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News / Life / Entertainment

Scenes from a ‘dead mall,’ alive with nostalgia

By Christopher Spata, Tampa Bay Times
Published: January 30, 2023, 6:00am
5 Photos
Shoppers roam University Mall in Tampa on Dec. 21, 2022.
Shoppers roam University Mall in Tampa on Dec. 21, 2022. (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

TAMPA, Fla. — Like an archeologist identifying traces of the past, Tyler Gantert strolled the tiled corridors of University Mall in Tampa, filming as he passed dormant storefronts with rolled-down cages and dusty potted plants.

“This mall is a perfect example of what I’m looking for,” the 18-year-old retail history fanatic said, pointing out the blocky columns at Chic, which gave the store away as a former Gymboree, and noting the floor tiles spelling Gadzooks, the long-defunct teen chain.

It was four days before Christmas. The holiday village stood roped off, but the mall no longer employed a Santa Claus. Soon, Gantert would upload his visit for a corner of the internet spellbound by an uncanny phenomenon of the modern era: the so-called dead mall.

To be clear, University Mall is alive. More than 80 tenants still operate here near the University of South Florida. But in the world of online mall fandom — documenting everything from malls’ sparkling heyday to trespassing excursions in abandoned malls — the term “dead mall” simply means a once-great destination in decline. Think few customers, dwindling occupancy and signs of decay, like stained carpets under the benches near a hollowed-out anchor store. University Mall fits the bill.

Gantert took in the smell of escalator grease, the glow from crusted skylights, the sizzle at Combo Wok. He slowed in the food court to accept a glistening hunk of bourbon chicken on a toothpick.

New York-based RD Management started buying the place in parcels nine years back, pledging renewal — apartments, research facilities, clinics, offices, entertainment and walkability — in other words, new life.

Progress continues, but transformation takes years. In the meantime, the core of University Mall limps on.

“My mother named me Alexander Garris, but everyone in this mall knows me as Brother Blessed.”

With his red hat, silk tie, wraparound sunglasses and perm, Garris, 60, would stand out, even if he weren’t projecting his voice with preacherly authority in a corridor of vacant kiosks. “Check this out,” he said. He presented a copy of a paperback titled “Pleasure 2″ to a man seated on a nearby bench. His photo appeared on the back cover.

“You look like Michael Jackson,” said Curtis Linville, 72.

Garris had come for “a book signing” at a barbershop. (The barbers later explained it was not a scheduled event.) Garris became a mall regular 10 years ago, but back then it was to steal. “I was robbing this place blind because I had a needle in my arm. I went to prison five times, but I found god, went from the ‘gutter-most’ to the uttermost.”

Linville, who had been a mallgoer since its debut in 1974, remembered it as the nicest of its kind in Tampa. Since retiring, he’d come daily to get coffee and browse the internet. “Every now and then I do meet someone interesting, like this guy,” he said, nodding toward Garris.

“Let me show you the trailer for my documentary on my life,” Garris said, urging Linville to open YouTube.

The men still visit the mall just to hang out. But what about teenagers, once synonymous with aimless mall roaming.

“Yeah, some still get dropped off, but not that many,” said a Spencer’s employee with appropriately pink hair after retrieving a nose ring from a case. She and two other Spencer’s employees declined to give names, unsure if they were allowed. They enjoyed working at the mall, partly because it was slow. They did not worry about Spencer’s closing, because the company owns Spirit Halloween.

If you haven’t been to the mall in a while, it’s striking how it not only triggers nostalgia, but trades in it. T-shirts on wall displays feature Nirvana and Snoop Dogg and Bob Ross, like it seems they always have. A photo booth sits ready to spit strips of portraits. The Look dine-in movie theater was preparing to show 1984′s “Gremlins” that night.

“Everything in this mall is really old, like a time capsule,” the Spencer’s employee said. She described people visiting Hot Topic just to photograph the “goth gates,” devilish metal barriers at the entrance with spider-web designs. “That’s the last Hot Topic in the country with the old goth gates.”

