For the past couple of weeks now, I've been spending an inappropriate amount of time in a certain mall that no happy man should ever spend much time in. A happy man should avoid this mall because this mall is, unfortunately, no longer a very happy place to be.
The reason why I've spent so much time in this mall of late is because a LensCrafters is located betwixt its walls. I needed new eyeglasses at this LensCrafters, but, as it turns out, LensCrafters isn't as crafty at making glasses as it claims to be—especially when it comes to crafting "Progressive" (i.e. trifocal) lenses—hence why I've been going back and forth, getting my eyeglasses adjusted and readjusted, and consequently spending so much time in the mall that no longer makes people happy.
The mall I refer to is The Emerald Square Mall located in North Attleboro, MA.
The Emerald Square Mall (code name: 'The Emerald') used to be a happy place. Its heyday was the mid-1990s, before Amazon made Internet shopping the norm, and also before a nearby Outlet Mall (the "Wrentham Outlets") took away most of its business. In its prime, The Emerald was THE place to be. There were so many people, so much life, so much buzz, so many stores, places to eat . . .
But, today, it is a quiet and ghostly place. If you're lucky, you can get an occasional whiff of better days here and there, and by this I mean you occasionally smell just the right mix of Macy's cologne and Food Court aroma that triggers memories of all the fun you once had within the mall's walls.
During my most recent trip to The Emerald, I had about an hour to kill while I waited for LensCrafters to adjust my eyeglasses. I dedicated a few minutes to study a mall directory that was located outside Sears on the third floor. Given the sheer size of the mall—maybe about 250 yards long and three floors high—I thought there would be stores galore. I was surprised, however, by how few stores seemed to be listed. For every one store, there were about two or three empty spaces, so lonely, just dying to be leased.
This was when I realized the era of the shopping mall—let's call it The Mall Age—is currently on the verge of extinction and The Emerald was like a dinosaur gasping for its last breaths of air.
Feeling depressed, I sat on a bench outside Sears and thought back to how many stores there used to be in the mall. The memories of these stores made me happier. There were so many good stores . . . so many favorites . . . so many good times . . .
Cue wavy lines and harp-like music to indicate I'm going back in time to reminisce:
A view of the ghostly mall atrium from where I was sitting on the bench.
This was a store where you could get some of the coolest T-shirts around, including band T-shirts, the naughty "Co-Ed Naked" T-shirts and the even naughtier "Big Johnson" T-shirts. The coolest T-shirt I got here was my very first Beastie Boys T-shirt. It's in rough shape now, but I still have it today!
|The Beastie Boys shirt I got at T-shirt City|
Suncoast was strictly a movie store and the movies were overpriced, but it was still a fun store to browse through. I believe I only bought a movie there once and that was because I had a gift certificate. This was during my film school days and I bought a French film by Alain Resnais called Night and Fog (you can't see or hear me, but I just sniffed when I said that to imply that I'm superior to you). It was a short, 30-minute film on a DVD, but it cost me almost a full $20. Again, the store was overpriced, but you could find almost anything there.
This was another store that was meant for browsing more than actual purchasing. You would basically go in the store, sit in one of those chairs that vibrates your buttocks, get your neck massaged by a contraption that looks like two chubby phalluses moving beneath cloth and then maybe listen to a machine that plays looped Amazon jungle ambience. After all that, you'd be on your way. Everything was expensive. Everything was unnecessary.
This store still exists in the Emerald Square Mall today, but it is nowhere as scary as it used to be. When it first opened in the 1990s, this store was BAD NEWS. It was a place where all the bad kids went to purchase their wardrobe, which included orange Slipknot prison jumpsuits and, if I remember correctly, even straight-jackets. The people who worked at Hot Topic had purple hair, fishnet stockings and, overall, looked like they were from another dimension.
Despite its reputation as being the store where the bad kids went, I found some awesome Beastie Boys shirts there and they also had good punk CDs, way in the back of the store, including but not limited to Punk-O-Rama volumes 1-10.
