When the Riverchase Galleria opened in February 1986, I had barely been aware it was coming. At the time, the best thing going for malls in Birmingham was Century Plaza, a mid-70s two-level brick Brutalist monster with four anchor stores, a flat exhibition deck in the middle of the second story (suitable for setting up Santa Claus in December and not much else), a scattering of eateries (including the much-missed Hot Sam pretzels) and a general feel that you could just as easily be underground. And the anchors – Sears, JC Penney, Pizitz and Rich’s – were pretty much set in stone, in ascending order of posh and respectable.
And then the Galleria opened.
The first hint that things were different came as soon as you walked into Parisian, the major Birmingham department store not represented at Century. It was huge, airy, with a mezzanine level floating between its two stories, and in 1986 fashion, that level was loaded with nothing but Swatch watches and Coca-Cola rugby shirts. All by itself, that would have been a revolution in local retail.
But then, you walked out into the mall itself…and it was open and airy itself, with a huge glass atrium (with neon accents!) running the entire length of the mall proper. It couldn’t have felt more radically different. The mall had everything I needed at the time – two record stores, two bookstores – but it also had an actual candy store, something unheard of in malls around our area. It had a store selling nothing but video games (Electronics Boutique), it had a music box store (seriously), and in a stunning turn of events, it had a whole lot of places to eat right next to each other, with a common dining space around a huge fountain spraying three stories high into an atrium between the office tower and the hotel (yes, a hotel in a mall).
The first food court in town wasn’t the half of the amazements, though. There were glass elevators going to the third-level observation deck (itself mainly just an extension of the office building lobby). There was a store called Banana Republic that appeared to be some kind of safari outfitter, complete with a jeep halfway through the front glass surrounded by jungle foliage. And Rich’s, the biggest anchor store, was itself three stories, and the top story even had a tiny grocery section. You could presumably have a room in the hotel and come over to get Pop Tarts. And to cap it all off, there was space for another anchor store, one coming in 1987: Macy’s. Macy’s. The icon of New York City opening a store in Alabama.
Two or three years earlier, the notion had come to me in a dream that the mall would be a perfect place to hang out and walk around and spend time as a teenager – that’s how culturally benighted we were; I didn’t get it from movies or TV, it came to me in a freakin’ dream – so to have this amazing modern super-80s temple of American commerce dropped on me at age 14 was absolutely perfect. The obvious problem, of course, was that it was on the wrong side of town and I didn’t have a driver’s license. But any time I could get over there, I went like a shot – after a life spent largely on the rural side of town, this was my first routinely accessible exposure to a bigger, brighter, more exciting world. One that would lead to a couple of major changes within a year…but that’s another story.