Though not limited to the era, the 1980s were the glory years for shopping malls.
As shown in classic teen movies of the era like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl and Weird Science — as well as in ’80s-set Stranger Things, which used the fictional Starcourt Mall as the setting for its third season — malls had a uniquely prominent place in communities across the country.
For a lot of ’80s kids, malls were a frequent afterschool and weekend destination, a cement, multi-tiered playground with escalators, soft Muzak and, for some reason, colorfully-lighted water fountains. The assemblage of shops and fast food offerings often targeted young shoppers, but kids weren’t necessarily going there to spend money. Usually built in the suburbs, teens would flock to the mall to hang out with friends and, if they’re lucky, maybe even get a date.
Outside of their role as a social hub, of course, malls were fundamentally monuments to consumerism. While a few stores that were popular in the ’80s remain in the malls of today — including The Gap and, somehow, Spencer Gifts (now just “Spencer’s”) — many of the staples of the era are no more. Some stores were doomed by changing tastes and styles. Still more were victims of advancing tech and the rise of online shopping. And many were absorbed by larger retail chains and ultimately phased out.
Here are some once-popular’80s mall stores that now exist only as totally awesome memories.
Merry-Go-Round was a youth-oriented clothing and accessory store, offering, as their commercials declared, “unique fashions for guys and gals.” In the ’80s that meant that guys could get a hot new Michael Jackson-inspired leather jacket there and gals could buy the latest Madonna-inspired fashions, like bustiers and rubber bracelets. The stores would always capitalize on trends that came straight off of MTV — when kids marveled over the sleeveless Union Jack shirt Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott wore in a video, you knew you could count on Merry-Go-Round to have them in stock. Merry-Go-Round’s parent company filed for bankruptcy in the mid-’90s and the stores were gone by 1996.
If you weren’t hip to any indie record stores — or maybe were but didn’t want the cool clerks to see you buying the latest Kenny G album for your mom’s birthday — mall music shops like Camelot Music always had the latest popular vinyl, cassettes and, by the end of the ’80s, CDs, as well as related gear like blank cassettes and VHS tapes. If you ever bought a tape at Camelot in the ’80s, you remember the drill — browse the racks that lined the wall, choose your cassette and then take it and the cumbersome plastic security contraption tapes were always encased in to the cashier, who’d unlock it so the alarms didn’t go off at the exit. Camelot thrived in the ’80s, selling not just music, but also home video game consoles and games cartridges. The chain survived changing formats, bankruptcy and competition from big box stores, but by 2001, Camelot — along with several other music chains — was purchased by Trans World Entertainment, which converted all of the locations into f.y.e. stores.
If you needed the latest issue of Tiger Beat magazine, a new Dungeons & Dragons book or Jackie Collins’ juicy new romance novel, you couldn’t just have Amazon bring it to your doorstep. A mall staple, Waldenbooks was the biggest bookstore chain in the country when Kmart purchased it in 1984. Kmart would go on to also buy the Borders bookstore chain in the early ’90s; Borders eventually took over, gradually rebranding or closing the Walden stores. By 2011, Waldenbooks had been phased out completely.
Like its rival The Sharper Image, Brookstone was the fun gadget store at the mall where you could sit in a massage chair and play with remote control cars and those big plasma globes that lit up in neon lightning bolts when you touched them. It was definitely the kind of place where you did more browsing than buying. Both Sharper Image and Brookstone grew out of tech-y specialty gift catalogs and they suffered similar fates — neither have mall stores anymore, but they both live on online.