Pacific Sunwear, aka PacSun
Despite its Beastie Boys T-shirts and Punk CDs, Hot Topic was geared more towards the goth crowd, so the store I identified with more was Pacific Sunwear (code name: PacSun). PacSun was for the skater and surf crowd. Throughout most of the ‘90s, I identified myself as a skater so I felt PacSun was the store where I was supposed to buy my clothes.
These were the days when wide-legged jeans were all the rage. I was all about the Bullhead skater jeans, never quite made it as far as the Jnco's, though the latter jeans were more Hot Topic apparel than PacSun.
I also purchased many a Billabong T-shirt at PacSun and, well, mostly Billabong because I determined that the Billabong brand would be MY brand; you know, it was part of my identity. I never went for the Stüssy, though there was a lot of Stüssy at PacSun, as well as a lot of Element.
Back in the earlier part of the ‘90s, Record Town was the only record store that you could find nearby so you were forced to pay for their overpriced cassettes and CDs. Later into the ‘90s, Newbury Comics (code name: "Newbs") started popping up in Boston suburbs so that store eventually became the go-to place for CDs. But, before Newbury Comics, there was only Record Town.
Today, Record Town has mutated into a place called Fye. According to the mall directory I perused, Fye still exists inside the walls of The Emerald Square Mall, but there is also a Newbury Comics, so I don't understand why anybody in their right mind would ever go to Fye. I think it's mostly a trap for grandmothers looking to buy Christmas presents for their grandchildren. No offense, but grandmothers don't know any better. They see a record store called Fye, smack-dab in the middle of the ground mall floor, and they don't know that better options exist, like Newbury Comics way up on the third floor, but they probably mistake that for a comic book store anyway. Fye relies on the ignorance of grandmothers to stay in business.
Tape World popped up some time in the early ‘90s, stuck around for a while but then I believe it was put out of business by Record Town. I liked Tape World. In fact, I purchased my very first CD there, which was Alice in Chains' EP Jar of Flies. This was right after I bought my very first CD player at Lechmere, which was a Boston-area department store chain, also located inside Emerald Square Mall, just a few stores down from Tape World.
Tape World had good prices, too. Why it went out of business I will never know, but I surmise that location could have played a factor. The store was located way up on the 2nd or 3rd floor, while Record Town was located smack-dab in the center of the ground floor.
|A photo of Tape World inside another mall (not the Emerald)|
Tape World was also a significantly smaller store, so I'm figuring they didn't have as large of a selection as Record Town. They likely didn't sell any movies either. They probably didn't even have posters and posters were essential, especially if you were at the mall with your friends. I mean, think about it folks: think about how many times you went to the mall with your friends, hit up the record store and then collectively spent a good ten minutes or so browsing through the posters. There would always be the gratuitous Animal House, John Belushi "College"-shirt poster, a handful of psychedelic, black-light-friendly posters, as well as a couple of scantily-clad Baywatch-babe posters that juiced up the hormones of teenage boys.
What I'm getting at here is that posters made all the difference at a record store, especially when your main customers were teens. Record Town had the posters. So that's where the teens would go to get their hormones boiling.
Plus, there's the aforementioned ignorant grandma factor.
Sears is still very much present at the Emerald Square Mall, but the store is struggling for sure. It's depressing walking through the third-floor tools department and you see idle Sears associates wandering around and they give you looks that say, "Please buy something or at least talk to me!"
I used to love Sears. In fact, I'm a big fan of the department store concept in general. Three whole floors with all these little quiet departments where you can kind of relax and browse. It's a good sanctuary to regroup when the stresses of mall shopping have gotten overwhelming.
I mostly loved Sears because of the electronics department and in this department they would have a Sega Genesis and/or a Super Nintendo where you could test out games that you wanted to buy. Well, you couldn't just test out any game; usually there was only one game and you had no choice but to play that one game.
