Tuesday, December 05, 2006

East Brook Mall; Willimantic-Mansfield, Connecticut


Of all of Connecticut’s major shopping malls, it’s easy for some of those harder-to-find smaller ones existing today to fall into a gap. East Brook Mall could be one of them, along with the rest of the slowly fading late 60‘s~70‘s boom of small indoor malls. Having never been to the virtually nestled-in-the-boons East Brook Mall in my 20-plus years, I decided to take the ride down the very same road the mall and I live off of; US Route 6 (though on the other side).


Image courtesy The Hartford Courant; April 23, 1975.

East Brook Mall opened bright and early on April 24, 1975 with anchors Caldor, Sage-Allen, A&P Supermarket and roughly 25 specialty shops and restaurants, some of which flooded the mall circuit around the time. Wasn't quite the humble, one-level shopping mall it's billed as today, with a shuffled discount-themed anchor set; Kohl's, TJ Maxx, JCPenney and a small movie theater.

Located in the undermalled regions of the more rural eastern tier of Connecticut, in northern parts of "Frog City" (and a lesser known "heroin town" reputation-earning) Willimantic, bordered with Mansfield, and Windham, somewhat disjointed along the on-and-off, broken highways and roadways of US-6 and CT-195. Apart from the nearby town patronage, the mall generates and depends on mostly it’s college-town traffic today with the Eastern Connecticut State University and University of Connecticut in neighboring Mansfield/Storrs; both within a few miles of the mall. Apart from some of Connecticut’s premiere colleges filling spaces and jobs here, neighboring towns favor East Brook Mall’s low-key, in-and-out atmosphere that fed a different fan to that of the grandiose Buckland Hills Mall; located well enough away to avoid eliminating all patronage to East Brook Mall. Let's just say the mall is located well into the outer-realms, making it enough of an out-of-the way trip for most of existing Connecticut to find it which might feed a local perk.

Given the mall’s demographic, it’s serviceability to the surrounding lifelines asks for not much more than the juggernaut Buckland Hills, which quickly absorbed Manchester’s retail market in conjunction with a squeeze in the retail market itself (closure of many of the 1990’s golden discounters; Bradlees, Caldor, Ames, etc.) leaving most of the city’s shopping parkades into degredation and/or vacancy (like Broad Street in Manchester). Sadly, the nearby Manchester has since adopted a notorious overmalled, lack of "small town charm" city motto leaving some rich, historic shopping areas (the wonderful, vintage, and richly-preserved but adapted Downtown) to become overshadowed by immense, gaudy sprawl in the outskirts of the city (laughably to which I've heard locals call it "Buckland, Connecticut"). I digress.


In 1975, Caldor. Today, its Kohl's.

Back in ‘75, the mall was an answer or alternative for those among Windham County, who were offered something different, closer-to-home alternative to West Hartford’s generally upscale Westfarms or even further for Meriden Square. Merging to the times, indoor malls were becoming the modern sprawl in the hip consumer market. About 15 years later, the juggernaut The Shoppes at Buckland Hills (commonly referred to as simply Buckland Hills Mall) opened and continues to serve the entire region.

For any brighter purpose, East Brook Mall survives solely on it’s discount shopping mall concept that it and most other indoor malls seemed to be fated with at birth in today‘s big box retail scape, still standing as a modest single-leveled, mainly indoor shopping plaza-mall hybrid it exists as today. East Brook Mall, originally a strip shaped center, had a good fifteen years to show itself beyond the local market, dodging any relevant expansion efforts, and staying easily comparable to the Norwichtown Mall in Norwich. Seeing as the original owners of the mall, a group of foreign investors, were apathetic about the mall’s future, seeing just one minute expansion effort in 1986 annexing a corridor which gives the mall it’s [stubby] “T-shape” today, any dream of grandiosity differed.


Papa Gino's still hanging in there 32 years later, since the mall's grand opening in 1975 is the eldest store remaining in Connecticut.

At one time, the fate of East Brook Mall shared that very same dose of forlorn of the since redeveloped but heavily vacant Norwichtown Mall when it’s prime lifeline retailer, Caldor, in lieu of it’s closure, drove out many smaller businesses due to lack of anchor traffic. In 1999, both malls were struck by the closure of premiere discounter which anchored this mall along with the Norwichtown Mall; at best keeping both lively and parking spaces filled. Like Norwichtown Mall, East Brook Mall faced a harbinger of doom before Ames quickly purchased the former Caldor space, hardly wasting anytime to keep that same consumer base active at the mall. Around the time of Ames’ arrival, the mall went through a metamorphosis, quickly rebounding from a dying breed into a well-commissioned revitalization effort.

