I’ve been thinking about my childhood lately, for whatever reason. One place that I kept going back to time and again (both in my head and in my childhood) was the Berlin Mall, appropriately enough in Berlin, Vermont. It occurred to me that this mall saw me grow up and change, and it changed right along with me.
The mall, as best as I can remember, opened up some time in the mid to late eighties. Before then, the only option was the University mall in Burlington, Vermont. That was a forty-five minute drive from where I lived back then. The idea of having a place you can go to, with a whole bunch of stores, ALL under one weather-proof roof was amazing to me.
Going there was a treat for me. I still remember many of the original stores. The toy store was Kay-Bee Toys(later K-B Toys because… reasons?) Almost across from it was an independent pizza place. Further up was a magic shop (I believe called The Magic Shop?) Just past that was a candy shop where you could still get candy by the piece.
Further up ahead was the other restaurant in the mall: The prerequisite Orange Julius. They had the best pizza dogs in the universe. The other end of the mall had a flower shop, with a Walden books across from it.
Then there was a Footlocker, and an optometrist. There was a largish music store called The Music Shoppe that sold musical instruments and video equipment in addition to tapes and CDs. Up and to the left was a tee-shirt shop of all things. They even did custom air-brushed shirts. They didn’t last long.
Beside them was the mandatory video arcade, imaginatively called the FUN Arcade. It was a bit on the small side, but there was always something new to play for a number of years. Surprisingly, it played a smaller role in my life than the other stores, though it remained a constant as I grew up.
The Berlin Mall only had two stores to begin with: J.C. Penney and a Rich’s department store. A few years on it gained a Jo Ann Fabrics in the middle. I remember how much it blew my mind, seeing a huge store appear where once there was only a blank wall.
The mall became a much larger part of my life as both of my parents found jobs there. My mother worked at the pizza joint. My father worked at the Kay-Bee Toys. He would finish his stay there as assistant manager.
It was great fun for a time. I got to go hang out in the toy store with my father. I’d go over to the pizza joint to see my mom and have lunch with her. It was a classic kids’ dream, but it wasn’t to last.
The first change came in 1989. That was the year my mother died of Leukemia. It’s one of the prime reasons my memory of my childhood is so spotty. Needless to say, losing the person your world revolved around is profoundly damaging.
One of the most profound healing moments I had happened at the Berlin Mall, however. My father and I were hanging out with one of my father’s friends at the mall. He was a big guy that we all lovingly called Bear. He’d end up changing too.
But at the time, he was an anchor for my father, and almost a surrogate uncle to me. We were in and around the flower shop for whatever reason. I got it in my mind that I wanted to write a letter to my mother and float it to her with a balloon.
I wrote the letter, and my father got me a balloon from the flower shop, knowing that it wouldn’t provide enough lift to take it away. Surely enough, the letter didn’t even lift off the ground. In stepped Bear to buy a second balloon for me.
That didn’t do much to budge the letter, either. By this point, the story of what I was trying to do started getting around. My father, somewhat embarrassed, was telling Bear not to waste the money. Bear was pretty-well ignoring him at this point.
After about twenty dollars (in eighties money!) and a few contributions from others, my letter was finally buoyant. Bear, my dad, and I went out the middle entrance of the mall. Tears in all of our eyes, I let the letter go.
It floated up and up. Others stopped to watch the large wad of balloons as they soared higher and higher. I watched until they had turned into nothing more than a dot in the sky, smiling.
I think in my heart I knew the letter wouldn’t actually reach my mother. All the same, it was a large step towards beginning to heal for me. It was made possible by my father, Bear, and to a lesser extent, the Berlin Mall.
The years crawled by, and I grew older. Eventually I began riding my bicycle to the mall. It was a grand journey for me: About two and a half miles on busy roads.
I was a solitary child. We moved every couple of years, it seemed. I never managed to stay in one place long enough to make permanent friends. Over time I preferred to just be off on my own.
My trips to the Berlin Mall became my happiness. I’d take whatever meager amount of cash I’d managed to scrape together and find something cheap to treat myself with. More often than not, that was Bazooka Joe bubblegum at the candy shop.
There was more than shopping to be had at the mall, though. At one point during the summer there would be the boat show. I’ve never been much of a boat person, but it was impressive to see all those big, shiny boats inside the mall!
The prerequisite parking lot carnival would pop up once or twice a year. Then the circus started coming there. It was the only circus I ever got to see in my life. My most notable memory was riding an elephant that would eventually go on a rampage a few years later. It was ultimately gunned down by police.
Perhaps my fondest memories were from Christmastime at the mall. I remember walking there once in the middle of a snow storm. I went to the Orange Julius and used some of my pocket change to get a small coffee, the world’s youngest adult.
I had to go. I was going Christmas shopping, and there was plenty to sift through there. Every season, Christmas-themed shops would pop up in empty store fronts, or set up booths throughout the mall. You could get everything from hand-made ornaments, to statuary, to original paintings and everything in between.
I remember spending hours wandering around, just taking it all in. I was alone, but not alone. The mall had become my friend. It was someone I would come to visit, we’d have an adventure together, and then I’d go home to whatever.
Things changed as I grew older. Rich’s eventually folded, robbing the mall of one its most important anchors. A dollar store (incorrectly called All For a Dollar) also folded. It had been a treasure trove for a poor kid like me. The magic shop had died and gone long before either of those stores.
Over time, the magic began to fade. The mall had become barren, robbed of its life as people had fewer and fewer reasons to come visit. I was finding other interests as I grew, but part of me wept for this old friend.
Eventually, the world’s (seemingly) smallest Walmart moved in where Rich’s once was. The mall experienced a rebirth as shoppers once again filled its hallowed halls. Things would never be the same as before, though.
It continued to struggle, and so did I. Now out on my own, I took a job at that Walmart. My old friend had now become home to me. I was a cart pusher. I spent a beautiful summer getting thin and bronzed, prowling the parking lot for stray carts.
But Walmart is Walmart, and when I hurt my knee, they kind of shrugged and did nothing about it. I limped around trying to do my job for a few days, but to little effect. Eventually I just didn’t come in one day.
I went on to make a series of not-so-good decisions in my life that took me away from my precious mall. Perhaps, in a way, that was a good thing. It continued to change. Stores continued to move out and change hands.
I used to pine for my mall; to return one day and try to find that childhood magic I remembered so fondly. I don’t want to go back now, though. You see, my friend has grown up, too. He’s no longer recognizable to me.
It’s been a while since I checked, but I do believe every store I mentioned at the beginning of this article is now gone. I’m not even sure the arcade is still there. My best estimate would put maybe two stores remaining that date back to the earliest days of the mall’s existence.
Like me, the Berlin Mall has grown and changed. In some ways it’s been for the better, in other ways for the worse, not unlike myself. It stands as a strong symbol to me of the path life leads us all on.
We are born, and we grow. We find happiness where we can, before life and work take us away from what we’ve grown to know and love. We make do and find new ways to thrive and be fruitful.
But those childhood memories will be with us… with me… forever. I know now that I can never go back, but I can close my eyes and remember. For me, those memories are an escape from a world that has grown so, so cold.
I don’t miss the Berlin Mall, I miss what the Berlin Mall once was. I miss who I once was, but both of us have changed.
But I will always remember what we both once were.
Goodbye, old friend.