It’s the Mall Showdown: Old Malls vs. New Malls

“Going to the mall” was a central focus of fun in my life in the 1980s to about the mid 1990s. Now the American mall is a shadow of its once former glory… I decided to take a moment and reflect what I loved about old school malls vs. what’s in a current malls

Old Mall

Arcades: This is a no brainer as far as fun went. So many fond arcade memories. The thing about arcade games was the graphics were so much better than what was available at home (unless you were a super rich bastard that had a Neo Geo). Plus there was pinball and skee ball. Every mall despite it’s size seemed to have an arcade. It was wonderful.

Kay-Bee Toy Stores: It’s hard to believe, but at one time Kay-Bee Toy Stores were amazing. Then at some point they became the stores full of toys that nobody wanted at 3 times the price they should have charged. Sad.

Walden Books: Hot damn, Walden books was cool. I’d go in and just stare at the cool role-playing game books, head over to the sci-fi section to see if there was anything good. Maybe my Mom would be me a copy of Omni magazine or Star Wars: Galaxy, and in the rare instance I could get a West End Games Star Wars was rpg supplement.

And ah hem, some mall bookstores even had Playboys placed at the top left row of the magazine section. So close, yet so far away!

And it was all in a rather small space, not some huge two-story sprawling complex of books filled with fake class and a please buy our Nook desk.

Pet Stores: Man, a pet store in a mall is such a weird concept. I don’t know anyone who went to the mall and came back with a dog. Still, I liked going in them when I was little and checking out puppies and kittens. Now I realize that most of these animals were probably born in puppy mills and that’s a terrible thing, but you don’t think about that when you’re a kid.

Video game stores: There weren’t a lot of mall video game stores for a long time. Usually we’d get games from places like Penny’s and Shopko. However, I distinctly remember an Electronics Boutique in a Green Bay mall that I loved going to. It was such a source of wonder and joy, because they had so many games that you didn’t see at regular retailers.

Suncoast Video: Man, this was another source of mystery and wonder to me as a kid. It’s the first place I ever came across A Clockwork Orange or Akira. The sheer number of movies I never heard of was unbelievable.

And yes, I have to give the standard: There was no internet and and I was from a very small town. Resources on alt cinema were scarce to say the least.

Original Cookie Company: Man, it was always a treat to get a big ass chocolate chip cookie and a chocolate milk from the Original Cookie Company. At a certain point they disappeared and became Mrs. Fields.

Fountains: Almost all malls had really cool fountains. Even mediocre fountains were cool to see. I don’t see many fountains these days.

Sbarro: It was always a staple of my mall going experience. My kid taste buds didn’t exactly know the difference between good pizza and bad pizza, but Sbarro was in the good category for two reasons:

1. It was a special treat.
2. You could only get it in the mall.

Somehow mall exclusivity meant a lot to me. “We’re going to the mall?! That means I have access to Sbarro, that super elusive pizza joint!”

Current Mall

Game Stop: Oh Game Stop. Despite having things I love, you’re terrible and I never want to go in you. Every Game Stop feels sleazy. I can barely walk into one now without wanting to take a shower. After they stopped selling collectibles like toys my interest waned even more for Game Stop.

Lego Store: If you live in a big enough city you’re lucky to have a Lego store in your mall. Never had one as a kid, but I can imagine that the Lego Store would have been a prime childhood me destination.

Games Workshop: Two malls in my life have had Games Workshop stores. While in theory I should love these things, I rarely ever bother going in. I don’t play War Hammer. It looks fun, but I don’t have the time or money.

Mrs. Fields: It’s no Original Cookie Company, but it will do. The main problem for me is there aren’t a lot of these in my area.

Toys R Us Express: Wow. A much smaller Toys R Us with horrible Toys R Us prices.

Gigantic Movie Theaters: Mall theaters used to be an abysmal experience. They featured the smallest movie screens packed into shoe boxes. Now days there are huge movie complexes attached to malls. Some have restaurants and bars attached, and some even have bowling alleys.

Board Game Barrister: This one is really local, but it impacts my current mall going experience and maybe if you’re lucky you have a store like it. There’s two locations of this gaming store in Milwaukee and it’s what Games Workshop isn’t, nerdy games, but a wide variety of them.

Sbarro: Well… they’re still around for now. At the time of this writing they declared bankruptcy again. My kid tastebuds have become more refined, but I’ll still get a slice of Sbarro pizza for nostalgia sake and let me tell you, I’ve had much worse. If Sbarro goes then the only major mall pizza I’ll be left with is Rocky Rococo’s. I don’t want to live in that world.

