Big Time Mallin'

Living, loving and loathing in the mini-cities of the Valley's malls

There's light pop music piped in through the ceiling speakers at Paradise Valley Mall, but Donny Lang never really hears it.

"This particular mall has no music -- or it's so quiet and the ceiling's so high that I can never hear it," says Lang, 25, a part-time musician and full-time retail clerk.

"All I ever hear is the weird sound of the mall itself. All the strange little clicks, clacks and industrial sounds, mixed in with echoed voices. It's like the soundtrack to a David Lynch movie. The background music in Eraserhead sounds kind of like what we hear every day in the mall."

Life or something like it: Eventually, everybody hits the mall.
Paul Wilson
Life or something like it: Eventually, everybody hits the mall.
Jesse Williamson at Desert Ridge: "Every Friday, it kind of sucks you back in."
photos by Jackie Mercandetti
Jesse Williamson at Desert Ridge: "Every Friday, it kind of sucks you back in."
Paradise Valley Mall's Jason Kron, at your service: "You can literally feel your IQ dropping around here."
photos by Jackie Mercandetti
Paradise Valley Mall's Jason Kron, at your service: "You can literally feel your IQ dropping around here."
Zales saleswoman Shy Khan helps out at Serkan Akgun's Krazy Krabs booth at Metrocenter.
Jackie Mercandetti
Zales saleswoman Shy Khan helps out at Serkan Akgun's Krazy Krabs booth at Metrocenter.
The "normals" at Desert Ridge. "It's like a big high school with the different social groups," says a regular.
Jackie Mercandetti
The "normals" at Desert Ridge. "It's like a big high school with the different social groups," says a regular.
Donny Lang, guitarist for Ecchoing Bleu by night, camera salesman by day: "I don't think people in the mall are ready to buy anything."
Jackie Mercandetti
Donny Lang, guitarist for Ecchoing Bleu by night, camera salesman by day: "I don't think people in the mall are ready to buy anything."
School chums meet up at Desert Ridge every Friday 
night. "You just know that everyone's gonna be there," 
says one.
Jackie Mercandetti
School chums meet up at Desert Ridge every Friday night. "You just know that everyone's gonna be there," says one.
An early billboard for Phoenix's first "air conditioned 
mall," Chris-Town, touted the values of nagging.
Spectrum Mall
An early billboard for Phoenix's first "air conditioned mall," Chris-Town, touted the values of nagging.
The re-purposed Spectrum Mall. "We were really angry when they changed the name," says Barbara Bueker. "That was sacrilegious."
Spectrum Mall
The re-purposed Spectrum Mall. "We were really angry when they changed the name," says Barbara Bueker. "That was sacrilegious."

Lang, who works behind the sales counter at Ritz Camera on the far east end of the sprawling, W-shaped shopping mecca, actually kind of likes the peculiar ambient music of the mall. A second-generation Brian Wilson fan who leads his own psychedelic surf-rock band and counts the Beach Boys' druggy Smiley Smile album as one of his favorites, Lang has a keen ear for odd sounds.

"I don't hear it so much inside the store," he says in a slow, sleepy drawl. "From the back of the store, behind the counter, it's just this distant, vague, reverberated noise."

Nevertheless, it gets to him. As do the lack of windows, the sky-mocking high ceilings and the general hermetically sealed-in feeling that typifies the average mall.

"I always look outside, down the end of the mall by Luby's, where I can see the doors from inside my store," he says wistfully. "And sometimes I can tell if it's overcast, and I'll think, 'What's it like outside? Is it cold? Is it going to rain?'"

More than a hundred million people pass through the Valley's biggest malls each year, according to Westcor, which now owns seven of them (including PV Mall). A lot of those visitors actually spend money: According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, Phoenix-area malls raked in an average of $27 per square foot in September alone. That's more than a million dollars a day for a mall the size of Chandler Fashion Center.

For Lang, it's a mystery why anybody comes to the mall.

"It's all these pseudo-specialty stores that really don't sell anything you can't get somewhere else," he says. "I think to some people it's kind of like a street fair, like towns had in the old days. But it's a pseudo-version of that, too."