Hot Topic manager Micah Castro, over the screamy sounds of Children of Bodom’s “Are You Dead Yet,” said he believes that is true. He said anime merch keeps his location going. Then he answered the landline phone, and explained that yes, they were open, and yes, still in the mall, which is also still open.

“I get calls like that at least once a day,” he said. “People literally think this mall is decommissioned.”

There were no big holiday crowds, but the mall still attracted entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on a bit of foot traffic, from the men in the parking lot “offering a free tablet computer” to the guy hawking $1 bottled water from a cooler.

Inside, at the Coffee House, a couple of customers appeared to wonder if anyone would ever take their orders.

One of the owners was preoccupied, surrounded by shelves of 4Life supplements in a back corner, intently telling a visitor how their transfer factor mushroom properties educate the immune system. Aida Calle saw the line, but made a calculation: Coffee alone doesn’t pay the bills anymore.

The Coffee House wasn’t the only business pursuing alternative streams of revenue. Calle’s husband and co-owner, Noe Calle, later pointed out that Shoe Doctors shoe repair had begun selling Italian ices and bags of Takis.

“You have to find a way,” said Noe Calle, who opened the coffee shop more than a decade ago. He was a chemical engineer, doing quality control for Pepsi, but wanted something of his own. The money was good. He had employees. Now it’s pretty much him and Aida and the hopes of landing a few multi-level marketing affiliates to sell supplements. “We have days when we’re working for free.”

Garrett Johnson, 40, was on his lunch break buying a gift from Bath & Body Works, where five customers perused champagne toast-scented body creams, making it the mall’s hotspot. “There’s a little bit of nostalgia to it because this is the first mall I came to in Tampa,” he said. “It’s pretty rough, but truthfully, I come because a lot of things in this mall are really cheap.”

The tenant mix is typical, according to Jessica Anshutz, who has photographed around 70 malls in decline since 2016. “I can go to any state where the mall is dying and they’ll still have a Bath & Body Works,” she said. “Where would they go without malls?”

Local businesses hold on where chain stores have gone dark. In recent years, departures include GameStop, Kay, Piercing Pagoda and Victoria’s Secret. Longer gone are PacSun, American Eagle and Old Navy.

At WellBuilt Bikes, a nonprofit shop providing free bicycles to volunteers in need, manager Vicki Lougheed wondered if they would be able to serve the community without the mall’s inexpensive lease.

Sneaker stores remain plentiful — University is sometimes called the “shoe mall” — and there are nine independent jewelry shops with abundant gold chains. At Dante menswear, the owner sat surrounded by racks of flamboyantly patterned silk shirts and dinner jackets covered in gold filigree, staring into the corridor. No customers yet that day, he said, “but we have our regulars.”

Elsewhere was evidence of the move toward non-retail tenants: a church, a coworking space run by a Christian non-profit, the high-tech Vu production studio where commercials are filmed and AMRoC, a non-profit community robotics lab.

The USF Institute of Applied Technology, a military defense contractor that sent satellites into space in 2022, opened upstairs two years ago. Yards away, a man dozed in a chair at the food court with a blanket, clothes and toiletries in bags surrounding him. The sound of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” played from a tinny speaker somewhere.

There is no imminent danger of the American shopping mall going extinct, but it’s certainly endangered, down from 2,500 at peak mall to around 600 today, according to Nick Egelanian, president of retail consultancy SiteWorks. He believes maybe 150 will survive the next decade.

Some see closures as a corrective to American over-malling, spurred not so much by consumerism as by changes in tax law that made malls a low-risk cash bonanza for builders via depreciation write-offs.

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Vacancies at malls more than doubled over the past five years, according to real estate firm JLL. But some are doing fine, especially those in the vein of Tampa’s luxury-studded International Plaza.