For a while, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, playing video games in Sears was my favorite thing to do at the Emerald Square Mall. My parents would go to Sears to buy a new washing machine or lawnmower, I would find the electronics department and play Aladdin on the Sega Genesis for a good hour or so, or at least up until another kid came along, stood right behind me, breathed on my neck and made it obvious that he wanted to play.
Sears was where I first played the game Star Fox for Super Nintendo and I was completely blown away by this game. Star Fox featured some new 3D super-chip technology or something, which is completely obsolete today, but I was so blown away by the game that I scraped together all my paper route money and, with the help of my brother's McDonald's earnings, we bought Star Fox.
I have no fond memories of JCPenney, with the exception of their Arizona-brand Jeans, a few pairs of which I did own. Or was it shorts? Yes, shorts. Then again, I didn't really like them. They were green and they made my legs look pale.
What I do remember about JCPenney, however, is this amusement ride thingy that used to be outside of the JCPenney, right in the beginning part of the inner mall atrium. This ride looked like a cross between a spaceship and a minivan. What I remember the most is that this machine always looked cooler from the outside than it ended up being from the inside. Basically, for a dollar or two, you would go inside the ride, sit in some chairs with safety belts, there is a movie screen up front and the ride simulated being on a roller coaster or in a race car.
|Remember these? The SR2 simulation rides common in malls circa the 1990s.|
|An open view of the SR2. You can see the chairs and screen inside.|
I went on this simulator at least once or twice that I can remember. It wasn't all that good, but the point is that going to the mall used to be an “event.” You didn't just go shopping; you played video games in Sears, rode simulators outside JCPenney and ate food at the food court, which brings me to . . .
The Food Court
In its heyday, The Emerald Square Mall food court had a Burger King, a Sbarros, a Popeye's, a Panda Express (or something very similar—maybe it was an Umi of Japan) and usually a couple other places I can't remember. I would always get free samples of sweet 'n sour chicken from a Panda Express employee even though I knew full-well that I'd end up going to Burger King. I could always feel the sad Panda Express man's eyes on me as I walked away from him. "How could you do this?" the eyes were saying. "I give you free chicken and you go to Burger King???"
When I was younger, going to the Food Court was a rare occurrence because I didn't have my own money to spend and my parents didn't want me eating junk food. When I grew older, however, I had plenty of paper route money to throw around and I would get Burger King every time I went to the mall. Sometimes I would switch things up a bit and go to Sbarro, but it was usually Burger King for me. Never Panda Express, no matter how many times the sad Asian gave me free samples of sweet chicken.
Directly across from the Food Court was the Spencer Gifts. This was an essential stop, especially if you were at the mall with your friends. The front of the store had black lights, lava lamps, interesting keychains, cheap jewelry, choker necklaces, funny coffee mugs and maybe a Magic 8-ball or two.
The BACK of the store had the "adult" card section where there would be funny greeting cards featuring morbidly obese women wearing nothing but string bikinis. In the pre-Internet age, this was the closest exposure I had to anything pornographic and I can't help but admit I was a little turned on.
In its later years, Spencer Gifts progressively got even naughtier. They ended up selling sex toys, vibrators and T-shirts that said, “I [heart] f’ng.” Fresh.
I never thought I would ever be a pretzel guy, other than the crunchy kind that came in a bag at the supermarket. Big, soft pretzels? Never sounded appealing to me. Pass.
My sentiment changed, however, when I received a free sample of Auntie Anne's pretzels at the Emerald Square Mall. It was so delicious I couldn't believe what I was tasting. I subsequently spent the two or three dollars for a full pretzel and I never looked back. Boom. Instant pretzel guy.
Auntie Anne's pretzel stand, not located in the food court on the third floor but in the middle of the first floor, became a regular stop for me whenever I went to the mall. I always got the salted ones and they were so warm, soft, with just the right amount of buttery grease to them. So good.
Believe it or not, I never once purchased anything at Orange Julius. So I have nothing to say about it here. You would think I would have a lot to say about this place because it was a mall staple in the 1980s and 1990s, but I have absolutely nothing to say about it. If you want to reminisce about Orange Julius, you're gonna have to go elsewhere because I'm not saying a word about it.
