Town and Country Mall Embodies the Lingering Spirit of Old Phoenix

I live in fear of a few things: That Frank Rich will retire. That the writers of Lost will add yet another character to the show. That someone will notice that Town and Country Shopping Center looks about the same as it always has, and set about screwing it up by changing it.

Which isn't to say that Town and Country, at the southeast corner of 20th Street and Camelback, is the same mall it used to be. It's not. Most of the exclusive boutiques and businesses that this outpost of cool offered Phoenicians (and that even those of us who lived way over on the west side were willing to drive across town to enjoy) no longer exist. Homegrown shops like Jutenhoops, where one went for craft supplies, specialty greeting cards, and oddball gifts, are long gone. The first-run movie house that always included an independent or arty film on its roster couldn't compete with nearby multiplexes. And most of the legendary local restaurants that got their start there — like Rancho Pinot and Pizzeria Bianco — have moved out.

But I admire the folks who run Town and Country, built in the mid-'60s, for not trying to "keep up." There have been changes made to the place, to be sure. Every couple of years, there'll be a frenzy of painting and a rearrangement of the interior walkways or something. A few years ago, some of the fountains were refurbished. And many of the shops that used to face the mall's shaded courtyards have been repositioned to face the parking lot for maximum exposure. Yet Town and Country, surrounded as it is by other older malls that have morphed into monstrosities, hasn't undergone that same sort of aesthetic overhaul. Therefore, it still looks pretty much like itself, rather than, say, another Westcor clone.

Rather than obliterating its curiously rambling, single-story, hut-like façade (as has nearby Biltmore Fashion Park) or enclosing its shaded walkways and fountain courts (as has Scottsdale Fashion Square), Town and Country has put some real effort into maintaining its Old Phoenix charm. And while the center is, these days, dominated by a huge fitness club and a heck of a lot more chain stores than local businesses, there's been a real attempt on the part of the mall's management to keep a distinctive blend of the ordinary (Blimpies, Supercuts) and the type of ma-and-pa shops that used to be a mainstay in local malls (The Cigar Inn, Jewels by G. Darrell Olson). I can't think of a single other reputable mall that's home to an upscale thrift store (Town and Country has two: My Sister's Attic and My Sister's Closet). Even this mall's chain stores are sort of unique: Instead of Borders or Barnes and Noble, Town and Country's bookseller is Bookstar. (Speaking of long-gone stores at this mall, what exactly was the Alpine Ski Keller? I never went in. Nor have I ever been in Jewels by G. Darrell Olson, which is Town and Country's oldest tenant.) And if Baby Kay's remains Town and Country's sole destination restaurant, many of the chain eateries, like Black Angus, have been there so long they seem almost retro.

Three years ago, the mall was sold to Phoenix Roadrunners franchise president Claude Lemieux, and there were rumors of a major redevelopment of the mall by Lemieux's partners, Red Mountain Retail Group. Red Mountain is known for redeveloping retail centers, although in this case its purchase involved only Town and Country's buildings, and not the land, which is owned by the Mars (as in candy bars) family and leased to the mall's current owners. I'm hoping the Marses won't do what they did with the neighboring Colonnade mall, on which they held the land lease until the mid-'90s, when they ended the lease in return for becoming part owner of the mall. The Colonnade has since become a sort of local joke after a disastrous remodel.

There's so much of Town and Country's original aura left that, every time I stop by Trader Joe's for a bag of lentils, I can still remember how "other" this mall felt to me when I visited it as a kid — like being dropped onto the streets of another city for an hour or two. The year I was in the third grade, my mother studied piano there at the Roger Williams School of Music (her instructor, Nancy Nemeth, smoked Tareytons and never wore a bra), and I'd go with Mom and wander around the mall while she learned to arpeggio. After the colossal confines of Chris-Town and Metrocenter, the west-side malls I'd grown up with, Town and Country felt exotic and "other." I'm grateful it still does.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela