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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Carolina Circle memories, or: How one mall's food court destroyed an urban economy

There was a lil' "meet and greet" at our apartment complex tonight, after which Lisa and I decided to take a ride. Do some explorin' ya know. So it was that while driving around Greensboro and finding ourselves on Cone Boulevard I realized it had been a pretty long time since I'd seen the far east end of it, where Carolina Circle Mall was. That's where we aimed the car toward.


The northeast side of Greensboro has seen a lot better days. I feel old now just after coming back from it. It's nothing like it was fifteen-some years ago, when that entire part of town bustled with activity. I mean, there were several restaurants, a K-Mart, a big Toys R Us that I remember seeing open in '85, a lot of other stores. And at the hub of it all, one of the best shopping malls in the region: Carolina Circle Mall.

I can't begin to describe how wonderful a place this was. It was a two-story complex sprawled across a few city blocks' worth of space. In its heyday it was home to a Belk's store, a JC Penney, an Ivey's (some of these won't ring a bell with most reader's but trust me Ivey's was big and Belk's is still a clothing giant in these parts), a Montgomery Ward, and dozens of smaller stores. The Waldenbooks at Carolina Circle was my absolute favorite place in any mall anywhere to look for new books: I'll never forget that joyous day there in 1991 when I spotted the very first Star Wars "expansion" novel Heir to the Empire, which I quickly snatched up and took to the register. I've no idea how many books on my shelves came out of the Waldenbooks at Carolina Circle.

There were other stores too, like K&K Toys: I got everything from Star Wars toys to G.I. Joe figures to model rocket equipment from that place over the years. There was DoctorX Pet Store (I kid you not that's what it was called): I got a lovebird for my sixth birthday that came from that store, we named him "Pete". Had a couple of hamsters from that place too.

There was a music store that Mom bought her organ from. She even took lessons there once a week for a while. This friend of our family would take my sister and me all over the mall while Mom was having her lesson. There was a Baskin-Robbins that most times in summer our family would walk out with ice cream cones. Another store, I remember buying my first compact discs from. A candy store. Everything else you could think of, Carolina Circle had.

This is where our parents took us every December to sit on Santa Claus's lap. Carolina Circle Mall was the very first place that I drove my car to on my first solo drive out of town.

That mall had the movie theater that, to this day it's what first comes to mind whenever I think about going to see a movie, the AMC Carolina Circle 6. Six screens, reddish-colored walls and carpeting. I can still smell the popcorn with that butter, the way movie theater popcorn butter used to be before the Food Police(tm) wrecked it years ago. I never saw it there but this was one of those theaters that used to show The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday night. That was the theater that I saw Return of the Jedi at in 1983: as long as I live, I will never forget the wild cheering and applause that broke out when Darth Vader lifted the Emperor and threw him down that shaft. There's never been a cinematic moment like that since then at all. The last movie I ever saw there was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country on December 7th, 1991... the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it so happened.

Carolina Circle was the kind of mall where you could just go to sit and watch people and talk to just about any relative stranger and wind up with a friendly conversation. It was a family shopping mall. Partly because of charming choice of stores, and partly because of the great movie theater...

...but mostly because of its ice-skating rink.

On the lower level of the mall there was a pretty good-sized skating rink. Everything else in the mall centered on that. And there just ain't no telling how many families spent the evening skating around that rink, or how many first dates took place there, or how many kids had birthday parties next to the ice. The ice rink was the heart and soul of Carolina Circle Mall. No matter what other business brought you there, you always wound up taking in the wonder and free-spiritedness wafting from across that ice into the rest of the mall.

I guess you don't realize how much you miss something, until that thing is gone. I guess too that nobody realized just how dependent a lot of things were on the ice rink, until it was too late.

Like I said, the rink was the heart of Carolina Circle Mall. And the mall was the center of all the surrounding area's business.

So it was that in the early Nineties the mall's owners made the galactically horrible business decision of DESTROYING the ice-skating rink... and replaced it with a food court.

You could practically watch the mall wither and die after that, as one tenant after another vacated the premises. I think a lot of us kept coming though out of longstanding loyalty to such a family environment. But in the end, as more empty store fronts looked down onto a soulless food court (that never had that much to offer to begin with) we really had no more reason to keep coming. There were a lot of other malls around, and movie theaters that had ten and sixteen, and then twenty and twenty-four screens to offer us. And then, maybe four or five years ago, the mall locked its doors for good.

Every other business around it suffered, including the Toys R Us. I was in there last a few days after Christmas in 2000, and they were preparing to shut down then. That was my last real time anywhere in the old Carolina Circle Mall complex until tonight.

My heart darn near broke to see what's become of it: a vast parking lot rife with weeds, overlooked by a shell of a building in the process of being demolished. I could even see where Waldenbooks used to be. The Toys R Us building is gone completely.

There is no sign that a movie theater ever existed there. Mom and Dad took me, my sister and my best friend Chad to see A Christmas Story there in 1983. One beautiful memory of my childhood and they went and wrecked the joint.

You could really believe that this was one of those places that you'd always have to come back to. I've got so many wonderful memories tied to that mall... and now, memories are all I have - all I will ever have - about Carolina Circle Mall and the special place it had in a lot of people's hearts.

All because some IDIOTS managing the place thought it'd be more economically viable to wring a few more dollars out of a food court than an ice-skating rink was bringing in. They destroyed a wonderful family environment, just about the ENTIRE economy for one-fourth of the city, and a lot of cherished memories.

