Mall Story: My Memories At The Mall

by contributor Vivian M.

Photo from The Express Times, Spring 1990.

My first visit to Phillipsburg Mall was in 1990 after my older sister got her license. We often mall-hopped and came out specifically to go to the Trains N Lanes location in the mall. A decade later, I moved closer and frequented the mall for great stores like East Meets West, Suncoast, The Wall, Waldenbooks, Radio Shack, Oriental Gifts, EB Games, and Sears. I also liked a few kiosks, some of which sold trading card games from Japan as well as domestic games that I collected.

I remembered the fountain across from Bon-Ton, and one time when I visited, it was gone. I second-guessed myself and it took years before I confirmed that the mall once had a fountain. The loss of the food court was a huge blow from which the mall would never recover. A mall without a food court made little sense. A phantom fifth anchor was never built, and a new food court and other mall upgrades never happened, keeping the mall stuck in limbo.

Losing the Waldenbooks was one of the greatest disappointments. It was before a local Barnes & Noble was built, so I used to have to go to the Lehigh Valley Mall area for a bookstore for a while. I have Egyptian and Native American decor from East Meets West. I do still have the last tube TV I ever bought, which came from Sears. The Hoover vacuum I bought at Kmart before it became a Kohl's still works. I have a CD player from Radio Shack which is the last thing I ever bought there. When I think about it, a lot of things I see or use every day came from that mall.

As the years went by, my favorite stores slowly began vanishing. By the mid 2010's, a friend and I started noticing how many stores had closed and remained vacant, but I hadn't yet realized that "dead malls" were a thing. By 2015, it was getting obvious, and by 2017 I learned of the dead mall phenomenon, only to realize I'd been watching one slowly die right in my backyard.

In early 2018 I began taking photographs and video. I took a video of the two anchors being torn down, and I knew the day would come that the mall I frequented for the past 20 years would be gone. Most strikingly, I came to appreciate the lively blue neon around the skylights. I also came to have a love-hate relationship with the spooky star and moon artwork at what was once Caffe Europa (later Bruno's).

I remember seeing that place when it first opened and was creeped out by the artwork that used to be on the pillars as well as the pizza oven motif. More recently, I talked to the owner of the original Caffe Europa at Laurel Mall and asked about the art work. He simply said there was no big motive behind the art aside from something that would amuse the kids. I'd hoped to save the art work at Phillipsburg, but between the difficulty factor plus most of it having been damaged or destroyed when the ovens were removed by someone who purchased them, I will have to preserve their memory in photo and art work. I've done several acrylic paintings of the star and moon from the Phillipsburg Mall Caffe Europa, so their spooky aquamarine eyes can continue giving people chills.

After the mall closed, I was able to visit a few more times, walking the silent and hollow corridor. Every creak and expansion of the building in the sun echoes through the entire place. The neon is no longer lit, although I did get the privilege of seeing it lit one more time in July 2020. I brought home a few legally obtained artifacts including some vintage Crown American signage, blue prints, and a mall bench. Even though there are several other malls within a half hour radius of where I live, Phillipsburg is the only one I can say I've ever been attached to.

There's something about being able to go to a familiar mall full of memories after it has closed. Walking the halls with no shoppers and no stores creates a whole different memory. While others have long ago abandoned the place and moved on, there is at least my own witnessing presence to remember the place and keep it alive within my mind and through my extensive 60 gigabytes worth of photos and video. When others have forgotten the place and one day want to reminisce, I will be able to show them its final years. I don't want to see it go away. I don't want it torn down. I want it to be there forever that I can walk its empty halls with no one else around. Once the day comes it's gone and there'll be no going back, I know I will find bittersweet closure.

Before the mall goes completely, I would love to find out what could be behind the drywall boards that have long ago sealed up many units. What treasures could be hidden from view for decades? Maybe one day we'll find out. If not through a locked door, perhaps when the outer walls are torn open and its mysteries get revealed.

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