by Thomas Greco, Publisher

After we checked all the golfers in at last month’s AASP/NJ Lou Scoras golf tournament, I had a couple hours to kill, so I took a ride around the Manalapan Freehold area and went out looking for a new place to add to my favorite hot dog list (see last month’s issue).

Unfortunately, the Windmill that used to be right out on Route 9 closed, so that wasn’t an option. And when Yelp’s top recommendation was Sonic, I knew I was in for a crappy lunch.

After driving around for a half hour, I decided to just settle for a Nathan’s stand in the Freehold Mall. Now don’t get me wrong –– Nathan’s used to have a damn good dog. But that was probably some time before electricity so…I mean, I’m sure the original joint in Coney Island is still good, but the ones in the malls? It’s like the difference between Ruth’s Chris and Sizzler.

But that’s not where I’m going here. The one thing that stood out to me more than anything was not how nice the Freehold Mall was (or wasn’t) but how EMPTY it was. I’m not just talking people; I’m talking storefronts. It looked like an indoor San Francisco. Sadly, that seems to be every mall these days. 

I guess you could say I grew up during the “Golden Age” of malls. I can remember my sister Gloria taking me to my very first: the Garden State Mall in Paramus. For a nine-year-old kid, it was Glorious (see what I did there?)! Back then, the mall was anchored by Bamberger’s, Gimbels and JCPenney with dozens of other little stores between them. And get this, there was no roof! You had to walk outside from one store to another! I had no clue what stores Gloria went to. All I knew was to meet her at the pretzel stand at 9:30. Boy, was I in my Glory. (See what I did there?)

My dad always gave me some cash, so my first stop was always Sam Goody, the biggest record store I had ever seen. I can remember buying stuff like John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” 45 or the Beatles Red and Blue collections or The Miracles’ Greatest Hits. For me, it was like Christmas every time we went. 

One thing that never failed was I would get so lost in that smorgasbord of records that I would look up at the clock, and it would always be 9:00. So I would rush to the cashier, run back across the mall to get a couple of those delicious hot pretzels (with Grapeade) and still have time to sneak into the book store and look through the nude modeling “art” books. (Yes, I was an “old” nine; I had two older brothers with Playboy subscriptions…you get the idea.)

Who knew Paramus would soon become ground zero for malls? There was Paramus Park (my first visit to Sears…I always thought it was just a Wish Book Christmas catalog!), the Bergen Mall (seeing my first Beatles tribute band!) and the Fashion Center (my first…well I never really liked the Fashion Center; my mom thought Lord & Taylor was a snob store). 

But our go-to mall was always the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne. So many memories: my first salad bar (Casey O’Toole’s)…my Spalding Tom Seaver mitt (Herman’s World of Sporting Goods)…Harmony Hut (where my great friend Jerry Tolve worked. I’d bring up $50 worth of albums to him at the register, and he would give $50 change!)…my first x-rated movie (Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Vixens!)…and lastly, the greatest arcade known to man (Fun N’ Games), where we’d spend a fortune playing Atari football until our hands were one big blister (umm that might have been the movie LOL).

As the years went by, the malls grew and changed. Fate always takes you full circle, so I started taking my kids to the newly enclosed and expanded Garden State Mall when they were young. Every Thursday, more wonderful memories were created. Like browsing in the game room store and seeing my little girl come running across the store only to trip and fall on her face, get up, look around and then start wailing uncontrollably. It’s as vivid as the sunlight in my mind. 

Or stopping in Spencer’s Gifts and getting distracted looking at neon Beatles posters only to find the kids in the next aisle where they should NEVER BE (you know, the one with the “toys”). 

Or getting hit by the curse after eating Nathan’s and having to take two kids (one in a stroller no less) into the stall with you and screaming at them, “Don’t look, face the wall!”).

Or sharing hot pretzels.

Or browsing at Sam Goody.

Or just seeing their faces on the carousel. We spent hours on that carousel.

But just like the carousel, most of those crowds and stores are gone now. Amazon (and we) have seen to that. Mark it up to another joy from our past that our grandchildren will never experience. Malls will soon be our generation’s ghost towns. I’ll miss them.

Want more? Check out the October 2023 issue of New Jersey Automotive!