The pivotal renovation, which ensued shortly after the demise of Caldor, had given the mall a richly Aspen “woodland” appeal with spiffy Rocky Mountain creek-style stonework, glass-instilled tower atrium entrances, cosmetic enhancements, and a newly-built accent wooden canopy scaffold stretching along the sidewalk out front to promote a more airy, outdoor feel the mall theme is coupled with. The courtesy doesn’t quite extend to the interior and most of the backsides of the mall; which is many ways fight for a need for more space inside the cramped setting. The interior remodel is at best adequate, no-frills, getting the job done of masking the mall from earlier eras, living in a generic, white-painted modern setting while the backside exterior of the center reveals a minimalist paint job over grid-façade walls, and a genuine walled-off former mall entrance, shrouded in landscaping.





Anchored today by TJ Maxx; operating in a former A&P, detached from the interior portion of the mall, JCPenney, formerly the Sage-Allen; the right-sided anchor store, and now Kohl’s; who adopted the Ames’ space when the store went the way of Caldor in 2003.

Kohl’s poured the effort into the mall refacing and painting the somewhat dilapidated property, as well as (upon observation) cutting off a good 25% of the former space, adding a left-end driveway to the to the newly-instilled rear entrance directly into the store apart from it’s primary mall-only entrance.
Unfortunately, this effort wiped out a falling apart, graffiti-laden former receiving area and ultimately a near thirty-year, blocky orange Caldor label scar, which was later overlapped by the 1990's "accent" style left on their long-tenanted building in switch of a long-needed rear entrance for Kohl's. Thanks to Chris Fontaine of the Ames Fan Club and his wonderful photo set of Ames before Kohl's overhauled the building, you can get a taste of what the former retailers looked like here.


Kohl's rear entrance; once scarred with a blocky, formerly orange Caldor label scar.

Along the interior, the mall follows a common strip-mall, mirrored with shops, clothiers, restaurants all oriented for the demographics of the area. It wouldn’t be a modern mall without various kiosks along the way relative to those seen in malls thrice it’s size. A few things charm the mall, making it distinct from other malls but ever parallel to Norwichtown Mall; namely a long-lost Westies Shoes, Cutting Crew; which are still active from the 80’s era in these smaller malls and plazas, as well as a [never-before sighted by myself] interior Papa Ginos; a slowly dwindling (underrated) Mass.-based pizza chain in Connecticut. Apart from the inside, an Applebee’s sits outside the mall, along with a fellow outparcel Sovereign Bank.


A former mall entrance from an earlier era, hidden in the back of the mall.

There are also some more common ones; EB Games, mostly for the college kids, which opened a former K-B Toys (a chain which boomed in the 1980’s, since 2000 slowly disappearing), Fashion Bug; a mainly discount strip-mall clothier, Payless Shoe Source and Famous Footwear; which have slightly larger parcels over at the Buckland Hills. Most of East Brook Mall’s shops are found in strides today in strip malls due to a changing market for malls and a preference for those malls, again like Buckland Hills, to favor upper-echelon boutiques.

Luckily for East Brook Mall, it’s once uncertain fate turned in contrast to the struggling, nearby lasting smaller enclosed Norwichtown Mall which faces a more difficult uphill battle with the odds stacked against it and an alarming vacancy rate. East Brook also faces similar challenges, Norwichtown being all too close to adjacent two-leveled absorbing Crystal Mall, and a mega-sized Buckland Hills nearby East Brook, not quite close enough to declare it too threatening (again, thanks to a undermalled surroundings and nearby colleges).

I must applaud the efforts put fourth at East Brook Mall. Smaller indoor centers that haven't faced dramatic, ho-hum, and largely corporate-looking revitalization efforts like big box/power center converts can also be billed as a vestigial, indoor strip mall at best today. It's odds are still heavy in today's outdoor, open-air centric retail landscape, and we applaud the mall's management for keeping the mall within its roots especially being that its still one-level (and never quite built to suit two, town pending), eclipsed stature due to it's lack of volume and notoriety and still surviving. While the mall is generally successful, and impressively filled for a Monday morning (nonetheless weeks before Christmas), is a little flat and could surely use some further amenities. I was thinking maybe a Dunkin' Donuts cafe-style idea, who knows.


The original "sunset-wave" East Brook Mall logo from 1975 (image courtesy Hartford Courant).

Unfortunately, the crowded atmosphere of the place makes shopping a little unsettling as it also made me cool it with indoor photography with patrolling mall security (being one of their proclaimed rules condemning cameras for fear of expulsion from premises!). The mall has a unique, admirable exterior flair who banks on being a cozy mall in an age of super-sized shopping malls. It's not quite a gem, but an interesting, outliar relic mall of Connecticut.


Our pictures were taken on a crisp and very brisk December morning, so please enjoy the outdoor shots you see here. We would like to additionally thank Dayville81 and the insight of a few others of the Ames Fan Club forums for additional background and history information (with pictures).