Honestly, I'm not one-hundred-percent positive if the Emerald Square ever had a Walden Books, but I know it had something that at least resembled a Walden Books, so I think I will go out on a limb and say it had a Walden Books, at least at some point. In the later years, the mall definitely had a “Borders Express,” which was a mini-version of a Borders, but the point is that there was always a small bookstore in the mall with weird, carpeted flooring that had subtle inclines in the aisles. Does that sound familiar? Or am I making that up? All I know is that when I think of these bookstores I think of ramp-like flooring that felt hollow under your feet. I may be completely out of my mind.
The only book I ever remember buying at the mall bookstore was How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
GNC/Health Food Store
I was raised in a health-food-store-kind-of-family. We spent MUCH time inside health food stores buying rice flour, rice crackers, rice chips, rice bread and, of course, rice cakes. One health food store at The Emerald sold delicious, all-natural cream sodas and my mom would usually buy one for me as a treat. I don't remember the name of this store, but I do know it wasn't GNC.
As for GNC, this was almost a health food store but was geared more towards body-building. You could find a Powerbar in there or some Tiger Milk protein bars, but, as far as I was concerned, GNC was useless to me, save for the digital scale you could weigh yourself on, usually located at the entrance of the store. This digital scale almost looked like a video game, so it was fun to step on and mess around with.
In the very early 1990s, there was a store that sold nothing but Nintendo games. It also had a dozen or so Nintendos in glass, trophy-like cases built within the store walls and you could test out a variety of games. If I remember correctly, you could choose from up to 12 games on these specialized NES systems—known as “M82” machines—with the push of a button. This store was always so crowded, but I don't think it lasted too long, probably because the Super Nintendo came out and made the store irrelevant. In fact, I'm not even positive this place existed to begin with. It was such an awesome store and lasted for such a brief amount of time that I may have simply dreamt it up.
|One of the Nintendo "M82" machines that were in the mystery store.|
I know what you’re thinking. This store must be Babbages!
This store must be Electronic’s Boutique (aka EB Games), then!
I assure you it was none of the obvious mall video game stores.
If you know the name of this mystery store I speak of, please let me know, so I can know for sure that the store was real and then I can be a happier man and finally get a good night’s sleep. The store was located right outside of JCPenney on the ground floor of the mall. If you were facing JCPenney, the mystery store would be on your right.
Kay Bee Toys
Since we're on the topic of video games, I would be remiss if I didn't give a shoutout to Kay Bee Toys, which is the store I bought most of my video games at in the ‘90s. I also bought my Game Boy there, along with many electronic Tiger-brand games, like bowling and baseball. You may be confused right now but, trust me, you remember Tiger Games: they were plastic, rectangular hand-held games, made beeping noises and ran on two AA batteries. Tiger, by the way, also made the Talkboy, that voice recorder machine toy featured in Home Alone 2.
|A Tiger bowling game that I still own today|
|A Tiger "Street Fighter 2" game that I still own today|
|The Tiger Talkboy from Home Alone 2|
Kay Bee Toys was noisy when you first walked in because there was usually a model-sized airplane flying in circles (attached via wire to the ceiling) and a little toy petting zoo with robotic pigs that walked by themselves, sat, waved their paws around and oinked.
The store also had an awesome G.I. Joe action figure section, which I loved to browse. It's weird thinking about how much joy a 3-4” plastic action figure could bring into a young boy's world. How did those figures stimulate me so? How did I find playing with them so fun? It's really quite amazing. You don't need much to amuse you when you're a child. Give kids a plastic figure and their imagination does the rest. Incredible.
The WGBH Store
For a brief period of time, there was a WGBH store located in The Emerald. I believe this store later turned into the “Learning Smith” or maybe it was “Learning Smith” first and then turned into the WGBH Store. Either way, this store was meant to be an educational store and it also sold PBS-related merchandise.
