A (Nostalgic) Look Back at 90s Mall Culture
This is a Nerdbot “Nerd Voices” contributor post from reader John Bilancini. is a stand-up comedian and humor writer from Brooklyn, NY. He can be found on Twitter, and his nostalgia podcast 1994 can be found @1994podcast and on iTunes.
Mall culture was a huge part of my upbringing. I am originally from northern Ohio, and if you’ve ever flipped through one of those dead mall photo sets online you may have noticed that a disproportionate number of malls featured are Ohio malls. Ohio isn’t exactly known for being an early adopter, but in this case you could say that the state saw that malls were heading towards life support and rather than pulling the plug opted not to plug it in at all.
Toys R Us is the latest and most prominent in a long line of shuttered stores where I spent so many adolescent hours whiling away the time, flipping through magazines, racks of CDs, VHS tapes, and IOU sweatshirts, Starter jackets, Cross Colors, and Crossfire.
Here are a few stores that left the biggest impression on me.
Suncoast Motion Picture Company
I have a level of affection for Suncoast that’s only been matched by that for my wife, immediate family, and cats on the days when neither vomits or poops in the shower. In an era where on-demand access to every season of a television show did not exist, it was so exciting to see collections of episodes from my favorite shows available for purchase. Two VHS sets from season one of the X-Files are still kicking around my parents’ house somewhere (featuring Tooms!). In addition to the TV options, I was obsessed with the posters. I didn’t purchase many, but my copy of The Crow movie poster also still lives at mom and dad’s house, until recently residing in its original frame. Unfortunately, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has been lost to history.
I also loved Suncoast for its design. The interior resembled a movie theater, with film related props and stills decorating the walls. For some reason the chintziest movie props look impressive when you plop them down in a mall in Elyria, Ohio. If I’d been a few years older, I would have gone broke purchasing memorabilia, but my pop culture collector affliction was pushed off by ten years or so due to high school lack of financial wherewithal. It turns out that buying the stuff in 2018 is just a touch more expensive than picking it up in 1993.
I was pleased to recently discover that there are still seven Suncoasts in existence, and that one of them is located in South Jersey. I promptly informed my wife that I’d be leaving Brooklyn and my lawyer job, and heading down I-95 to fulfill my dream of becoming a Suncoast employee. I was maybe 60% kidding.
My parents encouraged reading from a very young age, so bookstore stops were part of mall trips from the beginning. Waldenbooks was our preferred destination, because they seemed to have more options for younger readers and there was a frequent buyer program. Around ages nine through twelve, I was all about The Hardy Boys series, Choose Your Own Adventure, The Alden All Stars, and Matt Christopher sports books. I also read all of my sisters’ Babysitters Club books. I remember Waldenbooks having a dark, purplish color scheme, which contrasted with the other vehicle for feeding book starved children, B. Dalton.
Dalton didn’t do much for me when I was young. It always felt more sterile than Waldenbooks, which I associated with adulthood. I did start to frequent it more often later in high school when I began buying magazines to make me seem more sophisticated. In the mind of a sixteen-year-old, reading GQ and Film Comment practically made me a college TA.
Waldenbooks was a subsidiary of Borders, and many of the stores were rebranded as Borders Express in 2004, and the chain folded entirely in 2011 when Borders went under. B. Dalton fell under the Barnes and Noble umbrella. All locations closed by January 2010 except for one in Washington DC and one on Long Island. Both shuttered a few years later I am lucky enough to now live in a city that still has many independent bookstores, but for people who do not have that luxury, it’s a shame that Wal-Mart and Amazon are basically the only games in town.
The Holy Spirit completing my books, movies trinity was music, and in the 1990s we were blessed with an abundance of spirit. My childhood mall (shout out to Midway in Elyria. You’ve seen better days but you’re hanging on, kid) had two music stores, plus a third plopped down into the center of a nearby parking lot. That musical island, appropriately named Coconuts, later became a Pier One Imports, then more recently in a fit of kismet again became a music store, selling used CDs, DVDs, and games.
Did that last?
It’s a rotting husk, just like most of the retail that exists outside of Amazon.
Before I get into the virtues of each location, I just want to take a moment to quickly assure readers who grew up with normal chains like FYE and Tower Records that I’m not talking about Sam Goody and two stores that I made up. Camelot existed! I bought a Sir-Mix-A-Lot cassingle there! Okay, on to the meat of this.