UPDATE: NOVEMBER 28, 2007. Corrections on mall opening, details and newspaper advertisements added.

24 comments:

labelscar said...

Papa Ginos are actually quite common in malls, especially smaller malls, here in Massachusetts. They're kind of a mall staple--they're like the place you eat when you go to one of those tinier places, and I love them for it.

While they had a hard time through most of the 90s and early 2000s, the chain seems to be rebounding somewhat, with new locations popping up and some older locations getting a facelift.

Megan McGory said...

We had our company holiday lunch at Asian Bistro and while I was there I noticed all the things you pointed out here that I never would have noticed before...thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

While you are fairly accurate in your historical perspective regarding this mall, I would like to point out that the renovation did not occur while Ames was an anchor store. In fact, it occurred in preparation for Kohl's, long after Ames sat vacant. perhaps only two years ago or so now? Technically, I might add, this mall is located in the municipality of Mansfield and only holds the Willimantic address due to zip code and delivery issues imposed by the US Postal Service. Similarly, Champagne Chevrolet, Staples, Big Y and all the surrounding retailers are also located in Mansfield proper yet their zip codes are from Willimantic - owing in part to the volume of mail they generate and Mansfield Center's small Post Office - Hence the need for the Willimantic PO to attend to them.
Most assuredly, the taxes generated by the retailers in this mall are paid to Mansfield and not to "The Heroin Capitol of the Northeast" (WIllimantic). A distinction we in the Quiet Corner of Northeastern CT like to maintain (smile).

I am very surprised however, that you neglected perhaps the most unique shop located in this mall; The Hoot. A very nice, upscale gift shop with items not typically found in malls anywhere.

Nicholas M. DiMaio said...

I must confess I didn't spend too much time inside. I have plans to go back, but probably not as soon as I originally said I would. I thought I read somewhere of them replacing Ames shortly after they closed.

In writing the piece I realized they've chopped off a wall which contained the old receiving area in favor of a driveway and even that infamous 70's Caldor labelscar seen on Ames Fan Club's gallery of the store - presumably overwritten for Kohl's rear entrance?

Thanks for the corrections! We aim to be as accurate as possible given our resources.

Anonymous said...

I used to shop here from the time it opened in '75 to 1983 when I left Connecticut for Florida. There was an entrance to Caldor in the front right where the Kohls sign is now, and was easier to get from the parking lot to the store without going through the mall entrance. Caldor sealed up the lot entrance in early 1977 due to the security personnel having to watch two check-out register areas (mall entrance and lot entrance). As a photographer, the photo department was better at Caldor than any Wal-Mart could ever be. Barkers (closed late 1980) had an excellent photo dept. as well! Just some thoughts. S. Rand-Chestertown, NY

Anonymous said...

To clarify...the outparcel bank is Savings Institute Bank and Trust.

The mall has the only multiplex movie theater in the area which surely has added to the odds that the mall will continue to be successful especially since the movie theater must be accessed through a mall entrance.

Also, you forgot to mention that this Kohl's is quite small compared to many others, probably because of the 25% building demolition like mentioned.

The store typically has smaller departments and has more holiday clearance merchandise staying much longer after the holidays than a typical Kohl's. Same goes for JC Penney, which typically is setup in malls on two levels or more.

TJ Maxx here is the typical size of any TJ Maxx store but must be accessed through the outside entrance.

Keith Cunningham said...

The HOOT!..I spent alot of time at this mall as a youngster D&L,Sage Allen,CALDOR,papa gino's pizza,Yummies ice cream,puppy love pet shop,, and of course my little sisters friend Rachael getting her head stuck in the iron railing that surrounded the fountain in the middle of the mall!the memories..............

Anonymous said...

Great write up, very interesting. However, I was surprised there was no mention of RadioShack. Like Papa Gino's directly across the hall, they have been in East Brook Mall since day one. RadioShack closed their store in the Norwichtown Mall 1/08, leaving just two stores, making it the "Ghost Town Mall".

Anonymous said...

Also memories of On Stage and The Weather Vane as well as the little glass make-up store which was later turn into a candy store located in the hallway (across from where the Hoot is located today)

Anonymous said...

I have been going to this mall since I was a kid. I love it all the more because it isn't like driving into Manchester and isn't really crowded. There is a Fairy Hop Gift Shop, which is also one of my favorites. I do miss the pet shop though, which is where Eblens is now. The Kohl's here is much better than the one in Manchester because it is never as crowded, and there is always racks of things on sale. The movie theatre is less expensive and typically less crowded also, making it easy to go out any night of the week to see a movie.

Jake said...

For me, a Hamptoner, just a good way to get out of the house and hang around or buy something without having to go all the way to Manchester.

I never knew the history behind it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

There is also now an 'outparcel' Applebee's worth mentioning, at least for the sake of completeness.

Anonymous said...