I bought my very first computer game there. It was called Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, which was a super-fun game that tested your geography knowledge. Where in the World is Carmen San Diego was also a game show on PBS and the host of the show (Greg Lee) appeared in the store one day to sign autographs. I think I was sick at the time of his appearance so my brother went and got an autograph for me. I still have that autograph today and I cherish it with . . . well, not ALL of my heart but let's say about 75-percent of my heart. It is one of only three celebrity autographs I own, the other two being former Celtics player Dee Brown and Misfits member Jerry Only.
|Greg Lee's autograph|
The WGBH store was also the place where I bought Mr. Bean VHS's that each had two 30-minute episodes on them. Mr. Bean, if you're not in the know, was an awesome BBC show from the late-1980s starring British comedian Rowan Atkinson. When I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I was obsessed with Mr. Bean. I could not get enough of his silent, Chaplin-like comedy that was all gesture, body movement and facial expression.
. . .
More wavy lines and harp-like music to indicate I'm done reminiscing.
I could go on and on about all the cool stores at The Emerald during its heyday, but we would be here sitting on this wooden bench outside Sears all friggin' day.
It's sad to think about how The Emerald Square Mall is basically dead and may never come back to life. But, as I've shown, The Emerald was fun during its heyday, and at least this heyday will exist as a memory . . . until I die . . . and I guess until the rest of my generation dies . . . unless, of course, you subscribe to Einstein's theory about time being non-linear, which would make The Emerald's existence eternal . . . thus making nothing sad . . . because everything always exists . . . so why mourn the loss of something that always exists? Whoa.
Wait, where was I? Oh yes, I was just about to end things on a deep note. An even deeper note, I mean. Deeper than the previous paragraph. So here it is:
When The Emerald was first constructed in the late-1980s, there was a rumor floating around (no pun intended) that the mall was slowly sinking due to it having been built upon swampy wetland. Nobody knows whether these rumors were true, but the metaphor couldn't be more appropriate:
Maybe the Emerald Square Mall was never 'meant' to last very long anyway. Maybe it was only meant to shine bright like an emerald stone, for a decade or so, give people like me all sorts of good memories, and then get swallowed up by the swamp . . .
. . . OF TIME.
. . .
UPDATE: 2023 (Five Years Later)
It’s been five years since I wrote the love letter you read above. With the exception of a quick couple of visits, I hadn’t been back to the Emerald Square Mall since I wrote that love letter . . .
A couple weeks ago, however, I suddenly had this annoying itch to revisit the Emerald Square Mall and do a complete and thorough walk-through of it. Part of this relentless itch came about after hearing a rumor that the Emerald’s days may be numbered. I figured it was possible that I may not have much time to revisit the Emerald Square Mall. Better do it sooner than later, I thought. Because there may be no ‘later’.
Well, my friends, last week, I just so happened to have a doctor’s appointment pretty much right down the street from the mall. I was in the area and I knew it was the right time to hit up the Emerald Square. This was meant to be, I thought. My destiny.
The Emerald is still standing, by the way, but it is certainly in even worse condition than it was when I was there five years ago in 2018. The first thing I noticed upon entering the mall via the third-floor entrance near the old Sears and, yes, *old* Sears—the beloved department store closed a few years ago—was that there was no air conditioning. It’s the middle of July right now and hot as hell, so AC is kind of an essential in a big, stuffy place with no open windows to let air in but plenty of closed windows to let the hot sun in. It was rather unpleasant walking through the mall to say the least.
I wouldn’t say the mall was a complete ghost town, but there really weren’t many people there at all. Surprisingly, the most amount of people I saw were sad-looking souls who were sitting in those chairs that give you massages in the middle of the mall atrium. You know, those leather recliners you pop a couple quarters into and the chair vibrates for a few minutes. These people locked eyes with me and, although they didn’t say anything aloud, I could see in their eyes that they were crying for help. From what? Their sad lives, I suppose.