Certainly, there's a movie-set Disneyland vibe to malls that extends way beyond the requisite Disney Store -- which, of course, is a big hidden part of the appeal. William Kowinski, in his 1985 pop culture classic The Malling of America, noted the multiple layers of psychological soothing that make the common mall such an inexplicably pleasant place -- from the combined smells in the food court to "the way it looked and felt inside, the way it glowed."

Kowinski described that glow as "the aura of something that's been perfected," much like prime-time network TV. "The mall is television's delivery system," he wrote, drawing a parallel between the perfected blandness of both worlds. "What television proposes, the mall disposes."

Like watching too much TV, though, watching too much mall can cause some serious brain drain.

"You can literally feel your IQ dropping around here," says Jason Kron, 20, a shaggy-haired kid with an impish Dana Carvey grin who's already on his third job at PV Mall.

Kron works at Gloria Jean's Coffees, just a few shops away from Luby's cafeteria, which means his area is always swarming with seniors.

"It's like an ant problem -- they just keep busting out all over the place," he says. "All day long, it's, 'Wait a minute. Don't rush me.'"

Another musician (every other clerk in the mall has a band, it seems), Kron currently attends Paradise Valley Community College. To keep from going bonkers, he likes to fantasize that the circling seniors are pirates, or that one of them will turn out to be a lonely billionaire who names the amiable smart aleck his heir for providing years of coffee service with a sardonic smile.

"What I don't get are the young people, around [my] age, that I always see walking repeatedly around," Kron adds. "You wonder what their story is. Are they lonely? Did they come here to get hit on?"

Maybe, like Lang and Kron, who've become friends because of the proximity of their stores, they just work at the mall. On workdays, even when Lang gets his 30-minute lunch break, he often feels like he's got a long bungee cord tied to his ankle that only reaches as far as the food court.

"Right now, I'm okay, 'cause I'm not working today," he says on a recent Thursday, sitting at the PV Mall food court. "But when you're working in the mall, you feel tethered to your store. Even if you're walking around on your break, you feel chained."

It's a brain-stifling environment in which to deposit so many knowledge-hungry high school grads. Twelve years of academic study soaking in everything from the mysteries of science to the great events of the last millennium suddenly dissolve into, "Where do we go when we run out of garbage bags?" (For Lang: next door, to the guys at the T-Mobile store.)

Nevertheless, Lang understands why so many of his peers end up working in dead-end mall jobs.

"The one thing you can say about working in the mall is it's convenient. The buses come here, so it's good if you don't have a car. And there's always lots of places to work.

"It's kind of a pointless place," he says. "But it's a job."

Born to Be Mild

For a few fast-paced hours every fourth Friday in November, when shoppers rise ludicrously early to be first in line for the big day-after-Thanksgiving sales, the nation's malls dominate the morning TV wake-up shows and become, once again, the phenomenon they were originally built to be -- what Victor Gruen, the Austria-born architect who designed the first enclosed mall near Minneapolis in 1956, envisioned as a Main Street for suburbs without a town center.

Gruen dreamed of a gargantuan public space offering not only shopping but also "social life and recreation, in a protected pedestrian environment."

And on that one morning each year, even the shabbiest area mall is transformed into that great communal meeting place, teeming with people of all stripes united in a common pursuit, surrounded by everything under the sun to try on, eat or play with.

"We're all here for the same thing," remarks a heavy middle-aged man who's arrived at PV Mall alone on his way to work, himself in line for a free Beth and Bill floppy hat. "It's like a rock concert!"

But a scant four hours after the big doors open, the buzz is gone, and the mall begins to feel like, well, the mall again. The early bird specials are over, the remote news crews begin packing up their gear, and suddenly, being in a crowded, closed-in echo chamber full of Gaps, GNCs and Cinnabons doesn't feel fun anymore.

A man fully stretched out on a Sears-O-Pedic Comfort Cloud mattress whines to his wife, checking out handbags nearby, "What are we still doing here?"

In theory, going to the mall oughta be a constant kick in the pants, an endless source of stimulation.

