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Is Hunt Valley Macy's demise a portent or blip?


On the night before they closed the doors at Macy's at Hunt Valley Mall, we walked through the huge rooms and felt like intruders at an indoor graveside service for an old acquaintance.

The big place had a haunted, eerie feel, as though staged by Rod Serling. The sign on the front door said, "Sale: Take 85 Percent Off Ticketed Price," but there was almost nothing left to ticket and nobody left who cared.

About 50 feet inside the front door, a handful of people lined up with self-consciously bowed heads and checked out the final remains of merchandise. But these last sweaters and scarves were all collected in one little area. The rest of this vast, multi-floored department store giant was empty but for the carcasses of once-brimming shelves and mirrors that seemed to gape at each other across the shadows.

Cash registers beamed out a typed electronic message: "Welcome to Macy's. Enter Employee Number." But there were no employees standing over any of them. Cases that once held glittery jewelry were now empty and looked like TV monitors turned off. An isolated sign of humanity was a big photo of a stunning perfume model, but she had no one there to admire her: Imagine such a woman without a date!

Beyond that, imagine troubled Hunt Valley Mall without Macy's as its anchor. Imagine Macy's without enough customers to keep its doors open. Consider the latest financial numbers from the department store chain: $64.68 million in losses through June, as Macy's closed seven stores around the country and struggled through its worst period since filing for Chapter 11 protection from creditors.

"It's sad," said a woman holding up a beaded sweater no one else in the world, in weeks of closeout sales, had wanted to buy. "It feels like we sneaked into somebody's house after they died, and we're going through their things."

This sort of mood is not exactly isolated at Hunt Valley, which was in trouble long before the Macy's closing. There are vast expanses of walkway emptiness where shoppers had been expected when the north Baltimore County mall first opened its doors 11 years ago. There are stores operating on marginal profits and others hanging on for life. And there is a revolving-door leasing of space as many stores have shut down and were -- sometimes -- replaced by newcomers.

For much of its life, you could walk through Hunt Valley and think: Why does it feel so empty here?

On Tuesday, the night before Macy's closed, the whole mall had a lonely feel to it. Rows of shops had no customers, and employees stood about with arms folded idly over their chests. The shells of former stores sat darkened behind plywood fronts. At the food bazaar, five of 14 carryouts were boarded up, and almost no one waited for food at the nine remaining places.

Throughout the mall, it felt as if everyone had been ordered to clear out for a bomb threat, but a few hapless stragglers hadn't heard about it.

Some said it was a normal week-night feeling.

"And now," said the manager of a small clothing store, "we're all holding our breath over the Macy's closing. We don't get their customer fallout. Does this mean we're all on life-support systems, or does somebody around here finally get an imagination and bring us back to life?"

Much of this, even in a long season of national economic blues, seems strangely out of place. Not so long ago, after the arrival of Harborplace, shopping centers around here were all opened with much public hoopla -- Remember Owings Mills Mall? Remember White Marsh Mall? Remember the Brave New Mall media accompaniment to each opening?

Along with this came a simple assumption: Anything built in suburbia cannot possibly fail.

Hunt Valley seemed to qualify: It was morning in America out there. People had money out there, and a history of spending it. This wasn't downtown Baltimore's abandoned Howard Street, it was exactly the sort of place all those department store owners had fled to. It was the Promised Land.

Shopping centers were our new psychological town centers, not only the stores where we went to buy our goods, but the little mercantile villages where we socialized for a few hours at a time over lunch, and the geographical reference point for distant friends who needed directions to our neighborhood.

"They float on the landscapes like pyramids to the boom years," Joan Didion once wrote in a magazine essay called "The Shopping Center." "They are toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes."

"The shopping center," the Urban Land Insitute exulted 35 years ago, "is today's extraordinary retail business evolvement. The automobile accounts for suburbia, and suburbia accounts for the shopping center."

But what accounts for the troubles of Hunt Valley Mall, and the closing of its Macy's outlet? Is this the beginning of the end of the golden era of huge shopping malls, or merely an aberration? Is it a metaphor for America in the '90s, or merely a blip on an economic radar screen?

On Tuesday, the night before Macy's closed, there were people who walked out of the store with nothing in their hands but some cardboard boxes they'd picked off the floor.

There's the lasting picture: People walking out of a deserted mall past the shells of former shops, carrying empty boxes from a store which no longer exists.

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