Coconuts involved leaving the confines of the mall, so it was clearly a last resort. My first choice was always Camelot. In addition to projecting an air of coolness, Camelot had the distinct advantage of being at the cool end of the mall, next to Kaufmann’s the more upscale anchor store, by the arcade that my mom made me avoid because Bad Kids, close to the food court, and DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM SUNCOAST. Okay, that last one may have held more sway over me than most, but the spot was tight, whereas Sam Goody was stranded at the end of a side corridor vaguely near JC Penny, and Coconuts may as well have been on the Moon, or in Pittsburgh.
A little background on Camelot for those among the cohort who still aren’t convinced that I didn’t just invent music chains out of whole cloth by flipping through c-words in the dictionary. Camelot sprung into existence in the bustling metropolis of Massillon, Ohio (go Tigers!) and expanded throughout the Midwest under the name Camelot, and the East/Southeast as The Wall. The company kept plugging along, proving me and others with our fix of $19 Nirvana CDs, until 1998, when it was purchased and converted into FYEs.
Apart from location, I mostly loved Camelot for the reasons I was into Suncoast; it looked cool in there. It had low lighting, with a lot of grays and purples. In comparison, Sam Goody was so white and pick that it looked like somebody had vomited Miami Vice Easter everywhere. Camelot was where I picked up many of the tapes and CDs that defined the beginning of my musical vocabulary- Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and the like, and continued to fill the slots until Best Buy came along and revealed that a CD could be sold for less than $16. I may have believed I had integrity when it came to my musical choices, but when it came to stretching teenage dollars, it was bring on the big box store.
If Camelot was the popular cheerleader who you really wanted to ask to the prom but knew she’d inevitably say no, Sam Goody was the reliable friend you ultimately went with, who weirdly cost just as much as the cheerleader? That broke down a little at the end. The point is, Sam Goody was fine. Given the much more recognizable name you’d think that Sam Goody would have been the star here, but as noted previously the poor location hurt them immensely. Sam Goody was where I went when Camelot had a run on Weezer but nobody had bothered to traverse the mall yet to grab the last blue album. After a few years even bridesmaid duty was ripped from them, because when Best Buy opened it happened to do so immediately outside the entrance of the mall where Sam Goody was located. In the end it didn’t matter, because Best Buy bought Sam Goody in 2000. It changed hands again in 2003 and 2006, ultimately becoming FYE before shuttering for good in 2008.
At last we come to Coconuts, an afterthought in life as in this portion of the essay. Coconuts was fine. There isn’t too much else to say about it; the space was so blandly inoffensive it transitioned perfectly into a Pier One when Coconuts went under. Coconuts was probably my mother’s favorite spot for browsing music, because it’s location outside of the mall proper meant she could do so without having to jostle for space with the youths, and as a result my recollection of their inventory is primarily Richard Marx and Mike and the Mechanics albums. I’m sure it was broader and more eclectic than that, but in my mind every section was adult contemporary and the alphabetical organization of the racks went from M to M. And everything still cost $19. Coconuts disappeared as well, of course, becoming, can you believe it(!) FYE. I’m not sure if FYE is the hero in this story, keeping three somewhat to very beloved chains alive under new branding, or the villain for eroding the character of the mall through ubiquity. Like most things in life, it’s a real “Line from the Dark Knight” scenario.
Toys R Us
If Chekhov taught me anything, it’s that if you mention Toys R Us at the top, it better reappear at the end. If you were born in the last 40 years there is a very good chance that you have at least some memories associated with Toys R Us. As a child (outside of the Sears Christmas catalog) Toys R Us was the conduit between cool new toys and me. It was the ice cream sundae at the end of a meal consisting of school clothes at Sears and the juniors section at JCPenney. Toys R Us was just as much about potential as it was the toys you actually got. I may head home with a Dick Tracy action figure, but while I was there I got to check out the GI Joe USS Flagg aircraft carrier and Optimus Prime.
Toys R Us didn’t just appeal to me as a youngster. If was a spot we often hit late in high school, when we zeroed in on the video games and Star Wars figures. Countless Friday nights were spent digging through the bins looking for the Emperor’s Royal Guard and coming up with nothing but Nien Nunbs. When we did hit the jackpot we hid what we weren’t going to buy at the moment, of course.
Now Toys R Us is gone, and today’s young kids won’t get to experience the excitement of running down aisles surrounded by every toy you could possibly want. More than most places, Toys R Us stood for the proposition that it wasn’t always about what you purchased, the experience itself was most of the fun.
That’s going to wrap things up, as 1000 voices scream out, “what about Claire’s?!” These are stores that were important to me. Claire’s was the place where in my mind precious minutes that could have been spent checking out Simpsons merch at Suncoast were being wasted while my sisters looked at earrings. Other stores that bear mentioning include Chess King/Merry-Go-Round and IOU sweatshirts, Hot Sam Pretzels, KB Toys, Gadzooks, and Babbages.