The Carolina Circle Shopping Center opened in 1976. Situated in the northeastern section of Greensboro, North Carolina, it survived in one form or another until 2002. For the year and a bit that I lived in Greensboro from 1985 through summer of 1986 it was the mall I most frequented.
It had a bitchin’ arcade called Tilt…
It had a great first-run movie theater…
It even had an indoor skating rink (the only one to be found in Greensboro at the time).
Later replaced by a Carousel…
It had book stores and record stores and toy stores and others not as appealing to a twelve going-on thirteen year-old. There was a Toys R Us and a K-Mart “out-parcel”, meaning outside the mall structure but close enough to jog across the parking lot to visit. There was even a restaurant and bar called Annabelle’s to draw in the adults. That’s right; adults used to go to the mall to meet up, have dinner and a few drinks, and then go see Schwarzenegger in Commando.
It was a shopping mall; this much is clear and this much is true. But it was also a gathering place with a strong sense of community. There were concerts. There were magic shows. Santa’s Village was there for the holidays, Halloween décor ruled the roost in October, the Easter Bunny made his customary appearance as well.
There was shopping, yes, but you could easily spend several hours there without the expectation of shopping for anything other than a slice of pizza, a New York Seltzer, a few rounds of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom game at the arcade, and a screening of Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, and Robert Downey, Jr.
You could do all of the above on less than $20 dollars, I might add, and still have money left over to drop on a new G.I. Joe figure or two…
The most memorable visits to the Circle would have been that summer of 1986 when my buddy Mark visited from Toronto for two weeks. I’m certain we went several times as he was blown away by how cool the malls in North Carolina were. And while I hated the year I lived in Greensboro I will still admit that in the summer, the off-school weekends, it wasn’t so bad. My mother would drive us over, I’d arrange to call when we were ready for pick-up, and we’d just go off and explore the place. Unaccompanied, unencumbered by deadlines and time limits. When we’d exhausted all the mall had to offer I’d use my last remaining quarter to call home and fifteen minutes later (we lived close by) the family Pontiac 6000 STE would roll into the lot and we’d head home.
It was a ritual Mark and I knew well. Back when I still lived in Toronto it wasn’t uncommon for my mother or Mark’s to drive us and another friend or two over to the Scarborough Town Center or Fairview Mall to do pretty much the same thing. Get food, see a movie, hit the toy and music stores (Scarborough Town Center also had a bitchin’ hobby store – The Hobby Hut – which was always well-stocked and always overpriced) and if there was an arcade, play video games. We’d spend hours there, and the malls encouraged us to. Not by saying “hey, it’s okay to hang out here and have fun without shopping for something” but not not saying it either.
When I moved to Brockville and eventually got my license, my friends and I made Kingston’s Cataraqui Town Center our preferred mall for movie-going and general goofing off. It was a 45 or so minute drive down the highway and whenever a new movie was playing there that wasn’t at our local cinema, we’d convoyed down the 401, grab tickets for the show a couple hours early then just wander the concourse, grab dinner at the food court, and browse the shops before convening at the theatre to see Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Point Break, or Predator 2.
Ottawa had (and still has) its downtown Rideau Center, and on school trips to the museums, Parliament Hill, or the National Arts Centre, between arrival and whatever we were there for, we’d be allowed a couple of hours of free time at the Rideau to do whatever we wanted.
Then came Toronto and Film School. The Ryerson Campus was and to this day lies just north and east of the Yonge-Dundas intersection; Toronto’s version of Times Square. The Eaton Centre sits at that intersection and in that first year living in Toronto at the Ryerson residence, meant one of Canada’s largest shopping centers was a short walk away. And again, that ritual of browsing the shops, wandering the concourse, grabbing a bit in one of the food courts, then heading to the Eaton Center’s 18 (!) screen multiplex to take in a show, became one of those regular rituals for my film school buddies and I.
