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-fa├žade 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.