"You see a lot of a community's life in its mall," writes noted "retail anthropologist" Paco Underhill in his new book, Call of the Mall. "The retail arena is still the best place I know for seeing what people wear and eat and look like, how they interact with their parents and friends and lovers and kids. If you really want to observe entire middle-class multigenerational American families," Underhill advises, "you have to go to the mall."

And yet, the mall usually feels anything but stimulating. Some of that's because the mall doesn't function like a true public space. In 1972, when malls had become prime venues for Vietnam war protesters, the Supreme Court ruled that malls did not have to permit distribution of anti-war fliers on the premises. In 1980, the court decided individual state laws could determine the amount of free-speech rights allowed at malls.

Today, Arizona is one of 11 states where malls are not required to allow any First Amendment rights. Wanna test it? Watch how fast even a deaf mute selling pencils is escorted from the food court.

But the mall is also, in a sense, deliberately dull by design. The stores themselves may want to look as cool as possible, since youth fashion clothing and accessories account for the bulk of a mall's business. But malls don't want to be so cool to hang out in that they attract too many loitering teens, creating an attractive environment for runaways, wanted juveniles and penniless slackers.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Steve Wamsley, whose district centers on Metrocenter in west Phoenix, says several Valley malls are paying firms a lot of money to do CPTEDs, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design studies, to determine what's so cool about hanging out at the mall -- and then change it.

"That's why PV Mall plays classical music in its parking garage," Wamsley says. "If you have a mall parking lot where kids are slinging dope, and you put on classical music, they don't wanna stay there."

Not all of the dull-down measures are limited to crime prevention, however. A while back, Metrocenter did away with the benches on the upper level to stop boys in baggy hip-hop pants from hanging out all day ogling the girls down below.

"If they gotta stand there instead of sitting, they'll get tired," Wamsley reasons.

It's worked, too: Upper-level ogling has decreased dramatically.

Some efforts squeeze cops between wanting to help needy kids and serving the mall's businesses. "We also had reports that the kids were sleeping up against the building at night because it was warm," Wamsley says. "So we asked the mall to trim their bushes down a little bit, which they did."

All these subtle changes, says Wamsley, are made by malls "to make it so kids can't really hang out there anymore. Now, by that, I'm saying, the kids that we don't want to hang out there anymore."

After all, even the worst troublemakers buy a Hot Topic tee shirt now and then.

"Don't forget," Wamsley says, "gang members shop, too."

Juggalo Town

A trio of straggly-haired boys busts out of the exit by Macy's at Metrocenter and begins heading purposefully toward the Sleep America store on the outskirts of the mall parking lot.

"What up?" calls a fourth male, smoking a cigarette outside the exit doors. One of them makes a quick gesture, placing his thumb and forefinger up to his mouth and affecting a short inhaling sound, then points to Sleep America, which conveniently faces away from a spot by the Dumpsters that can only be seen by speeding cars on I-17.

"Dude!" corrects the leader of the procession, who only minutes ago whispered the news in the Cyberstation arcade that he has some top-grade weed to share, and has already picked up a third straggler. "Don't spread the peanut butter too thin!"

Mall designers like to talk about a certain "relaxed awareness" people feel when they walk into a mall. It's the reason store rents are actually lower by the entrances: As Underhill notes, there's a "decompression zone" people breeze through where they don't even see the shoe repair shops or nail salons placed there unless they come specifically looking for those services.

It's also the reason, Underhill says, that it's best to be the third jewelry store shoppers pass. It usually takes walking by two ring display windows to get men, especially, even thinking about jewelry.

That relaxed awareness works to the advantage of the resident mall hangers, who can virtually live in the malls without really being seen by the crowds walking by them -- although they can often be smelled.

"The smelly people often hide out around Cortez Park at night, on 35th Avenue and Dunlap," says a 21-year-old Metrocenter regular who goes by the name Jack. "Some of them have moved into 'the spot,' which is a section underneath the canal bridge adjacent to C-n-C" -- or Castles-n-Coasters, the amusement park just across the mall parking lot.

