Reno is most famous as “The Biggest Little City in the World,” and the west’s original gambling town and the place long ago where wealthy easterners came to get divorced. With around 400,000 people in the metropolitan area, it has long since faded as the main gambling destination in comparison to Las Vegas, though it still has many casino resorts and still does a decent tourist trade. In recent decades, like many western cities, it has become more of a bedroom community for people seeking a high standard of life for a relatively low cost.
As Reno’s tag would suggest, some of the physical form of the city is still suggestive of a small place. The main commercial drag through the city, Virginia Street, cuts a roughly north-south swath through the middle of downtown, and on the south side it long ago became the city’s main suburban commercial corridor, home to several newer (mega?) resorts and all 4 of the enclosed malls to ever call Reno home.
Of the four enclosed malls, one, the Park Lane Mall, is long gone, demolished years ago and replaced by a rather lovely barren windswept lot. Another, the Meadowood Mall, is the only truly large super-regional mall in the metropolitan area, though several newer and fairly large “outdoor malls” have sprung up either further south on the strip or over in Sparks. That leaves two more enclosed malls along South Virginia St., and both of them are small, strange, dated little centers.
The Reno Town Mall opened in 1972 as the “Virginia Center,” at the corner of South Virginia Street and Peckham Lane. The original anchors were a Raley’s-owned “Eagle Thrifty” superstore and a Breuner’s furniture store, at opposite ends of the center. The owners would quickly declare bankruptcy, however, and in 1975 the mall as sold and renamed the “Old Town Mall” instead. During this time a movie theatre opened in the center and Gray Reid, a popular downtown Reno retailer, moved into the mall. But its fortunes refused to turn around and by the early 80s the center was mostly vacant and dubbed the “Ghost Town Mall” by many in Reno.
In 1982, the mall began a renovation to reposition itself, adding a Marshalls store as a new anchor, and attracting more tenants to bring occupancy up to 23 retailers. The mall continued to falter through the 80s however, and fills vacancies with non-traditional tenants such as a Washoe County Library, which opened in the rear of the mall in 1987, or a community college that opened in 1989. Around the same time, a small strip of outdoor stores was tacked on to one end of the mall.
In 1989, Marshalls left the mall and it quickly fell into foreclosure, failing yet again. Roter Investments of Nevada snatched the mall up in 1992, leasing as much of its 280,000 square feet as possible, and brought the Old Town Mall up to 100% occupancy by 1995. In 1999, Burlington Coat Factory replaced now-defunct Breuners as the largest anchor in the center.
In 2000, deciding that “Old Town Mall” had bad connotations (good thinking), the center was renamed to its current moniker, the “Reno Town Mall.” More recently, Raley’s converted their store to the budget-oriented, warehouse-style “Food Source” concept.
The Reno Town Mall’s design and architecture is actually very strange. From the outside, the center appears to be a fairly small strip center, with a tiny enclosed portion wedged between the Burlington Coat Factory and Raley’s anchors. Once inside, however, it becomes apparent that the mall slices lengthwise between the two stores–going back a ways from the front–and splits almost immediately into two separate levels, giving it quite a bit more of significance than it would appear from the street. The interior is also deliciously ’80s garish, a sea of browns, coppers, and oranges with planters and fountains galore. I thought it was a real treat.
As you can see from the pictures, the decidedly mixed-use center (there are still a ton of civic functions inside, including a library, community college, civic center, dmv, and more) actually generates a fair amount of foot traffic, and the collection of mostly mom-and-pop shops seem to do at least somewhat okay. Granted, things seem a bit more hopping than you’d expect in these photos because there was a little girl dance-off, or something, so I had to try harder than usual to not look like a creep. (A creep walking around by himself photographing little girls). The center is a bit small to be a real destination–and the collection of stores is just a bit too weird to encourage much cross-shopping–but it’s a pretty unique one of a kind gem nonetheless.