Walking through the mall, I also noticed that there were several more empty store spaces available for lease and I mean more than there were five years ago (when I wrote the love letter). The food court was also hurting even more than it was five years ago. I only think there were three places within the court that were still open: an Umi of Japan, some other Asian joint and a Philly Cheese Steak place. Seeing that the air in the mall was so hot from lack of air conditioning, I was convinced that any food I purchased at these eateries would have definitely given me food poisoning.
I passed by a Toy/Hobby Store that looked overall empty, but there was a table of middle-aged men playing some sort of fantasy card game (something like Magic the Gathering or maybe they were even playing Dungeons and Dragons). This was the middle of a Monday afternoon, so I feel like these men should have maybe been doing something a little more constructive with their time but no judgement on my end since I wasn’t exactly doing anything overly constructive either.
I thought that the Newbury Comics on the third floor would have the most life in it, but this store was surprisingly just as depressing as the rest of the mall. It was more like an ‘Express’ version of the store. There were only a few vinyls, a few CDs, no DVDs or Blu-ray whatsoever, but a TON of Manga dolls—you know, Anime Japanimation stuff that I know nothing about. Also, there was a really sad, albeit beautiful, song playing over the store stereo. The song was called, “Money, Power, Glory” by Lana Del Ray. Again, it’s a beautiful song but eerie and slow and sad as anything. Listening to the song literally felt like a syringe of heroin was going into my veins and putting me into a state of extreme slow-motion. Talk about a downer of a song, but again, it’s beautiful.
Lana Del Ray's "Money, Power, Glory"
From Newbury, I made my way downstairs to the ground floor level of the mall and eventually went to the FYE store, which, to my surprise, is currently a good place to pick up reasonably-priced DVDs and CDs. The store wasn’t always like this. It used to be overpriced (as I mentioned in my love letter above). Times change, though. Who knew? It was hot and stuffy in the store, but the shopping experience was better than I would have thought.
One other store that I went to was the Spencer Gifts hoping to find some cool T-shirts there. There weren’t any cool T-shirts, but then I walked into the back of the store and there was a huuuuuuuuge selection of vibrators, dildos and other sex toys. I blushed and hurried out of this section before the two female employees saw me, their only customer in the store at the time, and cried, “Perv!”
The best store in the mall right now as I write this in July 2023 is called the “Toy Vault.” This is by far the most thriving store in the Emerald Square and, by the way, this is a different place from the store I saw all those middle-aged nerds playing fantasy card games in. The store sells lots of vintage toys from the 1980s and the 1990s. Used video games as well. Even packs of Topps baseball cards with the stale bubble gum still inside the packages.
Honestly, there is a feeling deep in my gut that this most recent visit to the Emerald Square Mall may have been my last ever. I don’t intend to go back there any time soon, especially during the summer months (who knows, maybe the AC was broken just that one day that I was there?), and I also have the feeling that the mall’s days really are numbered. How long will it remain open? Weeks? Months? Another few years?
Or maybe we’ll be surprised. Somebody could come out of nowhere (Elon Musk maybe?), buy the mall and completely revamp it. Maybe it could be restored to its former 1990s-era brilliance. I’m certainly rooting for a revival. But, until then, I think I will stay away. I really just felt so depressed being in there, especially from the broken air conditioning and that haunting Lana Del Ray song playing over the Newbury Comics stereo. Again, beautiful song, I can’t emphasize that enough. Sad but beautiful. Kind of like the Emerald Square Mall, I guess.
But still, for whatever reason . . . beautiful.
. . .
MATT BURNS is the author of the hit Kindle singles My Raging Case of Beastie Fever, Jungle F’ng Fever: My 30-Year Love Affair With Guns N’ Roses, I Turned Into A Misfit!, I Used To Be A Gamer: The 8-Bit Nintendo Years and I Dream of Dream Machine. He’s also written several novels, including his ‘punk novel’ Supermarket Zombies!as well as Weird Monster, Johnny Cruise and The Woman and the Dragon. Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)
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