Needing a new winter coat, I visited Canton Centre Mall before Christmas, where JCPenney was having a hefty sale. I found two decent coats, each at half price with an additional 20 percent off. JCP was bending over backward to attract customers, which was not surprising considering the plight of stores these days.
I hadn’t visited that JCPenney store for a year and on that earlier trip only to pick up a rug we had ordered. Before then it had been years since shopping at the JCP in the former Mellett Mall, so the memories came flooding in.
The main entrance, on the west side of the store, still looked the same, with its dark yellow brick porch facing Whipple Avenue. The store was rearranged, but the memories lingered. I remembered the hobby display under the escalator, where I bought a Tyco 2-4-0 Virginia and Truckee Railroad Old West locomotive. I fell in love with that little steam locomotive when I first saw it in ninth grade, and I put it in layaway, an antique concept that had nearly died in recent years when credit became as easily attained as picking up a paper clip from the sidewalk. I made two more trips using allowance money to buy that locomotive and proudly showed it to my grandfather the day I finally paid in full because he loved Old West history.
I passed another part of the store that once housed the shoe department, where my parents bought brown leather biker-style boots for my older brother and I in the early 1970s. My brother, I imagine, liked the boots for their motorcycle image, but in them I saw historical footwear, not something worn while touring to the sound of Steppenwolf.
Finally I reached the door to the mall, and the shock hit me. What once had been a vibrant shopping center stood nearly deserted but for one man sitting on a bench and a bank at the far end, which before the arrival of Walmart and the removal of most of the mall had been a bit short of the middle of the mall. Gone were the food court, the cinema, the newsstand where I looked at books, the hot pretzel stand, the game room, and the other large department stores. One store, World Imports, which sold western and Mexican clothing in the early 1980s, when those styles were still in fashion before European techno-pop and urban styles took over, had closed long before the mall was amputated, but I considered it still valid among my memories of the lost. Storefronts still bore the names of stores, and some bore signs stating the stores had moved outside, but I wasn’t sure where that meant they had moved to, outside being a big place. Another sign put up by mall management proclaimed that new stores were coming, but I can’t see that happening. Malls seem to be a dying breed, enough so to have earned a Web site,
Mellett Mall was built in the late 1960s, and it opened before the roof was done. When it opened, we walked down the concourse and could look up at stars, braced against winter cold with our coats wrapped tightly about us. O’Neil’s hadn’t yet been built, and a large opening at the south end of the concourse that passed by Penney’s looked out onto a big dirt field where construction equipment was preparing the ground for the store, one of three large department stores at the mall, Penney’s and Montgomery Ward being the other two.
Some people have said that malls are artificial, trying to replace the small town centers of Europe and early America, that they were a blatant commercial attempt to create a sense of community merely to make money. That may be so, but I was surprised when outdoor strip malls began to replace them. Indoor malls supplanted strip malls in the 1960s, allowing shoppers to visit stores and restaurants under one roof, so it seemed odd to return to the older style. But perhaps strip malls make room for larger stores than do indoor malls; perhaps online shopping has hurt malls somewhat, although that doesn’t explain the booming popularity of strip malls; and perhaps the change was simply caused by the fickleness of the masses. The answer is best left to experts in retail and economic matters.
What I left the mall with, along with my two new coats, was a realization that my longing for a bustling Canton Centre Mall was not necessarily a desire to see the mall return but was rather a sense of nostalgia for good memories from my youth, of the many shopping trips in late August for school clothes, of the wish for a store that would sell Old West clothing, and of happy times. I can’t change retail practices, and I don’t want to live in my past. But many times I wish I could revisit certain times and places, if for nothing else than to relive good memories.

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