When I was growing up, going to the mall always meant traveling to the east side of Madison. It was closer than West Towne, less upscale than Hilldale and at the time, the outlet mall in Johnson Creek wasn’t even a concept. Every shop was filled, there were water fountains where you could toss in change and make a wish, and it was the premiere destination for visiting with Santa and the Easter Bunny. And, home to the best dessert ever created at the mall – Cinnabon.
I don’t go to East Towne very often and when I do, it’s a beeline to the few stores I need to stop at. The last time I actually walked through most of the building was when I met my friend to see Labyrinth at Flix Brewhouse. And that was only because I didn’t realize what end of the mall it was located at.
Recently, Madison.com posted an archived 62-page special section from 1971 about East Towne Mall’s grand opening. It piqued my curiosity and I felt compelled to look through the online entry.
There are three stores still operating at the mall that have been there since day one – Sears, JCPenney and Spencer Gifts (now known as Spencer’s). When I think back to my childhood I can recall Sears was where you bought appliances, JCPenney was for clothing and home goods, and Spencer Gifts was the store filled with black light posters, items geared toward adults that we really didn’t understand as kids and a Crypt Keeper animatronic that I asked my parents to buy me on a few occasions.
Shockingly, Spencer’s is still open. I haven’t stepped foot in there in years but I’m sure it’s still carrying some of the items it stocked back in the day. It was actually the first Spencer’s in Madison according to the special marketing section.
Looking at the 1971 ad for JCPenney, to celebrate its opening there were going to be chainsaw and power tool demonstrations, a pantyhose clinic, and a wig fashion show with Miss USA. I didn’t realize wig departments were a thing and I’m curious what a wig fashion show entailed. Did people match wigs to an outfit or was it simply people walking a runway while showcasing the variety of faux hair.
The anchor store was a one-stop-shop for nearly everything a person would need to buy, plus a complete auto center, snack bar, greeting cards, film developing services and much more. The only thing I didn’t see mentioned was groceries.
One of the other anchor stores was Gimbels – a store I’d only heard mentioned on The Goldbergs TV series. From what I gathered among the eight full-pages of advertising, Gimbels was like JCPenney times 10. It advertised TVs at the price of $528.88 for a 25-inch screen that included all the latest modern technology. Gimbels also offered charm school courses for girls, which was one of those things I thought only existed in movies or TV or exclusively in the south as a remnant from the past.
While the other tenants have long-since vacated the mall, there were some stores I remembered from my early life among those opening in 1971, like Walden Books (my parents could leave me there while they shopped in nearby stores), Thom McCann shoe store, Aladdin’s Castle arcade, The Id, The Limited and Naturalizer (seriously, how many shoe stores does one mall need?).
There were stores that came later to the mall that I have vivid memories of – KayBee Toys stands out because they always had some of the small electronic toys at the front of the store. The candy store near the food court where you could scoop out sugary goods into plastic bags; it also eventually became a hub for Beanie Babies if I recall correctly. Also near the candy store was the music and movie store where I purchased my first CD (in case you’re curious, it was Madonna and was wrapped in one of those jumbo plastic security devices). I can remember the pet store where we bought our hamster, Mikey, and would longingly look at all the puppies.
At one point, there was even a movie theater at East Towne and a Hardee’s. The food court was filled with the smells of Sbarro and Happy Wok.Of course, while malls offered convenience, it marked the decline of the downtown stores in communities. Why go shop-to-shop when you could head to a place where all of the stores were under one roof? Where you could hit up JCPenney or Gimbels to buy almost everything you could need plus put it on layaway.
Now, malls are becoming less populated with multiple vacant stores. Online shopping and big box discount stores are putting these shopping centers in the same position of downtown small businesses. But, it looks like more downtowns are started to be revived with smaller independent stores.
Maybe it’s part of a shopping cycle. Or perhaps malls will one day be something older people tell youth about when giving the “Back in my day” stories.
There is one thing for sure though, I really want to see pictures from a 1970s wig fashion show.