Final Verdict

The mall of today can’t compare to the mall of yesteryear. It certainly doesn’t help that the current mall is fighting nostalgia and good memories. Still, there’s not a lot for you if you’re going into a mall and you don’t want to look at clothing or shoes.


The man behind Robot's Pajamas is Vincent. Full time worker drone, part time layabout. He runs the Robot's Pajamas a pop culture/humor blog.

Never Miss an Episode

Stay up-to-date on the latest from the Retroist Podcast. Sign up and receive email notifications when there's a new episode of the Retroist Podcast or when we launch new podcasts.
* indicates required

14 thoughts on “It’s the Mall Showdown: Old Malls vs. New Malls

  1. Great post! I was an 80s kid of mall culture. I grew up in Chicago and had several malls on my rotation – Harlem Irving Plaza, Old Orchard, Northbrook Court to name a few.

    They are all still there, but do not retain any of the grooviness they once had. They will just live in my memories.

    This site – – is sadly no longer updated. But has hundreds of great posts chronicling three decades of retro mall life.

  2. John Hopkins says:

    Taking a look at the old pictures of store fronts I could say thoose where take in \ my mall (Tampa). In reallity they could have been in any mall. From the fountain to the tiles on the floor I think every mall was a cookie cutter from coast to coast.

  3. Brian says:

    Old Mall: Orange Julius? Or, was that just local to me here in PA?
    Old Mall: Spencer Gifts (Are they still around?)

  4. Brian says:

    …and Piercing Pagoda, another staple of the old malls. Are they still around? I don’t go to our local 146 store mall anymore; haven’t been in it in years.

  5. Dang! I forgot about Spencers! ARrrgggh.

    We had Coach House Gifts which was like a Spencers. I have important thoughts on both. I really might have to revise this article!

  6. Lance says:

    We had Circus World for a toy store that eventually faded away and Kay Bee moved in.

    What I have noticed about the TRU Express stores is that they are actually higher than the regular TRU stores, about 10-20%. We’ve got both flavors of TRU here and the Express seem to show up at outlet malls which used to have the KayBee outlet stores in them which sold a mix of Kaybee and TRU stuff.

  7. Lamar the Revenger says:

    Spencer’s Gifts is still around, but it’s more or less a sex toy shop for teens. That’s sad, because the black light area was great. Park City Mall in Lancaster, PA had a HUGE fountain in the center & there was a couple times we wanted to dive for quarters. The arcade at that mall is a pale comparison to it’s hay day. It’s mostly rehashed racing games, shooters or Dance Dance Revolution. Used to be 3 bookstores in our mall. Now there’s only one. No toy stores.. at least until Christmas & those prices are on par with toys at drug stores ($16.99 for a 3 3/4 GI Joe figure)

  8. I worked at Suncoast for about 2 years (’89, ’90). They made “Grease” loop over and over again when it came out on VHS. Drove me crazy! And ahhh, the LaserDisc!

  9. I really enjoyed my time at Suncoast, mostly because of the regulars. People who were really in love with film and could give you an education about their favorite genre, actor or period.

  10. Atari Adventure Square says:

    Grew up in big city 70s malls.
    In a stroller at first, taking in the sights and excitedly willing myself to walk out of my rolling apparatus when we reached the Toy World store.
    And as we left, gleefully clutching the thin paper bag containing my daily Letrasets diaporama or Sesame Street book.

    Love to see these pictures from your article, as the general mood of gliding through our consumer culture carries over through the decades, regardless of the store names.

    Some people think of ‘consumerism’ as a bad thing. No, it’s just a way of life. And our malls show how we can make a party out of fulfilling our needs, by conglomerating into public spaces, having fun with life and each other as the days go by.
    Well, that was 70s Malls, for me.

    The 80s brought us the Mall-Arcade-Experience (some of the best days of my life, where new cabinet discoveries awaited me whenever we could manage to return there) and Computer Stores where the world of tomorrow could be glimpsed and playtested.

    The mall cinemas were a bit bigger in my city, so going into them in the 70s/80s wasn’t as dispiriting as it became in the 90s (we had a 20-screen multiplex around here that had screening areas smaller than an average living room…Ugh!).

    Love seeing pics of old malls, kinda like revisiting a family house, even if I never went to that specific one.

    Also, need I say it? Once the shambling undead start taking them over again, they’ll bring these treasured locales from our past back to…life.

  11. Bob says:

    The mall in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie was The Desert Fashion Plaza in Palm Springs, California. It had been deserted for more than 13 years and had earned the name Deserted Fashion Plaza. It has just been torn down (finally) for a new open-air center to give Palm Springs her downtown back.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.