A few months back, I proudly proclaimed that I thought I’d seen all of the malls in New Jersey. Of course I hadn’t; New Jersey has tons of hidden malls, including this (sort of) departed gem, Cape May’s Rio Mall. Michael Lisicky sent us a great set of old photos from when the mall still had a smidge of glamour, as well as a sad set that shows what’s become of her. Check it out:
“With all of the attention on Labelscar that the mega-mall Mall of America has created I decided to pay homage to one of the smaller malls that I have ever known. Arguably New Jersey, for a state its size, is the King of Shopping Malls. Besides its hundreds of shopping centers everywhere New Jersey is home to such showplaces as the Garden State Plaza and the Cherry Hill Mall. However southern New Jersey was also home to many “mini-malls”, malls that were anchored by a junior department or discount store and/or a supermarket. These malls contained about a dozen stores located between the anchors where shoppers could support these businesses where “every day is like Springtime” (from an old Cherry Hill Mall advertisement). Centers like the Cinnaminson Mall, the Tri-Towne Mall in Marlton, and the Village Mall in Willingboro are now a distant memory for many as the novelty quickly wore off. But nobody pulled off the “mini-mall” better than the Rio Mall.
The Rio Mall is (was) located in the southern tip of New Jersey four miles north of Cape May. Cape May County in the early 1970s was still quite seasonal and, besides a few small centers, serious shopping was still a half hour north near Atlantic City. In came the Rio Mall. The Rio Mall was built in 1973 in Rio Grande, NJ. It was a novelty for its time. The closest indoor mall, the Shore Mall 30 miles north, would actually not complete its final construction with its new glitzy Steinbach store until 1974. The Rio Mall had no big department store. It was anchored by a Grant City, an A&P, a movie theatre, and about 15 other stores. Each store in the mall basically served one of every type of need. From the start, the Rio Mall was a success. It was constantly occupied but not just by local fly-by-night storefronts. The mall, unlike most “mini-malls,” had a full Deb Shop, JS Raub shoe store, Thrift Drug and the upper-end branch of Atlantic City’s famous Palley’s Jewellers. With little competition and the fascination of indoor shopping Cape May County was happy.
The Rio Mall wasn’t necessarily a mall where you could browse all day. But if you wanted a new pair of shoes, wanted to fix your watch, needed to buy some cards and catch a movie it was “one stop shopping”. Even when Grants closed their doors with the rest of the chain in 1976 the anchor store did not stay dark for long. In came K-mart. Even Atlantic City didn’t have a K-mart until after Woolco closed its store in 1982. For years the Rio Mall served the county well. Along the way it lost some stores but they were quickly replaced by such chains as Rafters, a NJ woman’s clothing store and a (small) Reynolds junior department store.
But then the area became more year-round. Demand for shopping grew. Soon some of the earliest power centers would invade its territory. JCPenney built a new store down the street along with Peebles. Thrift Drug merged with Eckerd and left to a store next to Starn’s Shop-Rite. Reynolds moved into a “real” storefront across the street. Palley’s closed all of their stores. By the mid 90s the exodus was in full swing. Slowly the mall began to die. It tried to survive but for many it was time to move on.
So what’s left of Rio Mall? Not much anymore. Kmart still is going strong but the mall was “removed”. Kmart took over much of the mall’s space as it braced for a hit from the area’s first Wal-Mart down the road. The theaters are there but they’ve moved. (Actually the theater company, Frank’s, had purchased the mall not long ago from mall owner PREIT but is now looking to unload it.) There is a strange corrider that is still left from the old mall. It’s almost like a hurricane came through; part of the mall is still there, but now it’s open to the elements. The ceiling tiles are still there. The framework to Thrift Drug is still there. But it’s all filled with trash. But what does remain is perhaps one of the perfect “labelscar”s of all malls. The Rio Mall sign still peeks from its bricks hoping that someone still remembers the role it once played in the growth of Cape May County.”
From the look of Michael’s photos, I really didn’t miss anything–at least not nowadays, anyway. I’m am, however, glad for the chance to see what it was like–thanks Michael!