Despite best efforts by the police and the mall brass to curb the population, homeless teens continue to gravitate toward the malls -- particularly Metrocenter, which, until recently, served as a hub on all city bus routes.

"A lot of the young people at malls are like the transients downtown," says Sergeant Wamsley. "They don't have a place to go, but they need to eat. They need basic essentials of life: They need food, they need shelter, they need warmth. And they're gonna go where they can get it best. For a lot of them, that's at the mall."

By day, the so-called mall rats keep themselves amused and fed by bartering things -- mostly joints or speed that they score on the street -- for products and services in the stores where their friends work.

"Weed and methamphetamines are often quick tickets to just about anything you need here," says Jack. "I myself don't mess around with the speed, but I've collected my fair share of things bartering with a little extra weed here and there. A good portion of my wardrobe came from Hot Topic and Dillard's on weed trades."

The arcade and food court areas are where most of the bartering goes down, however. "There's little in the way of security measures protecting cheeseburgers and tokens," Jack explains with a laugh.

As for killing time, there's no better place to find free amusements than at the mall.

"We had one guy who would come in every day, pick up a manga book, and he would sit down and start reading it," says Les Shotwell, 24, who works behind the counter at Suncoast Motion Picture Company at Metrocenter. "And the guy stunk to high heaven. He would scrape together enough change to buy a soda, and then sit down with his soda and read the whole manga. Finally, I had to tell him, 'You got to go.'"

Shotwell says he sees a lot of the same people, sometimes whole families, who wander around the mall day after day. "Honestly, if they had beds here, some people would sleep in the mall," he says. "DMX, the rapper, came into the Sweet Factory one day, and the manager heard him say he likes Metrocenter because it reminds him of the ghetto."

Indeed, Metrocenter even has its own mini gang problem among the mall rats. "Juggalos," Jack says they call themselves. "This group of little punks that run around like a little white-boy gang that have absolutely no respect for others' property or boundaries. They're Insane Clown Posse fanatics, who've taken the ideals of their music way too far. They give the rest of the mall-hangers population a bad name because after a while, all the people who hang out there look the same. And are treated as such."

The Juggalos claim the other mall rats hate on 'em simply because the ICP fanatics have managed to organize themselves into a kind of family that those not "down with the Clowns" can be part of.

"It's a way of life," says Stephen, 24, who's been hanging out regularly at Metrocenter for more than seven years now. "A lot of the other mall rats wanna fit in with our crowd, but they don't know what it is."

Essentially, says Stephen, being a Juggalo requires listening to the Insane Clown Posse religiously and drinking Fago, a hard-to-find Detroit-based soda the KISS-faced rappers like to spray on their audience from the stage.

"A Juggalo is within you," adds Michael Lueke, 21, who goes by the nickname Felix. "When you listen to their music, you find out whether it's in you or not."

Sergeant Wamsley says the Juggalos mostly keep to themselves -- although the panhandling and the occasional sing-along chants like "Juggalettes, show your titties!" can be an unwelcome distraction for the families lunching in the food court.

"If they're homeless and they've been abused at home, they wanna hang out in the same spot," he acknowledges. "They want that culture, that companionship -- that 'family' that they've never had. And that's what they're looking for. They're just a little bit lost. And we're not there to beat 'em up, we're there to help them. But the mall also has a business to run."

There have been scuffles between the crews outside the mall exits and at the bus stop, where one Juggalo recently had his head cracked open by his own ninja stick, which a boy from a rival Chicano group managed to whack him with while it was still chained to his belt.

Nevertheless, despite being beaten up and "almost killed -- four times" by warring mall populations, Jack believes each of the different groups belongs there.

"They are all part of this little community," he admits. "The mall's got a society all its own."

Crab Man and Diamond Lady

The crab man is gone.

At the beginning of November, considered by retailers the true start of the holiday season -- which mall management celebrates by raising the rents for the freestanding kiosk operators for the remainder of the year -- Serkan Akgun, the Turkish-born owner of the Krazy Krabs booth at Metrocenter, started worrying that he wouldn't have enough capital to keep his little booth going through Christmas.

