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.)
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.
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.
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!