The 2000s were not good times to be a mall. Towns and mid-size cities, seeing how the big suburban malls had decimated their downtowns, incentivized retailers with tax breaks to draw people back to the town square, where that social life of a city first began. The death of the mall was hastened with the rise of online shopping; Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target, and those big retail supercenters resting near highways replaced the experience of going to the mall. These were not an improvement.
In the Carolina Circle case it was a combination of many factors. The mall began to attract an unsavory element; gangs would brawl in the parking lot and sometimes in the shopping center itself, and the Montgomery Ward store became an infamous hangout, apparently, for gay men hoping to engage in some illicit behavior. Families stopped going as a result, and parents wouldn’t allow their teenage kids to venture there unaccompanied. The movie theater closed, the arcade followed, many of the big retailers left. Bye-bye Waldenbooks and Camelot Music. Bye-bye Montgomery Ward and Toys R’Us, bye-bye Belk and Ivy’s and Dillard’s. The big death knell sounded when Radio Shack – “The Shack” being the one retail outlet that never seemed to die – left; if a mall couldn’t sustain a Radio Shack you knew its days were done.
The Carolina Circle officially died in the early 2000s, closing in 2002 and demolished in 2005. The site is still there though; redeveloped into one of those complexes of box stores like Wal-Mart and Lowe’s
Thinking of the many shopping malls of my youth, the Carolina Circle stands out because it seemed to be a mall built for people to gather as much as it was a place to shop. It had the arcade, the rink, the theater, and the book, record, and toy stores. It had places to draw people in not necessarily to buy things but to just be there. It was a place to go where it was impossible to be bored. There was always something to do.
The Fairview Mall and Scarborough Town Center still stand but they’ve been heavily redesigned as well. Fewer record and book and toy stores. Smaller food courts. Nothing so grand as skating rinks and carousels and arcades. These “New Malls” don’t want people to just hang out; they want them to spend money, see to their business efficiently, and go home. Movie theaters were closed or moved to larger state-of-the-art facilities across expansive parking lots. You didn’t even need to go to the mall if you were going to the movies. As a result you didn’t spend your money in those malls either, hastening the departure of the cool, quirky, funky stores that existed solely to draw you in the first place like The It Store, SpyTech and Razz M’Tazz.
It was a different era, both for the stores and shopping opportunities available, but also for all the stuff we could do. If you had nothing going on, you could go to the mall and usually find something; a new book, a new cassette or CD, grab a burger or slice, and see a movie. When we got older and discovered girls the mall became the place we hung out to watch and be watched in return. Rain or shine the mall offered an escape from home and family, especially when your relationship with both was going through a rough patch. It was a meeting place; even the small Thousands Island Mall in Brockville’s north end was a place you could just wander through and be guaranteed to see someone you knew from school, either working there or like you just wandering.
In this 2023 world of ours there’s a great deal of nostalgic longing for the mall experience especially from the generation born after their heyday. At the height of their popularity in the 80s and 90s though many wondered what the appeal of the mall was. Why wander through a sterile shopping environment of chain stores and restaurants? How was a mall better than shopping on your main street, with its shuttered shops, drunks and homeless, and beat cops telling you and your friends to “move along” while stern faced civic leaders and shop-keepers glared down their noses at you? Why?
Because they were fun. George A. Romero’s all-time classic Dawn of the Dead and its thematic derision towards consumer culture gave us the Monroeville Mall post-zombie apocalypse but even then Monroeville looked like a fun place pre-zombie; skating rink, cool elevators, wide expansive spaces big enough for a fleet of motorcycles to drive through. Grocery stores, arcades, fine dining spaces. We could spend the day at Monroeville, Carolina Circle, Cataraqui, and Fairview without buying a thing. We could go grab movie tickets, and have time to kill before showtime, and just wander around. Or after the movie we’d stay, grab dinner at Lime Rickey’s or Shopsy’s and just chillax.
