University Mall; Little Rock, Arkansas

MM Cohn at University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas

While we may not be able to represent all 50 states in 2007, contributor Michael Lisicky is helping inch us along with this dead mall, the University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas:

I am not from Little Rock. I have never been to Little Rock. But recently I flew to Little Rock, just for the day, to check out the retail scene. It’s one of the few places in the country that has escaped the homogenization of Macy’s but is also home to one of the country’s few locally-named stores left, MM Cohn. My first stop, and my main stop, was the University Mall on the west side of Little Rock. I am not a historian of the mall. I do know that it was built in 1967 as a predominantly one story mall. The mall was home to a large Penney’s, a Montgomery Ward and a 40,000 square foot MM Cohn. MM Cohn is over 121 years old and, of course, no longer run by the founder’s family. (More on that later.) In 1972, Cohn’s added a second level bringing it to 86,000 square feet. The mall was constantly in battle with its neighbor the Park Plaza Mall. That mall was built in 1965 was anchored by Blass, which along with Pfeifer’s, was taken over by Mr. Dillard. (Blass became Pfeifer-Blass in 1968 and then all stores just became Dillard’s. Its downtown store lasted
until 1990, quite a feat for a chain that has hated downtown locations. Oops I’m off on a tangent again.)

University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas

Back to University Mall. Over the years the two malls were built and rebuilt over and over again, each fighting for dominance. University added a second story and parking garage, Park Plaza basically just started all over again and then added a roof. By the late 90s it became clear who won the battle, Park Plaza. Stores began to leave, crime rose. In 2001 Montgomery Ward shut its stores, along with their stores everywhere else, and the mall became emptier, MM Cohn closed its second level. The decay continued. Stories about a new mall to open in Little Rock’s western side began to emerge and that fueled the debate of what to do with University Mall.

University Mall is run by the major mall developer, Simon. What is left of the mall? Well not much. According to a Penney’s worker the mall is just waiting for its stores’ leases to end. Penney’s is leaving but probably not until November. The worker said the mall is to be “condemned and razed”. There is no other answer. What is left, besides Franke’s Cafeteria, and the signature tent roof, is MM Cohn.

What is left of MM Cohn? What is left of the store that was once compared to Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom? What is left of the store that was the premiere store of not only Little Rock but Memphis and Oklahoma City? Very little. The store is, as others have mentioned, like an indoor yard sale. It’s a mess. The merchandise is low end and uneven. The store has a strong odor. It’s the type of place that your grandmother would shop in. But at the same time I love MM Cohn! I love its logo and its heritage and history. Unfortunately the store is as dead as the mall. Its parent company, Dunlaps, is rumored to be in trouble. Dunlaps has been the kiss of death for many of its
acquisitions and though it has kept some of its local names it also killed names like Porteous and Heironimus. They both died a painful death and so is MM Cohn. The mall hasn’t helped.

MM Cohn's store in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas MM Cohn's McCain Mall MM Cohn Searcy

Cohn’s abandoned downtown store, closed in 1989 after Dunlaps took it over, sits there waiting to reopen. The McCain Mall store in North Little Rock is small and yes, smells. Its Searcy, AR store 45 minutes from the city is no bigger than a Big Lots. But I have comfort that it is still there and that its logo and name still exist. It’s why I fell in love with department stores. But soon Cohn’s will be just a distant memory. A memory with a rich proud history.

So here’s to University Mall. The end is near. The end is near for many malls but at least with just 20 stores under its belt University Mall let me see a Little Rock legend, even as it prepares to go to sleep.

littlerock1958.JPG 

UPDATE July 2007: Sadly, MM Cohn is currently liquidating all merchandise and going out of business at all locations, including at University Mall.  Also, we’ve attached a photo of downtown Little Rock featuring the retail scene there circa 1958 courtesy David Aldrich and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  Enjoy!

University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas MM Cohn at University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas MM Cohn at University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas

University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas
JCPenney at University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas JCPenney at University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas

University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas

46 Responses to “University Mall; Little Rock, Arkansas”

  1. A great slice of history here. The MM Cohn retrospective and the leftover Penney’s canopy sign make this one of my favorite recent Labelscar posts. You will definately not see this anywhere else! :)

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  2. What a great read! I thoroughly enjoyed this one. And I, too, love the canopy sign!

