It was a really big deal when the Southpark Mall opened in my hometown. The land on which the mall was being built was privately owned and barren, save for a lawnmower store (guised as a shack), a few swampy plants and maybe a farm animal or two. I have vague memories of my father telling me that the landowner also had a snake farm on this property, but that seems too exotic for Small Town, Virginia. Then again, a snake farm is just the type of feature my small town would boast.
It was highly rumored (amongst the kids at my elementary school) to be the biggest mall in Virginia and possibly even the country. I should say that this is a one story mall with only 4 “major” stores: Dillard’s, Hechts, Sears and JC Penney’s. We even didn’t get a Gap, a mall staple, until 2001 years ago, and it went out of business and in its place a store called Man Alive opened. (ManAlive sells spiky high heeled sneakers and oversized “Lets Get Crunk” t-shirts and is just down the way from the kiosk that sells confederate flag and NASCAR paraphernalia.)
The mall opening was a huge event. There was a search light, balloons, free Chick-Fil-A samples and human mannequins. HumanMannequins! They posed, perfectly still, wearing parachute pants, ruffled skirts and 1988’s finest double breasted suits, for hours on end. The next day in class, no one was talking about the actual mall or the many stores contained within. We were all arguing about whether or not the human mannequins ever blinked. I don’t think they did.
Shortly after the mall opened, they built the World’s Busiest Wal-Mart adjacent to the mall (At least it was rumored to be The World’s Busiest Wal-Mart amongst the kids at my middle school). This meant we didn’t have to travel to the Bradlees in a next town over to get our B-B guns and Fisherprice record players. Unfortunately, this Wal-Mart was cursed.
In either 1989 or 1990, a man walked into the Wal-Mart and shot and killed his ex-wife, a Wal-Mart Employee, in the Garden Section. This was a really big deal because a) a man walked into the Wal-Mart and shot his ex-wife to death in the Garden Section and b) this was only the second or third murder that my home town had ever experienced. The third or fourth happened on Mall property as well. Everyone (my classmates) was talking about the Wal-Mart Garden Center ghost. I shuddered every time I drove by Wal-Mart or drank a Sam’s Choice Cola. But time passed and the Wal-Mart became busier than ever.
Shortly after that fatal shooting, in May 1990, a terrible storm brewed over the Wal-Mart, damaging the very Garden Section where that poor ex-wife was murdered. There was a continuing debate at CHHS as to whether or not it was a tornado or just a very bad storm, but it was confirmed to be an F2 tornado. Thankfully only minor injuries were sustained. Wal-Mart employees worked overtime to cover the gaping roof with a tarp and clean up all the stray kiddy pools and terra cotta shards. Within days, the Wal-Mart was back in business. But that wasn’t the end of it. Bad things come in threes.
On a Saturday afternoon, in August 1993, a huge F4 tornado, (Virginia’s worst tornado, according to the 1994 High School yearbook), plowed through that Wal-Mart and put it on the national news for its casualties (three) and injuries (198). I derived a lot of pleasure from the attention I got when my friends found out my brother was in the mall when it happened and helped people out of the rubble. Plus, just moments before the twister touch-down, my father and I had just driven past the mall on I-95 on our way to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit my aunt. And my mother was on the turnpike bridge and was gusted into another lane, just missing the path of a Mack truck. The tornado nearly leveled the Wal-Mart– along with a MJDesigns craft store, a mattress warehouse and the tree where Pocahontas saved John Smith, to name a few.
And although the second and final tornado didn’t actually happen in the Garden Section, it did blow contents of the Garden Section all over the store and into some people’s heads. Cue Twilight music.
Officials finally accepted that the Wal-Mart was cursed, because they razed the original Wal-Mart and built a new, improved and blood-freeSuper Wal-Mart about a quarter of a mile away in the new Southpark Commons development area. The new Wal-Mart is just down the street from the World’s Largest Arby’s.