Today’s malls feel different. There are a couple of big ones not too far from where I live. One is kind of fun; it has a couple toy and collectible stores, it has a Lego store, it has a decent food court and it has a Dave & Buster’s. No bookstore though; which is a big detriment as far as I’m concerned. Yes I judge a mall on the basis of a bookstore being present or not.
The one closer to me is the one I call the rich person mall. It’s one I rarely go to because it’s geared solely to the commerce, not the social. There’s no food court, there’s no theater, no books or toys and games; there’s no gathering place and as a result it’s kind of sterile. I rarely visit it unless there’s a specific reason. Maybe that’s by design; the rich like having their little enclaves the rest of the population steers away from, but you’d think a shopping mall would want people to shop there.
Malls are not what they used to be. They are now purely transactional spaces; places of commerce, full stop. You go, you shop, you get out. No loitering, no goofing off with friends. Where are your parents? Don’t make me call security. You aren’t a person in need of distraction, or entertainment, or even community; you are a carbon-based lifeform whose duty is to consume and if you’re not there to do that then you should be someplace else.
Some say good; that malls were bad and we should feel bad for liking them. Better they die out entirely and encourage people to shop closer to home, on Main Street, supporting those local businesses. But even doing so is a strictly commercial activity. You can’t sit on a bench outside for too long or people will think you’re up to something. There may be open air spaces with chairs and tables. The chairs are chained down; the tables and seating have a thirty minute limit. Spent long enough in one place someone will come up to you to beg for change, ask if you’ve accepted Jesus as your lord and savior, or suggest you move on. There are no more arcades because they always did attract an “unsavory element” and besides you have a phone; go play games on that, preferably at home but if not could you turn the noise down because those bleeps and beeps are bothering me.
There’s been a great deal of talk these days about the decline in what has been called the “Third Space”. The social clubs, the bowling alleys, the organizations that people used to go to be with other people, all in decline, and the ones that aren’t charge a premium for use. Malls used to be a Third Space but not anymore. We could spend the day just hanging out, going to the movies, playing video games, seeing friends. But nowadays with more of our socializing done online we’ve been breeding a generation that doesn’t know how to socialize in the real world, and the older generation too has lost that sense of community.
Know what you do see when you go to many malls now? Elderly people. The ones born in the 1930s,1940s, and now early 1950s. The ones who shopped at those malls when they were in their prime; parents with young children in tow. When the malls were a place you could go to meet up with a friend, to shop, have lunch, stroll and browse and just be someplace. As the mall became less central to commerce and the day-to-day the elderly seem to be the ones who still see it as a gathering place, to sit amongst hopefully happy memories and wonder where the time all went. The elderly who still congregate at the mall food court and seating do so because they too have nowhere else to go.
Young people are even turning away from getting that rite of passage known as the Driver’s License. Good in a way, but also a little sad; pollution aside a car represented freedom when I was seventeen. It granted me an independence and my parents allowed me that freedom in part because through those earlier years of being dropped off at the mall or the movies, I always made sure to call when done, or just as often be outside the entrance to The Bay or Towers or Zellers at five sharp for pickup or else. Driving to Kingston with friends to see a movie didn’t require me to “check in” by phone; just that I be home no later than 11:30 or else. My parents even let me drive to Toronto to the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991, without my having any idea where I’d be staying that night, or any ballpark of when I’d be back the following day.
Irresponsible? Maybe, but freedoms such as these did prepare me for college life, more so than a lot of high school classes and prep work did. They encouraged me to be responsible, to be safe, to know how to manage my time even when it was the leisurely sort. But who cares about drivers licenses and access to a car now when you can either Uber or Lyft to a friend’s or have mom or dad drive? But what is more heartbreaking is what they’ll tell you when you ask them why. Why not get a license? Why not choose that freedom?
“Where can we go?” they reply. “There’s nothing at the mall for us to do except spend money we don’t have. There’s no clubs, no arcades; no places to hang out. If we do go, security tells us to move along. We’re treated as a nuisance, as a distraction, as possible thieves. We can watch movies online; we can connect with friends by phone or text. We don’t need to leave home to do any of that.”
