The Center of Attention

Some day in the not-too-distant future Amazon’s drones will drop packages at our front door.  Every material thing we need is already a click of a mouse and a rush delivery away from being in our possession. I don’t mean to be the old man waggin’ his finger at technological or economic “progress,” but I do fear for one cherished American institution: The Mall.   It may be difficult to imagine a mall having an identity, or contributing to the culture of its’ community, but I’d like to give an ode (Eulogy?) to the Mall as we know it. I’d like to tell you the story of the Center Point Mall in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.  It’s a story familiar to a lot of small towns, with the same villain hatching their tried and true plan to push small business to extinction.  This is the story of how the hub of my hometown took a decades-long descent into nothingness.

Brought to you by Every Day Low Prices®.

*****

The Mall, similar to another American icon says, “Bring me your snotty teenagers, your elderly mall walkers, your poor huddled masses.” Like the Statue of Liberty, The Mall doesn’t discriminate; it brings people from all walks of life together and welcomes them with open arms.  If e-commerce kills the mall where will those mall walkers powerwalk?  Where will the rent-a-cop mall security guy get a funny hat, fake badge, and pretend job? Where will the latchkey kids hang out and spend their parents’ money?  Won’t anyone think of the children??  Our journey back in time begins some in the late 1980s, when your retail tour guide was just a boy.

Mall

Memories Museum

The Center Point Mall once stood a stone’s throw from the banks of the Wisconsin River just off Main Street.  Main Street, USA might as well have been the address. Our downtown had the same shit you’d find anywhere else, except it was our shit. Bill’s Pizza, which had the best thin crust pizza in town. Jim Laabs Music, which is where you went if you wanted some condescending asshole to sell you an overpriced guitar. The Mission Coffeehouse, where high school kids went to see “bands” and smoke cigarettes.  There was the county library, a few seedy tattoo parlors, and since it was Wisconsin, multiple ice cream stands and dozens of bars.

However, during my childhood, the number one attraction was the Center Point Mall.  A multiplex that multi-FLEXED on other malls.  Our mall was book-ended by Shopko on one side and JC Penny’s on the other.  They were connected by a corridor of a dozen or so stores, with a sad food court that sold sad fried food in the middle of it all.

I grew up in a blue collar family.  My parents worked at the paper mill, just a few miles away on the same Wisconsin River, so we lived pretty modestly.  We did most of our shopping at Shopko, but there was always one occasion where my mom would relax her frugal ways and splurge on us: back-to-school shopping.  It was a tradition every late August, from elementary education until the latter years of high school.

The day would always start at Shopko where we would get the 39 items on our school supply list.  Pencils: check. Crayons: check. New folders I never used: check. Backpack, erasers, notebooks: Check.  Protractor, great for making smiley faces.  Compass?  I don’t know how many times I thought about stabbing myself with the sharp end of that thing in Math class.  Once all the tedious shit was out of the way we would begin our trek through the mall to JC Penny’s.

Our Mall had very few mainstays in those 10 or 15 years, which looking back, was probably the first sign of the economic troubles ahead.  One of the first stores you passed after exiting Shopko was a Hallmark store.  I suppose they stuck around a while cuz everyone needs expensive cards, Christmas ornaments and other fragile knick knacks.  There was a Glamour Shots or Sears Portrait Studio that probably had it’s heyday in the Big Hair days of the 80s.  There was always a poor photographer there, desperately trying to make some crying toddler smile.

We had the chain sporting goods store, Foot Locker, and right across the way the local guy, Dave Koch Sports.  Dave Koch was probably my favorite place in the Mall, tho as far as I know, no one knew how to pronounce his name.  Was it Dave Cook, Dave Coach, or Dave COCK? I never really knew, and in all honesty I probably only had a handful of transactions there because the guy was an overpriced Kochsucker.  Dave Koch was where you went if you wanted to sell your baseball cards for 1/3 of their value, or buy an autographed 8×11 of the Green Bay Packers’ backup tight end for $100.  They also carried posters, seasonal sports gear and replica sports jerseys (more on those soon).

Just down from Dave Koch was the chain music store that always went under, only to be resuscitated by some new giant chain.  It went from Music Land, to SamGoody and then I think Tower, but none of ‘em ever had the staying power to survive the inevitable liquidation. I liked to imagine some greasy haired executive with a bad comb over, market research data in his hand, plotting out expansion sites on a map in his office thousands of miles away, and picture him saying “Damnit!  I’m telling you, the people of Stevens Point need a record store, and by god we’re gonna give it to em!!”  Besides everybody knew there was only one place in town to get music and that was from Randy at Radio Kaos right there on Main Street.  Randy had more music knowledge in one of his toenails than the fucks at Tower had.  No tears would be shed when the mall lost its’ music store for good, but it was another harbinger of things to come. It was merely one of many in a series of dominoes to fall.