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  3. I’ve heard about this one, but wow what a find! That old-style Penney’s sign and entrance reminded me of the old Davison’s mall entrance at the now-demolished Avondale Mall, also built in the 1960’s, and it just shows that mall has not received much attention overall just to even have a logo like that…did you happen to see if the Penney’s still looked 1960’s on the inside? That mall captured both the 60’s and the 80’s, and I can’t help but love that MM Cohn myself. Not only does that sign brings back memories of the old JB White logo, but it’s absolutely amazing a store like that still exists (no matter how rough) after all the mergers eliminated all the rest.

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  4. This is at DeadMalls.com.

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  5. Well, I just made it! MM Cohn’s parent company, Dunlaps out of Texas, is planning to announce tomorrow, Friday 6/7, that it is liquidating all of its remaining stores. The managers of the stores have known of these actions for the past couple of weeks. So the rumors are true. All Dunlaps stores will close by the end of summer. Goodbye MM Cohn! How lucky was I to get these pictures!!
    The only problem now is when am I going to find time to hit the remaining Rogers store in Muscle Shoals, AL? I’ll keep you posted.

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  6. I am not from Arkansas however I do have relatives in Ft. Smith. Visited this mall once, so sorry to see it closing up. It was a nice mall.

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  7. Michael,
    That is just a rumor right now! It will most likely happen, but nothing is confirmed.

    What does MM Cohn sell anyway?

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  8. There will be announcement on this tomorrow. “Entire Store on Sale” signs are currently posted with general percentages listed on signs. I’m sorry to say it’s a done deal. I have a ticket to Alabama to see Dunlaps’ Rogers division next week. It is located in a dead mall. MM Cohn had clothing, shoes, cosmetics, and home merchandise. It was all kind of haphazard but it was trying to present itself as a complete department store (no furniture). The Searcy, AR had womans, cosmetics and home, no mens.

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  9. Michael:

    You know much more than I ever will about the Dunlaps stores, so I’ll throw this question out to you (or anyone else who might know):

    My mom is from Decatur, Alabama, which used to have a Rogers at the mall. It used to be called the Beltline Mall, but I think it’s now Colonial Decatur or something stupid like that.

    Anyways…the last time I was actually at the mall was in 1986 or so, and I remember a Sears, Penney’s, and Castner-Knott. Parisian moved out there at some point, which leads to my question: Where did Rogers come from? Did they replace something already at the mall? I’m thinking no, since Dillard’s replaced C-K. Or did there also used to be a Belk there? What’s their story in general? I’ve never heard of them…

    Too bad that the whole company is calling it quits. Guess it’s just like everything else in this country these days: You got 3 choices of where to buy stuff from — if you don’t like it, tough.

    Just my ramblings.

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  10. Rogers is originally from Florence, AL. It opened a branch in Muscle Shoals in 1968 and Decatur in 1972. I can’t find much specific information of the Decautur store (it is actually still listed on their website) except for the fact that it was located “in a mall” and closed 2 years ago. Actually I couldn’t stand sitting here while the final local department store chain is closing its doors. So on 6/19 I got a flight to Huntsville! I’ll learn more about Rogers and post the info when I return. From what I understand it was in a small dead mall. It was not in the mall where Parisian is located. (Yes I will be also enjoying my final trip to 4 northern AL Parisian stores that same day.)
    More stuff to post. If anyone says I’m wrong about Rogers in Decatur please correct me! I can say for sure that it was founded in 1894 and was sold to Dunlaps in 1996. The main store in Florence closed in 2001.

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  11. That “Penney’s” sign; that’s quite a find. I don’t think there’s anymore of those even those lurking under dark scaffolds today. Do you think the chain will ever try to revert to “Penney’s” ever again (and ditching the 35+ year old Unimark logo) especially with talks of rival retailer Sears attempting to return to its roots?

    Not to tangent, but who are they trying to attract with their new “Every Day Matters” slogan? Everytime I hear it it makes me think of borderline suicidals… you know times being what they are and all…

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  12. I don’t know about the slogan they’re using now.

    I sure would like to see them revert back to their ‘Penneys’ nameplate though. They used it for a mere 5-6 years (1965-autumn 1971), before switching to the signage we’re all familiar with. I mean, with JCPenney doing a decent business now compared to their lean days of the 1990s decade leading into trouble in 2000-2001, “Penneys” just sounds more…..classy, for lack of a better word. It would fit their new ‘image’.

    If Sears is thinking seriously, they need to roll out that new prototype in a more perminant fashion real soon to all stores. My mall’s Sears will be hitting their 10 year anniversary this coming August….the store has not seen any remodeling since its opening and it’s about that time I’d think.