And what do we adults say?
“Kids today spend all their time on their phones! They don’t go anywhere or do anything! When I was a kid I’d be out until the street lights were on. We’d go to the movies, to the mall, we’d cruise the street, we’d hang out. What’s wrong with kids these days?”
Yes, these are the same adults who’ll see a group of teenagers hanging out in public and presume they’re up to no good. Out come the phones, in come the cops.
The loss of the Third Place has been documented extensively, most notably so for me in Kristen Radtke’s excellent graphic novel Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. In her book, Radtke identifies loneliness as the challenge of our time because we are social animals; even the introverts. We all seek some form of connection; some one-on-one communication. And year-by-year we lose a bit more of that skill by using it less.
Yes, there is social media. there’s Facebook and Instagram and Twitter (or whatever they’re calling it this week). But I am not being the biggest fan of handing our daily interactions over to tech companies who exploit that loneliness purely so that can make money off of you. Social media is all about a binary yes or no interaction; and one where the negative far outweighs the positive, exposure-wise.
And that negativity permeates the day-to-day. Think of all those distracted drivers sitting at the light before you, head down, scrolling through the phone in their hands as the light turns green and people start getting impatient. Think of the teenagers gathered around the school entrance, huddled with their heads down, hooked on their phones the way their parents were hooked on cigarettes, trading one addiction for another. Think of every short-tempered, rude person you had the misfortune to deal with because thanks to their online push-button world any irritant or delay sparks rage and not patience and understanding.
I’ve long been fond of saying the brain is like any other muscle; if you don’t flex it now and then it will atrophy. That’s why we challenge ourselves with books, with learning, and, yes, in dealing with other people. Loneliness has an effect on our lives and life expectancy. People can die of loneliness. Loneliness takes a lot out of you and it’s dispiriting to find yourself in a world that seems determined to keep us isolated and lonely all so it can sell us things we don’t need but still buy if only to give our brains that little endorphin hit to keep us going.
I also worry about the people who allow themselves to be poisoned by an increasingly negative online discourse that keeps us isolated and angry by design. Therein lies a cautionary tale for us all because every moment we surrender to anger is one we never get to surrender to joy. What I see are people doing way more of the former than they do with the latter. Anger is addictive. Outrage too. And companies are making money off that anger.
The mall isn’t coming back; not the way they existed in the 70s through the 90s. It’s one of those passing eras that we kind of took for granted, like the video store and the arcade. Those places that were here one moment, and gone the next and over before we realized. The death of the Third Place continues to have lasting impact on us because we need physical spaces for commerce-free interactions.
It’s why I’ve long been a supporter of public libraries. To my mind public libraries are the best thing our society, flawed as it is, has given us. A place we can go without requirement of a door fee or expectation we’re going to spend money. A place we can take our children to story-time, where we can borrow armloads of books, where we can attend lectures and performances and seminars. Where we can just … talk to people, but quietly, please; the librarian told us to. Rain or shine, having a library may not be as exciting as the mall once was (and, frankly, might be again as more people realize the necessity of that Third Space), but it is a place where you can go and be seen and maybe feel a little less lonely.
And so let’s all pour one out for the great shopping malls of our youth, and for me in particular that long-gone Carolina Circle Mall, which for a time provided a refuge for a sad, lonely child not getting along very well with Greensboro. At that mall I felt a little happier, a little more comfortable. There were things to do, movies to see, games to play. It only exists now in my memories and the occasional dream where I’m walking the concourse, feeling that chill as the air temperature drop as I near the skating rink and the arcade just beyond it. I can hear the bleep of video games, I can smell buttered popcorn from the movie theater, and I can sometimes taste the Black Cherry New York Seltzer on my tongue.
But it’s a place I can only visit in dreams and that’s sad. We spend so much of our childhoods trying to run away from home and so much of our adult lives trying to run back but like so many things, once a place, a time, or a moment are gone they don’t return quite so easily …