Twenty years on

So I was in the old country over the long weekend (well, long for me, and it sure as hell felt long after my flight – but that’s another story). I was walking around what, at the time, was the mall of malls, the Death Star of competitive commerce, the Riverchase Galleria. In 1989, it was the undisputed champion: every major regional department store, plus Macy’s (Macy’s! In Alabama!) and all sorts of intriguing stores for a high-school kid to lose himself in. In a world with no pubs, no clubs, no apartments and no girlfriend, this is where the action was.

Two decades later, the Macy’s is completely empty. Another store has become Macy’s through buyout – in fact, buyouts mean that there are three anchors stores worth of Belk’s while names like Rich’s, Pizits/McRaes, Yielding’s, Parisian – PARISIAN, for Godsakes, the place where a cute salesgirl first demonstrated that even the surliest of nerds can be conned into splashing out on fashion-forward apparel with enough eyelash flutters – are all long gone. There are a ridiculous number of empty storefronts, and almost as many filled by some local hole-in-the-wall store or fly-by-night modeling agency rather than a national retail chain. No record stores. No bookstores – well, no general-interest bookstores, and only one or two of the religious variety. No candy store, no toy store, and even the food court has empty berths where the Taco Bell used to be.

Part of it is because of the Summit, certainly. Up I-459 at the US 280 intersection lies an outdoor shopping center that has all the most yuppie-tastic stuff, the place where I would probably be doing my shopping had I remained in the old country. Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Cheesecake Factory, Saks, an Apple Store – everything you need for the frustrated mid-level HR drone with his ex-sorority wife living out his days in quiet desperation and wishing like hell he’d taken a chance on a life outside the South when it was offered. Now, why in the hell you would set up an outdoor shopping mecca in a place with 100-degree heat, 90% humidity, air quality in the unhealthy range all summer, regular afternoon thunderstorms from May to September, and REGULAR TORNADO SIGHTINGS? I’m sure that some donk looked at the Grove, or Santana Row, and said “we can do that!” without thinking about the difference between California and Alabama.

But a sagging economy is not going to be good to a mall on the downside. Nordstrom has cancelled their Alabama expansion, which would have put a store in the Galleria in 2012 and given them a huge boost. Century Plaza, on the east side of town, is circling the drain. Eastwood Mall, one of the first enclosed malls in the country, is bulldozed to make way for – of course – a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Only the tiny Brookwood Village, now Colonial Brookwood Village, hangs on – and it’s been completely remodeled to take on some “lifestyle center” aspects and has the fortune to sit next to the most affluent zip code in the state.

Recessions hit Alabama earlier, harder, and for longer than most places. And their main effect is to weed out the middle. The “beautiful ones” hang on just fine, drive their Lexus SUVs with Birmingham-Southern College stickers to Whole Foods, and everyone else shuffles down to Wal-Mart. Meantime, the place where everyone used to go sits there on the slippery slope, because there’s not that much in the middle anymore.

However, it is oddly comforting to know that Bama Fever is still selling a crimson silk robe with houndstooth lining and a big script A on the front. Horrifying, but comforting.

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