    Likewise for Kohl’s. They should revert back to their script logotype.

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  13. I don’t think reverting back to the old logo or the Penneys moniker is what JCPenney needs. It’s fine to be nostalgic, and I have some very fond memories of seeing those old signs and being in those old stores, but JCPenney in its Penneys period was trying to be just like Sears and Wards. It was not a particularly great time for them, and they kept their momentum mostly because of the tremendous growth of malls.

    Renaming itself JCPenney allowed the company to reflect the name of its founder in a fresh new way (for 1971) and also started a major re-imaging project that allowed them to be distinctive, modern, and fashion-forward, something that neither Sears or Wards ever pulled off.

    If you want to talk about who was the preeminent mall anchor of the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was clearly JCPenney, which changed itself from dry goods merchant to America’s first national department store. (Sorry Macy’s, you’re at least second). The JCPenney logo and associated re-imaging did that for them.

    The original and subsequent JCPenney graphics packages were incredible for their time, and only after nearly losing its ass in the mid ‘90s (due to the collapse of the regional mall market) did they stop an increasingly upscale and modern shopping experience. They still kept pushing modern, but its a few steps back from where they were in the ‘90s in terms of sophistication.

    Although I’m not tired of the Unimark logo in the least, I can understand the desire for change, and if JCPenney does change its logo, it needs to be something that breaks with tradition, because the old logo we all love was a trailblazer, as well as the current logo. They deserve nothing less.

    As far as Sears goes, they’re experts at starting marketing programs, but they’re also great at under-funding them, half-delivering on promised improvements and alienating both customers that want a fresh look and those that want to shop them as they are.

    What Sears is doing is quaint, but we all know they won’t deliver chain-wide, and it’ll just be another footnote in an increasingly impotent recent history. JCPenney should steer far, far away from whatever Sears does.

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  14. I have to agree. As cool as some of these historical logos are, they’re just that–history. I don’t see any real benefit for most of them to revert to old logos, but rather to use what made sense for them before, and try and bring those things back. JCPenney and Kohl’s are both doing quite fine for themselves now; Sears, on the other hand, is not, and it may be a successful value proposition for them to lean on the nostalgia angle since they’re the only true remaining “department store” of the lot (since the rest are mostly clothing and housewares).

    And I also agree with Steven that JCPenney, not Macy’s, was the first true national department store. Somewhere along the way, JCPenney took on more of a blue collar image, but I remember as a kid that we saw them as quite a bit above Sears, and on par with Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, which we wouldn’t think nowadays.

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  15. In response to Michael’s comments on Rogers in Decatur. I punched the address into Terraserver and found that the Rogers store wasn’t in a mall, it was a standalone near a strip mall.

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  16. I’m really shocked to hear that Dunlaps is closing up for good, chain-wide. Since I’d vaguely heard of them, ironically through a post I saw several months back on the Fields Fans Chicago blog(and was the first time I’d ever heard of them). And lol, I’m not anti-Macy’s(I sometimes have shopped there since the changeover to Macy’s, in fact), I just look at their posts there, since they sometimes are interesting to read.

    Anyway, it’s sad to see that this mall is about to go under for good. I see this mall’s death seems like a classic example of a mall that struggled to compete against a more successful mall(a la Randhurst Mall in Mt. Prospect). That M.M. Cohn logo is awesome, too. I also really like how their downtown Little Rock store once looked like, too!

    Hopefully, someone can cover what the logos for the other chains that Dunlaps acquired over the years, before the whole chain closes for good(since I remember that Rogers and M.M. Cohn aren’t the only chains that Dunlaps absorbed into their company).

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  17. I know Steketee’s in Michigan was part of Dunlaps for a while, as was Heironimus out in Virginia. Both chains died in the 2000s.

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  18. This………mall…….is…..screwed.

    Theres hardly anyone in there!

    I was stunned to see that Penny’s sign still hanging there though.

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  19. Department stores seem only to return to old logo styles during tough times. I think it’s to lure people with the “it’ll be like it was before we ruined it.” We’ll call it “comfort logos.”
    Too bad about this mall; it looks like it could have been great.
    Scott

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  20. I didn’t know Saks Fifth Avenue was in trouble, then.

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  21. Thanks for this homage to M.M. Cohn. The downtown store was a great place to shop. In the 60s I remember looking at the Hickey-Freeman suits and wishing I could afford one.