Sadly the mall’s only toy store, K.B. Toys, folded by the time I turned 10 years old, but I still remember it fondly as the place for my G.I. Joes, Ghostbusters proton pack, and Starting Lineup sports figures.  I can still vividly recall this reoccurring dream I had as boy where 8 year old Ben is the only kid in the toy store and somehow I’ve been given Free Reign, like I won some all-you-can-shop contest.  I’m running through the aisles, ripping open toy packages, hugging stuffed animals and generally pissing my pants in pandemonium.  Waking up from that dream was the child equivalent of waking up from a wicked coke bender, with slightly less shame, but way more sadness.

One other memorable store that was part of the mall, but also had a window front on Main Street was the Tea Shoppe.  This place was a mix between a Hot Topic and head shop.  It’s where you went if you wanted a bean bag or papasan chair, those hanging beads people used in place of doors, or a rubber dick as a gag gift for a bachelorette party.  For my sister and me, the Tea Shoppe was the source of one of our biggest childhood addictions: STICKERS.  We filled up sticker albums like we were preserving some important fossil record for the Smithsonian.  Albums upon albums of fuzzy animals, funny stickers, cartoon characters and whatever the fuck else.  And let me tell you, we were sticker connoisseurs, with our absolute favorites being the “Scratch n Sniff” stickers.  We loved scratching stickers of cookies, flowers, pizza, and wafting in their fragrance.  Adding to the fun was the fact that about half the smells were accurate and the other half we determined smelled like farts.  We would always trick each other into smelling the ones that smelled like farts.  “Hey Becky, come here!!  This one smells EXACTLY like mom’s lasagna.”  PSYCHE!  Face full of fart fragrance.

We also had a Buckle, a jewelry store and a shoe store, but those places aren’t worth mentioning because they’re the same everywhere.   Those stores were Center Point Mall staples for quite some time tho, I think in part to give kids something to do.  You could always try the “Buckle Challenge.”

90’s Nostalgia

Finally, we would arrive at JC Penny, for our back-to-school clothes shopping.  I don’t know if it was the era, or the size of our town, but to us JCP was the high end clothing retailer in town.  I got my HIS jeans at Shopko for $15 until 6th grade, but my older sister Becky had to fit in at school so she got Levi’s from JCP for $35!  Crazy!  I had a cousin who went even one step further.  Levi’s, in what can only be considered marketing genius, created “Silvertabs.” Jeans that were $50, but instead of the red tag on standard 501 Levi’s jeans these had a silver fuckin tab.  Silvertabs were like the teenage equivalent of ballin’ watch or sports car.  It said you were lavish as hell; you (your parents) could waste $50 on jeans.  Vanity, thy name is Levi’s.

JCP also carried another personal favorite 90s trend: No Fear shirts.  No Fear shirts had their logo on the left breast and on the back would be some stupid fuckin cliché like “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog,” or “SECOND PLACE IS THE FIRST LOSER” in big, bold, badass font.  Again, my older sister was the privileged one who owned the No Fear gear before I was mature enough for such brilliant slogan wearing.  My jealous response to her trendiness was to raid her closet for her No Fear shirts, a task which I never once completed successfully, and subsequently got my ass reamed out.  no fearWhen I finally got my own No Fear shirt as a Christmas gift one winter they were already considered totally uncool for some time, and making matters worse was the slogan on my shirt.  It was black with red lettering, with the backside showing a tachometer and speedometer both redlining with the tagline “Runnin’ a little hot.” Everyone at school thought it was a NASCAR shirt, so after a couple experiences in public humiliation, the shirt was relegated to the back of my closet. A shameful reminder that you should be careful what you wish for.  (Thanks mom.  I love you)

My big sister didn’t get first dibs on every fashion trend tho.  JCP also carried replica basketball jerseys, which for a sports obsessed youth, was another big deal.  By the time I reached junior high, I probably had at least two weeks’ worth of jerseys in my closet.  I can still remember sprint walking into JCP, trying not to lose my shit, to check out what athlete’s jersey might be hanging on the walls.  The colors, logos, and stitching on the jerseys were a stimulus overload, and on more than one occasion probably gave me an excited boy boner.  (Sidenote: This wouldn’t be the first boner in my JCP experience.  My older cousin and I used to love looking up the mannequin’s dresses when we were just little shits.  Idk wtf we expected to see, but a plastic crotch was a pretty serious thrill for a 6 year old boy.  Well, until that lady in cosmetics reprimanded us. Cockblock.)

