A tale of two malls

By | May 14, 2012

It’s the middle of winter in 2007. My children are restless, and I am out of ideas on what to do to keep them entertained. It’s too cold outside for them to play, and too boring in the house. I decide that we need to take a trip, somewhere fun. So I load the kiddos up into our mini-van and hit the road. Destination: the Westminster Mall.

Perhaps a mall doesn’t sound like a fun destination. There are probably a dozen different places in the Denver metro area that offer entertainment for parents and children. Why did I choose the Westminster Mall? To answer that question, I must provide a little bit of backstory.

I was raised in a small town named Trinidad. It’s situated on the Colorado side of the border between Colorado and New Mexico. The town was (and still is) very small. During the first ten years of my life, the retail section of Trinidad consisted of two grocery stores, two department stores, two five-and-dimes, and a line of mom-and-pop specialty stores. Retailers knew their customers by name, customers sat at the soda bar for friendly banter. It was the quintessential small town, and it was great. Unless you needed to actually buy things. For that, a trip to Pueblo was required.

Pueblo, Colorado is a big town/small city located 80 miles north of Trinidad. It was big enough to have “real” stores, for example clothing stores that sold more than two sizes of boy’s clothes. In Trinidad, when you needed to buy clothing and supplies and such, you would take a shopping trip to Pueblo.

As a little boy, I used to look forward to our major destination in Pueblo: the Pueblo Mall. I don’t think I can describe how magical the mall was to the 8 year old me. We walked into the mall and I was almost overwhelmed by sensory input. It was like we had walked into a carnival or a festival. There were lights in a rainbow of colors and cascade of shapes throughout the mall. There were the sounds of hundreds of people talking and walking and laughing. Music flowed through the mall, enchanting to the ear. I remember the buttery taste of the KarmelKorn, the icy citrusy taste of an Orange Julius. Everything was so wonderful, so exotic.

Walking through the mall was an adventure. Every section of the mall held surprises: a magic shop! a pet store! a video arcade! And people, people everywhere the eye could see. The mall wasn’t a place to shop. It was a magical destination. It was my Narnia, and I relished every moment that we were there. Three decades later, memories of that mall are still cherished, still magical.

Fast-forward to 1989. My first solo road trip. I drove from Trinidad to Westminster to see a college friend. Due to a communication issue, I ended up arriving in Westminster a few hours early. I started to explore the town, and stumbled upon the Westminster Mall. I had to stop – there was no way I could pass up a mall. Especially one that big!

I walked into the Westminster Mall, and immediately I was again an 8 year old boy walking into the enchanted Pueblo Mall. I was back in Narnia. All of the sights and smells and sounds were exactly as I remembered – taken up a notch. The Westminster Mall is larger than the Pueblo Mall. The Westminster Mall is built with a central open court and four long shop-lined arms extending from it. Each arm was the length of half of the Pueblo Mall.

The 8 year old inside of me took complete control that day. I walked up and down that mall, finding different paths to follow, hidden benches and sitting areas, multiple nooks and crannies to explore. There were hot air balloons rising and floating slowly downwards into the fountain at the very center point of the mall. There were twice as many people in the mall, twice as many candy stands, more restaurants in the food court, more video games in the arcade, more clowns walking around with balloons. It was truly amazing.

Back to the present: In my mind’s eye, I can still see every detail of that mall. The nostalgia is still very strong within me. So when it was time to find something to keep the kids entertained, of course I would want to take them to the Westminster Mall! I would share that magic with them, and the memories would then be shared. My children could look back and remember how special it was to go to the mall with their father. It would be a perfect day.

Reality often doesn’t work that way, and that was the case with our trip to the mall. Time has not been kind to malls; that is especially true of indoor malls. Great Denver-area malls have fallen by the wayside. The former Cinderella City is now a civic center. The Northglenn Mall was re-purposed as an office complex. The Southglenn Mall has been razed and turned into an outdoor shopping center, as has the Boulder Mall. Indoor malls are a dying breed, and unfortunately that is true of the Westminster Mall.

The kiddos and I entered the mall via the main entrance, which opens up on the central court. The fountain was exactly as I remembered it, hot air balloons and all. Each of the legs leading off the center had shops open and teeming with life. There were fewer shoppers than I expected, though, which was really odd for a weekend day. The mall was also quieter than expected. I wasn’t sure what to think, but I knew one thing: things were a lot different than the last time I had been there.

The cause of these differences was immediately obvious once we started walking down one of the legs. After the fourth or fifth shop, there were nothing but empty shop locations on both sides of the aisle. Most of the shop locations in the mall were vacant. No sounds, no lights, just dark emptiness. We walked on to the food court; I was crossing my fingers hoping that there would be no major changes there. Shoppers have to eat, after all.

Unfortunately, the food court hadn’t been spared. There were two stands open, one was a Chinese food buffet, and the other was a Subway. The other 6 spaces were dark, empty with no indications of what had been there before, aside from an abandoned “Pizza” sign and a painting of a Greek building on a wall.

Seeing all of the vacant shops in the retail area of the mall had made me sad, but there was something heartbreaking about the food court. The food court was the embodiment of the mall’s slow demise. It was depressing to see such a cherished place – a cherished memory – fall into disrepair, abandoned.

On the other hand, my children were having a very fun day. They loved being able to run as fast as they could through the empty corridors. They loved yelling to hear the echoes returned. They even really liked the food from the Chinese buffet! Their enjoyment helped raise my spirits. After all, I had succeeded in my goal: I shared one of my cherished memories with them. It wasn’t how I envisioned doing so, but the end result was the same.

As we drove away from the mall, I realized again that things change. Everything changes. Including us. We constantly evolve. We constantly change our world, and we change along with our world. Our perceptions and memories change with time and age. The Westminster Mall will always have a fond place in my heart, not just for the nostalgia from my first road trip, but because of the fun day my children and I shared there. Those memories will last long after the mall has been knocked down and replaced with a Super Target and a massive parking garage.

I think I am okay with that.


Postscript: It is now 2012, and my predictions from 2007 have come true. The Westminster Mall was torn down. I don’t know if a Super Target is going to be built there, but there will definitely be a parking garage. My memories of the mall are fading, slowly but surely. I no longer dream of walking into the arcade at the Westminster Mall, pockets filled with tokens, holding an orange julius and a bag of KarmelKorn from the Pueblo Mall.

I have to admit, I miss those dreams.

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