Yummies, Puppy Love, Cricket (the children's clothing store)...Willimantic Bank and Trust (or was it Independent Bank and Trust?) Tubridy's was the store that filled the back corner when they expanded to the "T" in the 80's, and moved The Hoot back in that section as well. Strawberries opened up in there at that time as well. I worked at Caldor over Christmas 1986 in the makeup department and also part time at Papa Gino's, my first real job. I had friends at Onstage and Weathervane too. The adjoining grocery store became a Better Val-U after A&P...and there used to be lots of vendors in the hallway like spraypainted shirts, posters, etc.

Anonymous said...

East Brook opened the year I was born, and having lived in town my whole life I have seen it all. Hallmark used to be Sacketts, TD Banknorth was once American Savings, Yummies always had Bubble Gum Ice Cream (my fav!) and joke shop in the hall area next to the then-Caldors had everything a kid needed to drive parents crazy.

Anonymous said...

A small correction: Better Val-U was across the street from the mall where Staples and Sears are now.
A&P became Waldbaums prior to becoming TJ-Maxx

Anonymous said...

Wow thanks for posting about the East Brook Mall. I practically grew up there!
Everyone's birthday parties were at Papa Gino's (although I remember there being bricks around the outside of its entrance). I remember the ice cream place and The Hoot (is it really still there?) and a hair salon in that same short hallway as The Hoot where my brother and I each had our first haircuts. I also remember the grocery store being a Waldbaum's and it closing after the Big-Y moved in. I think we must have moved away just before JCPenney moved in. Did JCPenney remodel its location at all before opening or am I remembering wrong?
Thanks for that great trip down memory lane!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I grew up going to East Brook...I loved it! My late grandmother lived in Willimantic and we would go there once a week with my mother and great grandmother and younger brother. I absolutely loved Papa Gino's, but I did notice how different it was in the image. Like another commenter said, there were indeed bricks outside of it. It was more dimly lit inside as well. Mmmm, I can almost taste the food :) This is so awesome, thanks for the great trip down memory lane, I haven't been since my family members have since passed.

RJ said...

In 1974 it may have opened, but it was also the catalyst and key factors in the demise of the shops on Main St. in Willimantic contributing to the negative feelings people have for the city. Like the Manchester Parkade, let's not forget that these small strip malls were from an era that broke up our main streets and actually introduced the mall concept of shopping. Now it's ironic that they are being eaten up to even bigger malls but it's just another phase in urban sprawl. Additionally, I did notice the aging Crystal Mall is starting to appear as vacant as the earlier days for the Norwichtown mall. I'm not certain if it's just the lingering economy, the owner refuses to act, or maybe the lease fees on space are just too high. All that said, it was still the time of my childhood and many fond memories of the East Brook Mall exist. Someone mentioned the ice cream shop Yummies and pet store which are fond memories, but nobody mentioned the great burgers you used to be able to get and all the other good food at Al's Deli... It used to be where the hallway to the Kohl's rear entrance now sits. Also I remember as a kid one of the key features in the mall before the renovation was the large fountain in the center of the mall. We used to beg my poor mother to walk to the thing each time just so we could toss a penny in and make a wish. Good times...

Anonymous said...

What about Smith-Keon Jewelers, which has been there since the back wing was added in the 80's!

Anonymous said...

What about Fayva and Two Leggs..

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter said...

What memories when I graduated high school in 74 my first job was with Caldor. Great little mall and ended my career with them after five years and being the shipping and receiving manager. The topper was thats when the stores were starting to fight to open on Sundays. Couldn't walk through the mall to A&P had to exit mall and go in their own entranceway.Couldn't believe they increased the size of the mall as parking was always in short supply but Mall purchased the land that used to be where "Shaboo Inn"once stood which was a bar and recording studio. They held some great headliners JAMES MONTGOMERY BAND, JAMES COTTON BAND, N.R.B.Q., FABULOUS RHINESTONES, JONATHAN EDWARDS, ROOMFUL OF BLUES, ORLEANS, SHABOO ALL-STARS, ...

Jason said...

What was the name of the music store that was next to Radio Shack - Music Land or Record World? Anyways, I was born in Mansfield in '73 and still remember the outside entrance to Caldor. And how empty the mall was on Sundays. And Water & Air (don't sit on the waterbed!). And Shetucket Harness (sp?). And Waldenbooks. And Nassiffs. And Fotomat. And CVS. And Rein's New York-Style Deli-Restaurant (before Al's). And Casual Male. And So-Fro Fabrics. And The Optical Bar and Style Shoppe. And Pac-Man at A&P. And the jukeboxes at Papa Ginos. And Super Mario at Yummy's. Learned how to drive in the parking lot. Always wanted that big raft at Caldor. And the latest Atari cartridge.

www.mueblescebreros.com said...

This can't have effect in actual fact, that's exactly what I think.