Chain Store Massacre: Alternative Business and Density Revived This Mall
The decline of a New Jersey shopping center paradoxically opened up new space for scrappy, small-scale enterprise.
PHILLIPSBURG, N.J.—As Christmas break up at my parents’ house stretched on, I decided to check out a local dying mall that, after a surprise announcement on Christmas Eve, is slated to shut down by the end of January. Or at least evict all its tenants, which may be a distinction with a difference; Phillipsburg Mall’s status has been in the air for some time and it might just hang on a little longer.
Some of it has already bitten the dust. Two department stores, a Sears and a Bon-Ton, have been razed in the past year; curiously, the floors remain intact and are not blocked off. I walked across the old Bon-Ton, and it was possible to identify the main corridors, the bathrooms, the footprint of the supporting columns, and some electrical sockets built into the floor. There is something deeply unsettling—almost apocalyptic—about standing out in the winter sunshine on these intact but desolate floor tiles. This sort of thing is the closest suburban America has to ruins. The lone and level asphalt stretches far away.
Inside, all is not ruins. Traffic was sparse. (I visited Bridgewater Commons, another New Jersey mall, and it was hopping.) A few chains, like GameStop and H&M, are holding on to the end, and there are plenty of vacant storefronts. But there are also some interesting businesses, not necessarily downscale but rather alternative, that have taken over this otherwise flagging space.
One is a buy-sell-trade media store, with cassettes, CDs, records, books, and video games. These stores are less predictable and reliable than chains, and shopping in them can have a mildly chaotic vibe, but the other side of that coin is that they are fascinating and exciting to browse in a way that stores stocking new, standard items usually are not. Another creative reuse of an old storefront is a roller derby track, used by a local league, in what used to be Old Navy—they call it Old Wavy.
The crown jewel of this reinvented mall, however, is Black Rose Antiques, an antique mall filling the space that once belonged to J.C. Penney. The store is packed to the rafters, divided into a couple of central checkout areas and 207 separate stalls, about 140 of which are currently occupied. The stalls are small: small enough for someone who isn’t a professional dealer or reseller to give it a go. And there are no sellers in the store; every piece of merchandise is labeled with a price and stall number, and everything is purchased at the central checkout, with the sellers’ cut distributed later. It is essentially an unmanned flea market, a real-life eBay, or a consignment shop where the items are organized by seller, with the overall store acting as the platform or common space. It’s a rather obvious, yet rare, brick-and-mortar retail arrangement.
The claustrophobia of the store paradoxically demonstrates how massive it is; you can walk for ages, get lost, and still miss a couple dozen stalls or lose the exit. Gone are the grand boulevards separating the low-lying jewelry counters and clothing racks. In are tightly packed stacks of almost anything you can think of, as far as you can see. I thought of a point Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn makes, often in relation to infrastructure; a truly egregious amount of potentially productive space is simply wasted, for example on exorbitantly overbuilt roads and parking lots. Here was the retail version of a road shoulder reclaimed with cafe tables, or a vacant asphalt parking lot hosting a pop-up festival. Here was commercial density. It is almost as if this white elephant of a department store has been upzoned—and the result feels like a microcosm of the effects that urbanists ascribe to density in our built environments in general.
Density, obviously, means people; but it also means activity. More density means more activity, more liveliness, and more of the network effects and cross-pollination that make societies tick. But the general point would seem to apply to business and retail as well. Chains and their physical footprints are big, and smaller retail spaces lower the barriers to entry.
This may very well be a rough little encapsulation of the future of American retail and the American built environment in general: centralized, stodgy spaces increasingly rendered more flexible, fine-grained, and participatory. One single shell of a massive old department store is now home to well over 100 individual- and family-level wealth-producing micro-enterprises. Like the buy-sell-trade store, a touch of chaos comes with the territory; we might just need to learn to tolerate a little more of it. The dying Phillipsburg Mall, for those vendors, is a resource, and the decline of the mall’s retail space value opens up new possibilities. A new project on the site might benefit the community’s overall revenue position, at least in the short term; it would probably benefit nearby residents. But it would disadvantage the people who have given the mall a quirky and productive second life.
Confusion abounds on what might come next. Some of the local coverage suggests that Black Rose and a Kohls—the latter owned by a different company than the rest of the mall—might remain, though a Black Rose employee told me that they were also closing. It’s not clear whether the space could be “un-densified” and filled with larger chains, or simply demolished for some larger project. Details may come after January, though given the tortured history of the mall’s status and ownership, they may not.
While the state of Phillipsburg Mall is quite a bit worse than Beltway Plaza, a thriving but somewhat downmarket retro mall I’ve visited in Greenbelt, Maryland, the transformative redevelopment plans they both face would likely lead to something more orderly, centralized, and ossified than the entrepreneurial spaces that have risen up there now. Like tattered old strip plazas full of immigrant-run restaurants and ethnic businesses, repurposed malls are often coded as downscale or undesirable. Our cultural tendency is to see disorder, when what is going on might just be the self-organizing chaos of free enterprise. Tearing these places down can sometimes look a little like the urban renewal schemes that swapped blighted but organic places for superhighways and gaping, empty holes in the urban fabric. You can also think of downmarket retail redevelopment as commercial gentrification, a concept that is probably undervalued in the whole discussion of vacant, aging, or overbuilt retail space.
If the manicured, chain-ified, tightly patrolled mall, a hulking simulacrum of public space, is the commercial analogue to the McMansion, then Phillipsburg Mall in its current state may well be a rough analogue to the future of our built places in general—a little denser, a little scrappier, a little more uncomfortable, and a lot more full of wealth and life.