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In hard times, empty stores fascinate and fuel mournful tributes


A Wal-Mart building in St. Bernard Parish, La. The store was closed shortly after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Julia Christensen)


Reused Wal-Mart signage announces conversion of the store into a church. (Photo by Julia Christensen)


The entrance to the Spam Museum, which occupies a reused Kmart building. (Photo by Julia Christensen)

A skinny young minister in black pants and a golf shirt paces around a riser in the middle of a cavernous room as he preaches to the thousands of people sitting all around him on a Sunday morning.

“Wisdom in the Scriptures is a female. Figure that out and your marriage will be special,” pastor Rob Bell tells the congregation, drawing loud laughter.

The video on YouTube shows the members of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., gathering for worship. But unlike congregants in most churches, they are not arranged in pews facing an ornate altar. Instead, they sit in simple plastic chairs in an enormous windowless room. The only architectural features are a few pillars and rows of metal ceiling joists. Until the late 1990s, when it closed, this was the Grand Village Mall.

Mars Hill illustrates one use for the growing number of ailing malls across the country. But while some malls are resurrected in unexpected ways, many aren’t as fortunate. As the economy continues to tumble, the fate of all those empty stores has fueled a cadre of watchers devoted to the topic.

“Big Box Reuse,” a book of photos and essays, was published by MIT Press in November. A popular Web site,; a blog called Sickmalls; and a group on the picture-hosting site Flickr are all devoted to documenting the death, and sometimes the afterlife, of these temples to shopping.

In “Big Box Reuse,” author Julia Christensen documents how small towns and suburbs have dealt with the challenge of what to do with abandoned big-box stores.

As she traveled the country, Christensen discovered a range of creative reuses: a charter school in Charlotte, N.C., a library in Lebanon, Mo., apartments in Norfolk, Va., churches in New York and Florida, even a museum dedicated to the canned meat Spam in Austin, Minn.

On a young man’s obsession with failed retail outlets has turned into a communal memorial to abandoned malls. It’s also a testament to the deep emotional ties that many have to their local mall.

The site includes a glossary of dead-mall terms like labelscar (“fading or dirt left behind from a sign on or in a mall”). Visitors to the site can order merchandise like calendars featuring dead malls as well as mugs and T-shirts.

But the heart and soul of the site is user-driven. People send in pictures and status reports of and obituaries for their local malls.

“Mostly it’s about memory,” says Jack Thomas. The 20-year-old stumbled on the site one day and now helps run it with creators Peter Blackbird, 28, and Brian Florence, 31, both of Glens Falls, N.Y.

“When you’re around something every day, you take it for granted, and one day if it’s gone, you actually notice, you want to know why, what made it go away,” says Thomas.

“It’s like a piece of you is taken away,” Florence says.

One visitor to the site wrote about seeing his first movie (“Snow White”) at the Eastland Mall in Tulsa, Okla.; getting his first real job there; and having his picture taken with his first girlfriend “in one of those automatic photo booths in the food court.”

Then he returned for the last goodbye. “It was like visiting a relative who you know isn’t long for this world,” he wrote. “It was smelly, the carpets were stained and the concrete was cracked with grass growing up from the neglected parking lot and sidewalks. ... The huge, empty spaces where the stores used to be looked back at me sadly from behind the transparent barrier.”

When Christensen started the research for “Big Box Reuse,” six years ago, she found that many empty spaces were often victims of their own success. As big-box retailers boomed, they needed even larger stores to keep up with demand. Christensen said that in her hometown of Bardstown, Ky., Wal-Mart opened a 40,000-square-foot store then abandoned it in favor of a store that was twice as big, only to leave that one for a 200,000-square-foot location.

Today, large stores are closing for the opposite reason. The cheap credit that fueled the great expansion of malls and big-box stores has dried up, and more and more big-box stores and mall anchors like Macy’s have closed outlets, while others, including Circuit City, Steve and Barry’s, and Linens ’n Things, have filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the country’s second-biggest mall developer, General Growth Properties, is trying to avoid bankruptcy as it struggles to pay off a $27 billion debt.

“It’s very likely you will be seeing major shopping centers and power centers in every major metropolitan area affected,” says Jonathan Miller, who writes the annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate forecast for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

While the number of malls rebounded after the recession of the early ’90s, Miller says, it won’t happen this time because debt levels are so high and more retail is moving online.

Another writer who has been pondering the fate of the big-box store is James Howard Kunstler, who has argued since 1993, when he wrote the book “Geography of Nowhere,” that suburban development is unsustainable.

His latest book, a work of fiction titled “World Made by Hand,” published last year by Atlantic Monthly Press, is set in the near future. In the opening scene, two characters reminisce about malls, which have disappeared from the American landscape.

Kunstler thinks the story is not far from reality. He believes that pretty soon the nation won’t have the vast amounts of cheap fuel required to drive to and heat these stores. Kunstler predicts that those malls that aren’t salvaged for parts will be left to decay.

“They are not going to look like the Baths of Caracalla, and they won’t last as long,” he says.

Still, the death of malls isn’t always a sad thing. Sometimes they are more alive in their second incarnations than they ever were in the first. Like many kids who grew up around Grandville, Mich., James Kukulski didn’t spend much time at the Grand Village Mall. Some blame its inconvenient location; others, its lack of attractive stores. But for whatever reason, the mall never really took off.

But as soon as it went under and Mars Hill Bible Church moved in, Kukulski was among the thousands who flocked every week to fill the empty mall with music and worship. “I was kind of glad it had an actual purpose, and I was very intrigued,” Kukulski says. For Kukulski the stripped-down joists and cement walls are just right.

“I’m a very postmodern-type person,” he says.