A mall’s decline starts when an anchor store leaves, like the JCPenney that departed University Mall for Shops at Wiregrass in 2005. Down went Dillard’s (2008), Macy’s (2017), Sears (2018), Dillard’s Clearance Center (summer 2022) and Grand’s (fall 2022), though signs announced Family Discount Furniture would replace it. The lone anchor for the past Christmas season was Burlington.

“Online shopping took a big bite but not as significant as people think,” said Alexandra Lange, author of “Meet Me By the Fountain,” delving into the history and possible future of malls.

She spoke of “cannibalization,” wherein newer malls stole tenants, but also rising income inequality. “Basically, rich shoppers kept going to Saks and Neiman Marcus, but middle-class shoppers turned to Walmart and Target. Mid-range department stores like Sears were doomed. … You remove those anchors and it creates a kind of pall over the mall.”

“I love the dead mall aesthetic,” said Tyler Gantert, the student capturing video for YouTube. He visited 18 malls across Florida during his winter break and preferred those feeling the most “dead.” His favorite was Orlando’s Fashion Square: “It almost feels like an apocalypse.” Which is to say it stirs something in him, even if he isn’t old enough to remember peak mall culture.

Malls ushered generations into adulthood, an enclosed space to test freedom (with security guards around), to see and be seen by peers from your whole town and maybe enter the workforce. “I feel like the mall was the internet in physical form before there was internet,” a commenter posted beneath a photo of criss-crossing escalators on Reddit’s very active r/deadmalls page.

Similar comments crop up on YouTube videos in the genre of mallwave, electronic music produced to evoke mall vibes. It’s loosely related to another genre, popular songs edited to sound like they’re reverberating through an abandoned mall. Understanding why these sounds are moving to Gen Xers and Millennials who grew up at the mall seems straightforward.

Dead malls wouldn’t stir so much emotion if they hadn’t once felt so alive. They still shine in thoughts from our teen years, when brain chemistry ramped up every emotion and seared mundane, mall-rat days into lifelong memories.

“What’s interesting is the kids making mallwave aren’t that old,” said Lange, author of “Meet Me By the Fountain.” “I think they’re in some way creating a soundtrack for the lives they didn’t get to have. They see the media from the ‘80s and ‘90s and they think, ‘I wish I’d been around for that. I wish I had a food court to go to, instead of just gaming online with my friends.’”

Some are still forming organic connections to the mall, though. At University Mall, 5-year-old Alex grinned as he steered a spaceship-shaped car through a concourse. Alex’s mother, Darnisha Straughter, had driven to University Mall so her older sons could visit a particular hat store — her first visit in years.

“Whoa, whoa,” said the man renting the little cars when Alex nearly ran him over.

University Mall has an ugly reputation. The people who go there know it. Shop owners know it. The mall’s landlords are well aware. The perception seems to grow in locals’ imaginations.

Some business owners sound pessimistic. One asked not to be named because “I have enough problems already here,” but complained about the mall’s lack of a Santa and slow-moving changes. He recounted being at work while robbers took hammers to the cases at a nearby jewelry store. He’s looking for a way to retire.

Others imagine the additions, like a 200-room Marriott, boosting business for everyone. Erol Gumusel owns an expansive hobby shop filled with remote control cars and model rockets — 34,000 items. It’s attached to another modern rarity, his brick-and-mortar toy store. He keeps the hobby shop roped off for security but said the mall is generally mellow. He’s only ever had one shoplifter.

“People like to make fun of this mall, but it’s fine and it’s on the right track.” Yes, it was a little slow for Christmas time, he said, but, “I think these new owners know how to get things done.”

Could the mall’s new era save the Calles’ coffee shop?

“I just don’t know if it’s too late,” said Noe Calle.

He wants the owners to bring in more events, like the Roboticon robot battle the mall hosted in October. Everyone at the mall brings up that October day, when a bot named Dropsaw emerged a champion by dropping a power saw on opponents.

There were crowds — actual crowds. Calle’s business tripled. He gets a wistful look as he describes it.

“It was almost like going back in time,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

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