Darnnit... I know you can't stop time, that you can't stop progress but, seeing what's become of Carolina Circle Mall made me feel thirty years older than I really am. It had that kind of affect on me.

Maybe that part of town's luck is about to change though. After demolition is finished the location will then give rise to a Wal-Mart Supercenter. No doubt it'll attract a lot more business to that part of town. But it will be one more Wal-Mart Supercenter: just another big blue-and-white box like thousands of others in seemingly every town in North America, without any warmth and soul and charm, and personality to call its own. It will never occur to most people who shop there that once upon a time there was something far different - and far better, in my book - sitting at that same location.

But as for me, I will always see something else there: a beautiful edifice built not only to accommodate commerce, but friendships and families. Maybe memory and dreams are all that remain of Carolina Circle Mall... but as sweet as those memories are, it will be enough.


Chad said...

I remember seeing A Christmas Story with you there in '83. This place holds a lot of memories for me too. I was there back in June, and it's sad to see what's become of the mall and the surrounding area.

I remember when they ripped out the ice rink they replaced it sometime later with an indoor carousel that was just plain tacky. It never come close to having the same charm as the ice rink.

One thing I do remember about the food court, however, is that one of its first tennents was Chick-Fil-A, back in the day when Chick-Fil-A only operated in mall food courts and not freestanding structures. So if there's any positive about the food court, it did introduce me to what has become my favorite fast food joint.

Alas, thanks for the trip down memory lane. You may be interested in this site, which has some history and tidbits about the mall.

Chris Knight said...

I totally forgot about the carousel. It just didn't have the visual appeal that the skating rink had, I guess. And after reading that guy's page about Carolina Circle Mall, I'm more inclined to agree with him than not. Still, it was the closest shopping mall that a lot of us in the area had, without having to go all the way to Four Seasons and fight the traffic on High Point Road. Maybe the new Wal-Mart and the retailers it'll attract will build up that part of Greensboro in a way that Carolina Circle never did. I hope so, 'cuz that part of town is *hurting*. But still, there's an awful lot of good old memories tied up in that mall.

Billy said...

I kind of disagree on the carousel. I didn't start going to Carolina Circle until the 90's. I remember a lot of memories there at the mall after the food court/carousel came.

Anonymous said...

i started going to carolina circle mall in the 90's as a young kid on the weekends with my dad. I remember, if you got a chick-fil-a kids meal, then you got a free ticket on the carousel. I remember waldenbooks, spencer's gifts, camelot records, the T-I-L-T arcade (honestly the cheapest arcade i have ever seen) and plenty of other great memories. the last movie i saw at the theater was Twister, in the late 90's. you could go to CCM and just sit and hang out. There was a huge water fountain and a glass bridge over the indoor pool there. These days, I can barely stand walking into four seasons. I also remember the decline in the late nineties and into 2000. I remember seeing a commercial in 1997 promoting the 16 stores left at CCM. They got rid of the carousel and put tables and chairs around the huge food court, with only one food vendor, chick fil a. near the end, before they closed off the mall from Montgomery Ward, the mall seemed very dark. It was very sad in comparison to a decade before. anyway... does anybody have any pictures of the inside of the mall in its heyday??? my email is reddaquiri88@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

I am 23 years old and I grew up in the McLeansville area. My fiance and I were sharing stories of childhood and where our parents would shop. 90% of the stores I could remember were inside of C.C.M. I was trying to tell him of how the mall was in the early 90's. Going there with my much older siblings when they had the task of babysitting me. Eating at Picadilly and some crappy place in the corner of the food court. In '94, I had a child identification photo and my fingerprints take at C.C.M close to the Rave store. One of my sisters old boyfriends mother owned an old lady hat store on the upper level, that i believe was one of the last 3 stores to be in business up top. How it survived that long i'll never know. I remember my mom being suckered into one of those Glamour Shots sessions at C.C.M also. We kinda stopped going there around the time GPD put in a sub-station. My mother, sister, and I were afraid to go there and my younger sister had just been born. We began avoiding that side of town all together. We headed further out towards Battleground and Friendly for everything. I took my Drivers ED. lessons in the parking lot at C.C.M in '98. I thought by that time the whole building was closed off for good. It was really sad to see what become of that whole area. Im pretty sure I will offend someone when I say that I blame it on the mass construction of section 8 homes they built in the area. Everything pretty much closed down after they popped up. Even the dollar tree, all the somewhat original buildings that stand are McDonalds, Wendys, Captain D's, Bojangles and this isnt a surprise...the liqour store. I honestly don't have high hopes for that area anymore and it depresses me to see it. I think ultimately most things will demise in the end as C.C.M did.

Anonymous said...

Im sorry but I have another comment. I had a typo, my Child Identification Photo was taken in '91 at C.C.M. I was reading Roadgeek's blogs on the area and its amazing how a 15 year old has memories of when that area was vibrant. He brought up an old restaraunt in the area called Knuckles. I didn't think anyone remembered that place but me and my mom. My grandfather went missing for like 3 days once after Alzheimers set in, we found him sitting in Knuckles eating biscuits and gravy. He passed away in '95. That was one of the few memories I have of him and now its a funeral home. If anyone wants to chat about the area and greensboro feel free to email me at simplyconceited22@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

I have very fond memories. I worked at the Chick-Fil-A in Carolina Circle Mall. I used to play Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the AMC there. Great after show parties at the Budget Motel across the street. :)