A few days later, the colorfully painted hermit crabs that are Akgun's specialty were relegated to a lower shelf on the pushcart, their showcase tabletop now cluttered with toy robots and Alien Blaster guns.

"For most of the year, crabs are popular because they're different," Akgun explained in his heavy accent. "But Christmastime, toys, always a popular item."

Now, a week before the Thanksgiving holiday, Akgun himself is gone -- although the crabs and robots remain, unattended, in the center of the crowded corridor.

The young woman at the guest information booth volunteers some help. "He comes and goes," she says. "But if you need help with the crabs," she adds, pointing to the Zales jewelry store that faces the kiosk, "you can talk to the lady in there."

It's a curious arrangement; nothing could feel odder than walking past the swanky display cases of octillion-cut diamonds and solitaire pendants to say, "Actually, I'm looking to buy a crab."

And yet, Shy Khan, the smiling Pakistani woman behind the back counter, has no trouble switching gears between talking up the fire and brilliance of Zales' best diamonds to pitching the easy care and maintenance of Akgun's feisty hermit crabs. "They're all $8.99," she says. "The smallest cage comes with a shell, crab and food for $24.99. But I'll throw in another crab and sell it to you for 30 dollars."

The following Saturday, when a new crab shipment arrives and the critters are once again showcased at the top of the table, both Akgun and Khan are busy packing up the hard-shelled crawlers for a circle of amused customers. Khan scoops the buttery-smelling cereal the crabs eat into bags, then dashes back into Zales, rubbing the grainy crab chow off her hands, to assist a couple interested in a three-quarter-carat engagement ring.

"We're not really partners," Akgun says, smiling. "We just met here in the mall, and she helps me out when I can't be here."

It's hard to detect whether there's any romance going on between the two immigrants, although several customers have proposed they make a cute couple. When it's suggested she and Akgun pose for a photo, Khan giggles, "Me and him, together? Oo, scandalous!" (She later insists, "We're just friends.")

Khan admits the Middle East heritage they share was an icebreaker.

"That helped a little bit, because we come from the same background," she says. Akgun adds there are malls in Turkey's bigger cities, but operating a pushcart in the middle of Metrocenter (he also owns one at Arizona Mills) feels more like the marketplace atmosphere common to both their countries.

"We're all merchants," he says. "Yes, crabs and diamonds are a different product. But she knows about pricing, she knows about people, how they buy."

To Akgun, it's perplexing why more stores in the mall don't work together. With such abundant opportunities for mutual back-scratching, it's a wonder, for instance, why Suncoast doesn't display signs plugging the movies playing at the Harkins theater in exchange for the multiplex propping up displays in its lobby for the latest DVD releases at Suncoast.

"The people in the stores are helpful to each other," Akgun explains. "But in order for us to do that kind of thing, we have to talk to the owners, and to do that, we have to go to their headquarters. It gets very complicated."

According to Paco Underhill, the kiosks are the last remnants of independent retail in the corporate-dominated malls -- and also the one place where suburbanites can actually get some multicultural education.

Arizona Mills in Tempe, in particular, is packed with kiosks dedicated to different ethnic specialties, from Bethlehem-imported olivewood carvings in front of Virgin Megastore to miniature tuxedos for Hispanic baptisms near the Rainforest Cafe.

On one crowded Saturday, a procession of young Mexican boys marches through Arizona Mills wearing matching long black jackets with white-banded black hats, looking for a set of 15 specially decorated candles for the evening's quinceañera.

Chances are, they find it at a kiosk, crammed between the Mr. Squeeze pillows, Ancient Egypt knickknacks and Gourmet Gumballs.

Fast Times at DR Market-plizz-ace

A quartet of punky-looking teens sits shivering around the planter in front of the Panda Express at Desert Ridge Marketplace in north Phoenix, two of them smoking cigarettes through bandannas pulled up over their mouths and noses, bandit-style.

"We do this to make fun of the straight-edge people," explains 15-year-old Lane Glass, laughing. "They wear bandannas to show they don't do any substances. So we just poke a hole through 'em and smoke."