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  22. I remember as a young boy, the bustling streets of downtown Little Rock at Christmas. We would go into all three department stores (four if you count JCPenney across the street). Pfeifers and Blass were great stores, but mmCohn was by far the superlative. And yes, we did call it our own little Neimans, complete with a lunch counter and elevator attendant. I was always mesmerized by the window at Christmas.

    I’ve always loved the store logo. Just think, they did lower case WAY before the computer age…. This store will be sorely missed and it hurts to see such a local legend be brought to its knees by this neglectful owner.

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  23. I too, love the old “Penneys” signage and even though a lot of people still refer to it as Penney’s, I doubt they’d revert back to a past logo today (especially considering how dated it looks) But after thirty plus years with the boring Unimark logo, I think it’s time for a change. However, you’ve got to give them credit, it still looks contemporary.

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  24. Actually, if you are able to catch a glimpse of JCPenney’s Fall-Winter ’07 catalog, they at least reverted back to the thicker styled lettering of their common “JCPenney’ logo…..basically they seem to be going back to the original Unimark design.

    If you recall, these letters got thinner and thinner over the years.

    Their website even reflects the change, abelt, the logo is still boxed in.

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  25. I found this on yahoo after doing a search when I heard that all of the M.M. Cohn’s were closing. Great write up. I’m only 26, but I too can remember Cohn’s glory days right before the sell out and after. I remember when my grandmother was in Mrs. Senior Arkansas and she got her evening gown from there. It blew my mind she got something that nice in Little Rock.

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve purposely tried to shop there. I really hate to see them go. It would be great if someone could revive the name after the dust from Dunlap’s settles.

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  26. When is JCPenney finally closing shop at University Mall?

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  27. I was told at the time that I submitted this entry that Penney’s would be closing in October, or possibly November.

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  28. After that, Simon sells the mall and the mall is Doomed?

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  29. Rogers in Muscle Shoals is closing in 10 days… How very sad…

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  30. I’ve been to both Muscle Shoals and Florence – this was back in 2001 or early 2002. The Roger’s in Florence was in downtown but already closed at that point. I did shop the one at a small mall in Muscle Shoals. the store was not too bad back then – Muscle Shoals is a smaller town so one would not expect high fashion.

    MM Cohn was obviously once a very nice store. I live in Memphis and many people here talk very highly of it. I would LOVE to have the rights to this name after the dust settles. I think all these closings and mergers is opening up a major opportunity for regional retailers to make a comeback. It won’t be easy but I think it can be done. Today, too many stores are run by MBA’s usually located quite a distance away and not by merchants who know their markets.

    I’d much rather shop a hometown store.

    Yes – MM Cohn had a GREAT logo! A lot could be done with it.

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  31. Its a crying shame but Indoor Malls are becoming a thing of the past.

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  32. A mall that despartely needs to be listed on this site.All left in the mall is barber shop and a bank out of 60 or 70 store spaces.This mall is Phoenix Village Mall in Fort Smith.It hasnt been considered a true mall in years.I mean 15 to 20 yrs.Nobody’s never done anything about.It seems to me that nobody really cares.

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  33. Honest to God.I always heard the stock market crash of 1987 is what killed Phoneix Village Mall: Morris said Phoenix Village Mall performed well and operated normally until 1987. That’s when a deal was struck to sell the project to an out-of-state real estate investment concern.

    “The week we were to close on the sale was when the stock market crash happened on Monday (Oct. 19). Then on Tuesday, the Philadelphia banker called and said they weren’t going to make the loan to finance the sale.”

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  34. University Mall is closed and gone. This sad picture says it all:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/35237091109@N01/2255218413

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  35. Here is a list of tenants from some time ago, I don’t know how old this is:

    http://www.onlinelittlerock.com/content/shopping/university-mall.htm

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  36. I worked at M.M. Cohn for 6 years during college…many great memories there. I visited in the fall of 2007 as the “associates” were gearing up for the closing. The man in shoes I remembered from my time there in the late 80’s. He said he had been there for about 30 years, as many of their associates had. When I asked if he would retire, he replied that he loved helping people, and he couldn’t imagine not working. That kind of dedication is impossible to find anymore!!! Great memories of University Mall. It was the hang out for us in the 80’s!!!

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  37. As far as the question regarding Rogers at the Beltline Mall in Decatur, It was one of the original stores. It was located at the center of the mall by the fountain and directly opposite the main entrance. Prior to moving to the Beltline Mall around 1979(?), Rogers was located in a stand alone building in the Decatur Shopping Center on 6th Avenue (AKA Highway 31).

