Please step into the retail time machine. Set the date for 1971, and the location to Enfield, Connecticut, and join the holiday rush at the opening of the Enfield Square Mall. Hundreds of footsteps clack against the shining ceramic tiling, harmonizing with the pattering of droplets from the nearby fountains, spritzing the air and the present ficus with a pleasant mist. The bright, white halls are filled with bobbing heads. All the while, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” plays over the speakers and pierces through the racket. Shoppers’ eyes bounce from outlets like Joyce Leslie to Lerner Shops, each glowing with a welcoming light that calls to them—and their wallets. The one-stop-shopping wonderland for each and every niche has just opened, and people are pouring in at all hours of the day.
We return to our wired world fifty-one years later into a post-box-store, post-COVID-19, Amazon-dominated retail world, where anything can be yours with just a few clicks. The cracked tile floors of Enfield Square no longer reflect what dim lights remain above. Most store entrances are devoid of signage and guarded by thick, metallic gates and impenetrable darkness. Sunglasses and perfume kiosks sit barren. Greenery has been replaced by a row of dusty glass orbs filled with undoubtedly expired candy. The speakers still play pop songs, but the echo only reminds the few shoppers that they’re all alone. The year is 2023, and the Enfield Square is still open despite its dilapidated state. Signs of revival are becoming increasingly clear.
In its prime, the Enfield Square (formerly Westfield Shoppingtown Enfield Square) was a place packed full of purchasing potential, anchored by stores like G. Fox, JCPenney, and Steiger’s beckoning customers with their numerous departments. When Sears—the second to last anchor store—finally succumbed to the retail tar pits and closed in 2017, all the massive anchor spaces sit empty, aside from Target, which holds much of the mall’s traffic on its back. In subsequent years, space has remained dark, and existing renters have struggled with ownership changing hands from realtor to realtor like an unruly infant at a family gathering.
One bellwether of retail malls is the Indiana-based company, Simon Property Group, the self-proclaimed “global real estate powerhouse.” Simon owns nearly 200 different malls in America. When a certain virus reared its malignant head in January of 2020, SPG’s stock nearly halved in just one month, costing them close to a billion dollars, and spelling the fates of many a mall, as customers were stuck at home.
As COVID-19 trampled through Enfield’s small businesses, the final nail in the coffin seemed to have been set for the once-great center of commerce. Occasional spur-of-the-moment ventures such as Go! Calendars & Games or Spirit of Halloween would eagerly sprout up, only to be quickly snuffed out by economic uncertainty. Yet, bright beams of light now pierce through the darkness, and for once, it isn’t the giant hole in the roof of the old Macy’s.
SSUPhoto Designs and Galaxy Pops and Beyond share the unit right across from the Cinemark Enfield Square 12 theater. In the back half of the single large room, rows-upon-rows of collectible vinyl figures stand vigil over stacks and tins of Pokémon cards. In the front half, several placeholder families, immortalized in custom frames, watch from the walls, ready to be replaced by owner and photographer Dwayne Thomas.
“Mall’s been great to us so far,” grinned Thomas, owner of SSUPhoto Designs. Thomas stood behind the counter in a dark gray shirt decorated with his logo, “I’ve been here for a year and a half—used to be across the way—then I joined up with him.” He gestured to a small stack of purplish business cards emblazoned with the Galaxy Pops and Beyond branding.
“We actually do the craft fair on Sundays,” he then mentioned, “We run it ourselves.”
The husk of Macy’s is pitched in a foreboding, empty darkness more often than not. On Sundays in March, though, it is alive with the chattering of local craftspeople toting homemade wares of all kinds—from candles, to soaps, to copious amounts of CBD. The North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce—now located across from Claire’s—ensures that small businesses get proper representation.
“We had over 150 vendors signed up,” Thomas recollects, his mouth smiling but his eyes wincing, “but we only had fifty-five booths. We’re getting it started back up in May, though.”
As he rang out a pack of reasonably priced collectible cards, a young boy swathed in Fortnite merchandise began peeling the tape to a well-sealed box. His mother was turning around a tumbler bereft of a design in her hand, but her daydreaming was cut off by the then-grimacing Thomas.
“Ma’am? Your son.”
She turned and glared at the boy, now halfway through the box. Sighing, she slowly removed her credit card from her wallet.
Stateline Games, located just across from Target, is a simple shop. It consists of one long wall decorated by rigidly-aligned, deceptively-empty video game boxes. Set in the center is a single semi-circular desk, where a man with a wide smile, long beard, and a surprisingly blank teal button-up happily chatted with passersby about the latest releases and retro revivals.
“I was up in Agawam from 2008 up through 2020,” explained the man behind the desk, store owner Frank Bond, as a mother and her two daughters pilfered through once-loved game discs. “2018 I decided it was time to expand. I’d always come to the mall with my kids here, and then this spot opened up.” He looked outside the long front window. As the afternoon struck and the warm spring air rose, more and more people began trickling through the front doors, like droplets off winter icicles.
“The rent is super cheap here, which I think is the main reason why so many new places are opening up all of a sudden. Plus, the managers are great. They genuinely care about the mall and wanna see it do well.”
According to the Simon Property Group in late 2022, occupancy rates in their malls and outlets are up to nearly nine-tenths and rising. The Enfield Square is proof of that, with many of the units quickly filling, and advertisements for soon-to-come ventures plastering their website. Small business is emerging from the rubble COVID-19 had wrought to in-person shopping, and forging their futures in the storefronts worldwide retailers once occupied. Enfield Square now features thirty stores already proudly open.
On this April afternoon, a pack of children tears up the garishly green and toy-laden interior of Crystal’s Fun Spot while their parents explored the financing options at Furnari Jewelers, and a group of tote-bag-toting twentysomethings waits patiently for the Calm Panda Smartshop to reopen after their suspiciously long hour-lunch.
“I think a lot of it is that plenty of places are moving from selling merchandise to selling experiences,” says Bond, pointing to an empty unit across the way. A large, metal sign advertises the upcoming “D Gym” in bold, neon-green lettering.
It still isn’t 1971. The Enfield Square Mall still isn’t the community’s shining center of commerce. It also isn’t a contemporary ghost mall. Despite the building’s graffiti-coated walls, cracked floors, and the corpse of the Sears Auto Center standing as an idol to suburban decay, the echoes of capitalism still ring on cash registers through the tiled halls. The mall may never see the same fervent rush of cash-carrying customers as it did back in 1971, but glimmers of hope shine within the quickly renovating storefronts and shiny new signage.
Ryan Shermer is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header image courtesy of Ryan Shermer.