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In late summer, demolition began on the Forest Mall, once the hub of hustle and bustle in my hometown.

It was far from a surprise. For the latter half of my 26 years, the shopping center has been on a decline, losing stores here and there as bankruptcy took anchor stores and smaller chains under. Its closure—or redevelopment—seemed inevitable.

And yet, each time I now drive past the lot—rubble bookended by a still-open Kohl’s and a long-vacant Younkers—my heart can’t help but ache for all the memories contained within those demolished walls.

As a reporter, I had the task of chronicling many of the mall’s final closures. Amongst goodbye statements from corporate headquarters and comments from managers, I received notes from readers, sharing their stories of when the mall was in its heyday—vibrant and humming with life.

The opening of Forest Mall was a huge deal for my town.

When it first welcomed shoppers in 1973, more than 1,000 people turned out to celebrate this collection of stores and restaurants they called “enchanted.” Each storefront was filled, the lights on and welcoming. There were good times at the five-and-dime, Murphy’s, where you could grab something to eat at the lunch counter along with a cute outfit or a pet. At Tiffany’s Bakery, you could find a cake or a sub, along with a weather report from the owner. Each Christmas, H. C. Prange’s turned into a winter wonderland, and when you went to tell Santa your wish list, it was in a setting akin to A Christmas Story. 

By the time I began going to the mall in the 1990s, these things no longer existed, but it was still lively. One of my first memories there is waiting in line to see Santa just outside JC Penney’s. I gazed in awe at the piles of glittery cotton fashioned into snow, and the tiny house decked out with gingerbread trim, before excitedly telling Santa about the Barbie I wanted as we sat on his red throne. Leaving, I tried to sneak a glimpse of his reindeer which were surely waiting for him on the mall’s roof.

My life is teeming with moments spent in that mall.

Looking back on them now, each moment has the shiny, special feel that comes with reminiscing about a bygone era. I remember weaving up and down the aisles of Sam Goody as my sisters flipped through CDs for artists like *NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Shaggy.

My family and I spent hours shopping for school clothes at American Eagle, looking at our rewards, and trying to figure out how to get the best deals. Stores like Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret became our own version of Cheers, as we chatted with employees who became like friends.

If I ever wanted to escape the throes of clothing shopping, I wandered down to my favorite place—Waldenbooks.

Like at the other stores, the employees and I came to know each other, and we would talk as I perused the stacks. They shared with me recommendations I loved, and talked up the midnight release party of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so much that my parents couldn’t say no when I begged to wait in line for my copy with hundreds of people decked out in Harry Potter gear bought from the neighboring Hot Topic. When the store shuttered in the early 2010s, it felt like losing a friend.

It was far from the last time I felt that way. As I graduated high school and entered college, malls became unsustainable as more and more people—including me—shopped online, or—in the case of my town—chose to go to the outlet mall 20 miles away.

By the time I got my first full-time job, most of the stores in our mall had shut down.

It was a slow death. Every few months, another store turned off its lights and lowered its gate. Each visit became more and more depressing, reaching its lowest point when, within a period of three months, the last of our favorite shops closed up, the goodbyes with our store friends coming fast and furious.

One final trip to Books-A-Million—where I had the pleasure to work and spend countless hours and dollars in—I looked down the center of the mall. It was mostly dark, the skylights not providing enough sunshine to stop the atmosphere from veering into spooky, deserted.

When I was younger, my mom, sisters, and I had walked this concourse with my grandpa and uncle. They, like many their age, came to the mall before the shops opened for exercise. And with them, we watched the stores say good morning, the signs suddenly glowing, hellos coming from behind the gates. It was always the start of a new day.

Many years later, the sun had set, and like my grandpa and uncle, the Forest Mall became relegated to sweet memories.

You may be thinking “Sarah, you’re getting way too melancholy about a mall,” and I won’t disagree. Nostalgia—especially in 2020—has a way of doing that. Although it was just a structure made of cement and rebar, what cannot be subtracted from it is the human factor, and that is what I most miss: the people, the bonds, the memories of things unable to be recreated or manufactured. It is this that makes me envision the Forest Mall I once knew in its own thriving-to-dying montage a la Pixar’s Cars with the voice of James Taylor beneath it.

But, just as Radiator Springs saw rebirth, I know this patch of land is readying itself for another chance, be it with a superstore or something else and I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what comes next.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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