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  38. The directory is somewhere between 2002-2005. Montgomery Ward is not listed on the site. I remember as a kid this mall had furniture that was mounted on wheels so it could be removed when they set up for christmas or for when they had cars parked inside for Walt Bennett Ford. A classic thing was that I used to play with the cigarette ashtray button cause it had the door that drops butts away and my mom did not like me doing that!!!!
    I remember it had also no second floor except for the basement which had a long ramp to the community room and mall office under the Montgomery Ward portion

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  39. matt…you’re from wisconsin…if you want to see an authentic vintage JCPenney logo you can go to milwaukee. right on the freeway somewhere on the north central side of town is a jcpenney distribution center – COMPLETE with a white and blue (sort of script like) jcpenney logo on the side of the building. it’s gorgeous. i think one of the letters even has a small – white flag like ripple to it

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  40. University Mall has been torn down for quite a while now. The site is still under demo.

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  41. Hi guys,

    I came across this post by accident and it brought back a lot of old memories for me. I don’t know anything about retail, but I’d like to add a couple of thoughts to this post.

    As a kid growing up in Little Rock, I spent a lot of time in this mall. Cohn’s was mostly above my budget, but I remember it being quaint, but still very nice, heading into the early eighties. After both malls were renovated during the mid-eighties, Park Plaza was immediately recognized as the clear winner and the stores in University Mall — including Cohns — seem to quickly go downhill.

    Penney’s was more in line with my budget at the time and I have fond memories of this particular Penney’s store during the seventies. It had a very metropolitan feel to it, plenty of displays, always seemed to be busy and yet was easy to get in and out of quickly.

    I stopped shopping at Penney’s long ago, but the last few times I was inside this store before it closed, it had gone downhill drastically. Sadly, while Penney’s has a newly built location in Little Rock, I can’t say that it’s much better While the paint is fresher, Penney’s seems to have taken a nosedive; at least at it’s Little Rock locations (my experience elsewhere has been a little better.)

    Thanks for the memories!

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  42. Was there a Sears at this mall?

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  43. I AM SO SAD TO KNOW THAT ALL OF THE MM COHN STORES HAVE CLOSED.. I WAS THE OFFICE MANAGER AT THE STORE IN McCAIN MALL AFTER COLLEGE.. I LOVED THAT STORE., I LOVED THE PEOPLE THAT WORKED THERE. I GOT TO MEET DAN AND TAD PHILLIPS WHO WERE PART OF THE FOUNDERS FAMILY. BOTH MEN WERE WONDERFUL TO WORK FOR. BACK THEN THERE WERE 2 STORES IN LITTLE ROCK, 1 IN NORTH LITTLE ROCK , STORES IN GERMANTOWN, TN AND OKC.. OUR STORE MANAGER WAS CHRIS RAYBORN AND SHE WAS GREAT! GOODBYE MM COHN YOU ARE GONE BUT NEVER, EVER FORGOTTEN!

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    clarence owens Reply:

    @VIKI,

    I WORKED AT THE MCCAIN STORE IN MENS FROM 82-86 AND REMEMBER A VIKI…WHO HAD GREAT LEGS AND A MICHELLE IN THE OFFICE!

    I ALSO REMEMBER ALBERTA, JOANNE, DOROTHY, GRACE KELLY…YES, BUT NOT THE PRINCESS AND MISS MINNIE, LORRAINE, HENRIETTA, ROBIN AND JOHN BELL!

    YOUR POST HAS FILLED MY HEAD WITH IMAGES OF THE TIME SPENT THERE!

    THANK YOU,
    CLARENCE

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    Clarence Owens Reply:

    @VIKI,

    I think we know each other, so please contact me at
    212 242-0985 or by email….clarenceowens@gmail.com
    or on Facebook!

    Best,
    Clarence Owens

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  44. To the Sears question. There wasn’t a Sears in University mall, but there was/is a freestanding Sears very close. On the south side of the mall preperty was a small hospital and doctors office buildings (not to be confused with the large hospital on the east side). To the south of the medical building is a Sears with a free standing auto center. For the longest time this Sears also had a freestanding key making kiosk in the parking lot. It’s still there, but has been empty for years.

    I still remember the original mall (with the ramp to the lower level) and the first renovation that was done with the mall still open. It really looked nice in it’s last form and did good business for a while. There were so many problems it really became a sad shell at the end. The Montgomery Wards also had a free standing auto center in the parking lot. I was told that Sears rented the space in the mall to keep it vacant and not allow another general retailer to move in. Can’t vouch for that directly, but the sources were good.

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