Since it was Wisconsin and winter spans roughly half the year, you also had to hit JCP for your pullover Starter jacket. (You want to click that link)  Not everyone could afford a Starter jacket.  There were knock-offs like Logo Athletic and Pro Player too, but those we’re for hacks.  Poor kids in their knock off jackets might as well wear a potato sack to school.  Better chance of surviving ostracizing at recess.

Obviously JC Penny was the exclusive home to these must-have fashions and was critical to the Center Point Mall’s success.  It anchored the west end of the mall for years, but its departure from the downtown area would ultimately be the deathblow for the Center Point Mall.  A final nail in the coffin that had long been sealed.

Enter the Villain

Here is where the plot becomes predictable. Where the evil giant stomps its foot down in Stevens Point, and leaves a crater still visible today.  Walmart opens. Small business dry up quicker than a dolphin thrown into a desert. No need for that chain music store in the mall, Walmart has cheaper CDs.  Hope you like your explicit lyrics scrubbed clean, brought to you by Every Day Low Prices®.

When Walmart rolls into town, it’s like finding out you have a terminal illness.  It’s only a matter of when, not if, your town’s culture, its uniqueness, its identity,  is stripped away and dies.   But Walmart doesn’t kill your city on its own; it’s just the first, biggest, most malignant tumor.  Walmart attracts other big boxes.  You get LOWE’s: Never Stop Improving!  So long local hardware stores.  Best Buy.  All you need to know about Best Buy is their logo is a fuckin price tag.  The parasitic chain restaurants aren’t far behind at this point.  Gotta have some place close by to stuff your face after all that money-savin! These shit holes literally kill our towns from the inside out.  Welcome, Chili’s, Red Robin, and the bane of all existence, Golden motherfucking Corral.  So long Blueberry Muffin, once voted the state’s best cinnamon rolls.  So long diners, restaurants, greasy spoons.  So long local flavor.

The Bitter End

The Center Point Mall received its death sentence too.  By the time I was a senior in high school, its desperate attempts to remain viable, to be part of the fabric of our community, included hosting our Winter Formal.  Some days when my friends and I were particularly bored, or high, or both, we would go walk through the Mall for a laugh or two.  The 4 or 5 of us probably made up a quarter of the people in the mall, including all employees.  It was really just Shopko and JC Penny’s with a long, well-lit hallway in between.  On more than one occasion we even snuck into the mall’s basement and explored it totally undetected.  It was like a graveyard of long forgotten store signs, displays, and racks.  It was a chilling reminder that, we too would one day perish, hopefully a little more gracefully.  (It was some pretty good weed)

Picture2

It was not a glamorous end for the mall.  For another decade the Center Point Mall persisted in that condition.  Like the elderly relative you can’t bring yourself to visit in the nursing home, it lived on as a shell of its once-proud self.   When JC Penny left town the mall’s health deteriorated further, clinging to life support with no vital activity.  Shopko and the remnants of JC Penny’s, separated by 220,000 square feet of unused commercial space.  The last step was to pull the plug, but no one in town could decide what to do.

People hotly debated the fate of the mall.  City Council meetings were held, open letters to the newspaper were written, and elected officials dreamt up all sorts of harebrained ideas. I remember someone saying they should turn it into a firing range, a gym, MORE FUCKING BARS.

The mall’s final purpose to its city was to act as a parking lot on weekends for all of the downtown bars, but even that became a point of contention when the mall’s managers tried to prevent/tow cars parking there.

mallfinal

They finally decided the fate of our mall a couple years ago, about 15 years after it last served any purpose to our city.  A good section of mall was demolished and they turned JC Penny’s into the tech school campus.  I don’t think it’s open yet, but I like to think one day these tech school graduates will close the loop and make damn fine Walmart employees.

*****

I left Stevens Point long ago and now reside in Minneapolis, exactly two miles from the Mall of America.  Unlike my hometown mall, the Mall of America is thriving.  This fucking monstrosity is actually expanding, with a $325 million dollar addition expected to be ready for August of 2015.   Part of the expansion includes a food hall.  (I bet it still tastes like shit.)

 malloa

Locals despise the MoA.  They say you can’t spend too much time there, or it’s a tourist trap, or a germ-haven. I’m not so pessimistic.  I see the Mall of America as our modern holy Mount Zion.  When Amazon’s drones gain sentience, turn our nuclear missiles on us, and bring about a nuclear winter, we can use it as our fortress.  When that day comes, you already know where to find me: I’ll be at JC Penny’s, picking out my winter jacket.

(The photos of the mall I’ve included in this story do not belong to me.  The original album can be found at http://www.labelscar.com/wisconsin/centerpoint-marketplace )

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