"Don't take a picture of us doing that, though," cautions Robin Luna, an 18-year-old dropout proudly wearing stolen bowling shoes. "'Cause they have no sense of humor, and they'll probably beat us up."

A few yards away, huddling by the dancing fountains in the east courtyard of the unenclosed mall, an entirely different-looking group of high schoolers jokes around with one another and compares notes on which stores have the coolest clothes.

"Industrial's all right," says a sharply dressed Hispanic boy. "Anchor Blue."

"We're just the normals," says a girl with shoulder-length blond hair, who differentiates her group as the kids who actually shop. "We have money."

While the various cliques appear to have little in common, they all meet up, without fail, every Friday night between the Panda Express and the Islands at Desert Ridge Marketplace -- or "Market-plizz-ace," as they've attempted to Snoop-ify the most white-bread of place names -- to hang out at the mall.

"Almost every weekend, I come home and I'm like, 'That's the last time I'm going there,'" says Jesse Williamson, 17, looking preppy in a collared dress shirt poking up from under an earth-toned sweater. "And then Friday rolls around again, and everybody's like, 'So, what are you gonna do?' 'Oh, go to Desert Ridge!'"

They know hanging out at the mall is lame. "My mom says she used to do the exact same thing," says one girl, signifying the ultimate in lameness.

And yet, just by assembling en masse every Friday night, the kids turn it into their own suburban playground, pressing their faces up against the Panda Express windows to crack up their buddies inside, commandeering a table at Islands to share a single basket of fries among seven giggly girls.

The few adults walking briskly through the crowd avert their eyes like doomed humans plopped on some alternate version of the Planet of the Apes. This is Teen Central on Friday nights; only Chandler Fashion Center comes close to matching the scene. "And I live in Chandler," notes one 17-year-old boy with an unusually generous gas allowance, "and I always come here."

Lately, the DR scene has been attracting an even younger set of middle-schoolers, who dress up like the older kids but sit around looking much less confident and comfortable between the Hot Topic and Hollister stores.

"You get all these, like, 8-year-olds now walking around with their thongs showing," Williamson grumbles to Drew Brockhoff, in a spiked Mohawk and strategically ripped jean jacket.

"Eww!" chimes in friend Maggie Baldovin, a diminutive 17-year-old girl with a completely shaved scalp. "If I left the house looking like that when I was a little kid, my mom would have slapped me so hard!"

"It's like a big high school with the different social groups," says Lauren Cain, another DR regular, who notes that as the Friday nights progress, the various circular seating areas scattered around the outdoor mall begin to resemble the school lunchroom tables, with all the usual cliques -- populars, punkers, nerds, thugs -- claiming their usual territories.

The big difference is, there are no teachers around this campus -- or parents, typically, even if mom is just a few hundred yards away killing time in the Barnes & Noble coffee shop.

Hormones rage more freely than at school or home, too. Two 16-year-old girls claim they once spied the hunky guy who works at Tower getting a certain sexual favor behind the counter from one of their 10th-grade classmates. Families strolling the grounds often have to navigate their strollers past heavy-petting make-out sessions going on around the planters in front of the Learning Express and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

Still, even the kids who have the most adventurous times here consider their world a poor substitute for the more adult action that's going on at the mall's Scorch Bar and Rock Bottom Brewery, where the only signs of life can be heard after security chases the under-21-year-olds out at 10 o'clock.

"Maybe Phoenix might be cool if you're 21," says Brockoff, 17. "But for us, this is where we have to go. The stupid mall!"

"I hate that place," says Cain, as the crowd of teens empties out and heads toward mom's minivan or else to Tower for one last hour of hang time. "I'm probably going again next Friday."

Wal-Mart vs. the Organ Grinder

"Janitor's Closet? I can tell you exactly where that was. Right . . . here!"

Barbara Bueker, 51, and her brother John, 46, are strolling the familiar brick concourse at Spectrum Mall -- to the Buekers, always "the mall formerly known as Chris-Town" -- when the siblings come upon a slightly sunken section of the brickwork, the gap left from the renovation tackily sealed over with heavy-duty brown masking tape.

