting. Metro North is well past its heyday.
That’s when strange emotions kicked in. I had been in the mall maybe three times in the last decade, and each time the occupancy rate was lower than the visit before. I had read that the mall was basically on life support. This was not quite the case; it is not Indian Springs or even Metcalf South. Nonetheless, large swaths of the mall are boarded up with nothing but a few mall walkers making their way into some corners. Why did this affect me? Why did I feel sad for this place?
My strongest memories of the place date back to when I was a frequent visitor to the mall in high school. I went there less than I went to Oak Park, but it was probably number two on the list of destinations for the collective broke asses of my friends and me.
I remember the place was lively: plenty of young people working, shopping, and loitering. The girls were pretty, yet markedly more approachable than their counterparts to the south. Angie at County Seat (whose name tag said “Cali”) and Trish at Amigos? Much kinder than that broad at the calendar store at Oak Park.
Fifteen years later, even at the peak of December’s shopping, the concourses are decidedly uncrowded, the stores’ clerks underwhelmed. Nearly every shopper is 35 or older other than the kids they have in tow. The life and the buzz left with the young people.
One thought I had involved why certain stores stayed open while others closed. How, for example, is Regis Hairstylists still in operation while Pretzel Time is closed? Merle Norman Cosmetics and not GNC? Macy’s but not Dillard’s or JCPenney? And how in God’s name is Original Pizza still surviving in the bottom corner of the mall with nary a lit storefront in sight?
My theory is that the Regis and Merle Norman franchises owned by locals who aren’t willing to give up. They have invested their time, their souls, and their capital…where else would they go? What would they do? It’s easier for corporate-owned stores to decide which assets are underperforming and systematically close them when it makes sense. Emotions and “buying in” make things tricky.
I walked the entire mall, both levels. It wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t dead either. I guess the simple way to put it is that stores were surviving for now. I fear once the holiday season is over…well, I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.
Need a bellwether?
The fairly new strip mall across the highway is almost obsolete already thanks to even newer developments at Zona Rosa and Tiffany Springs. The lineup is: Target, Circuit City (closing/in bankruptcy), Kohl’s, Linens-N-Things (closed/bankrupt), Michael’s, Babies-R-Us, and Steve and Barry’s (closing/in bankruptcy).
The person who figures out what to do with all this country’s increasingly vacant big box and indoor mall space will be very rich indeed.