"Oh my God!" John says. "You can actually see where the hole was covered over. That just looks so cheesy!"

To John, who runs a Web site that is, in part, a shrine to the 43-year-old mall (www.chris-town.com), and Barbara, who once worked at the JCPenney and Broadway stores that have since been replaced with Costco and Wal-Mart, respectively, in the now "re-purposed" Spectrum, the changes made to their beloved teen hangout are a defamation.

"We were really angry when they changed the name from Chris-Town to Spectrum," says Barbara, who now works as a schoolteacher in the East Valley and has her own mall-addicted 12-year-old daughter.

"I mean, that was sacrilegious. Our generation is clinging to those last vestiges of our childhood -- and our malls are a big part of our culture. We were the first generation to grow up in the malls, and we'd come here every weekend and just walk up and down the mall. It was the place to be seen."

John still remembers when his grandmother first brought him to Chris-Town in 1963, two years after its grand opening as the first enclosed mall in Arizona.

"I was 5 years old, and I'd never been in such a vast, enclosed space in my life," he says. "Looking down from the Court of Fountains towards Ward's, and seeing this mass of people. I still remember it distinctly."

The Buekers came to the mall religiously throughout the '60s and '70s, and every square foot of the place seems to trigger some surreal flashback.

"The Janitor's Closet was always this foreboding place," John says of the underground tavern that used to have its staircase at what is now the entrance to Wal-Mart. "I remember the warning sign that was at the bottom of the stairs: 'Must Be 18 To Enter,' and there was a little red light there."

"We would dare each other to run down the stairs!" Barbara adds.

Walking past the Costco food court, on the same spot where Barbara used to work the Penney cosmetics counter, John flashes again. "Do you remember the organ grinder that used to be right here? He'd have a little monkey, and you'd give the monkey a coin, and he'd put the coin in his pocket and tip his hat."

Gazing around at the crowd of lower-income Hispanic families that now dominates the mall's shopping population, the Buekers concede their cherished hangout has evolved to better fit its community.

"The demographics have changed, big-time," Barbara says. "In the early '60s, when Chris-Town was built, this was kind of a nice side of town: central corridor, nice homes. Now, it's much different. When we pulled up and my daughter saw the Wal-Mart, she said, 'Mom! We don't shop at Wal-Mart!'" (Her daughter's impression upon leaving: "It's kinda cool. But they don't have an Aéropostale!")

Judy Roberts, general manager of the new Spectrum Mall, holds her own fond memories of the old Chris-Town, but maintains that adding the value-priced "power stores" were actually innovative moves that signal the direction older malls -- like Phoenix's own Park Central, now also facing re-purposing -- must follow in order to survive in changing communities.

"Wal-Mart and Costco had never been attached to a mall before," Roberts says. "So this has been a real pilot program for everyone across the country to watch. And it's worked. We recently brought in a PETsMART, too."

A few of Phoenix's oldest shopping landmarks are now considered "dead malls," but finding new lives for the giant empty boxes often presents a business challenge.

The 30-year-old Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale was closed in 1999 and demolished a year later, but the sign didn't come down until just this past summer, when Arizona State University's purchase of the property for a planned technology center was finally worked out. Thomas Mall remained a dusty field in the early '90s until it resurfaced as the $1.35 million Arcadia Crossing in 1995, anchored by Target, Costco and Petco.

One of the last remaining stores from the original Chris-Town is the tiny Tony's Shoe Repair, occupying the same space it's held since 1961. Before gathering up her daughter and her friend to leave, Barbara and her brother stop in to chat with Juan Fuentes, a familiar face from her JCPenney days who's worked behind the counter for 23 years.

"I've seen lots of changes, yes," Fuentes says. "We used to work six people here. Now we just have one, sometimes two people working."

"But do you miss the way the mall used to be?" Barbara asks.

"Well, no, to me it's the same, because I've still got a job," says Fuentes, smiling. "It don't make no difference to me. I come in at 9 o'clock and I stay here 'til 5. So for me, it's still the same."

E-mail jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.

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