Ross Park Mall will open at midnight this Black Friday after several years of a 4:00 AM start to a holiday for bargain hunting and, more importantly, great times with old friends and the chance to meet plenty of new ones. I’ve been at Ross Park for the madness every year since 2004 and have been there at the opening hour for the past five years. This year, of course, will be no different, although I’ll be driving 480 miles for my Ross Park fix this year (a full 476.5 miles longer than last year’s trip to the mall).
I’m spending the next few days making my plans. I’ll be in touch with some of my friends to see who’s officially joining me for the shopping madness at some point in the day and who wishes to simply meet up for breakfast or brunch somewhere. I don’t really study the ads much and tend to just improvise when I get there, but I do like to have ideas for everyone on my list by the time Thanksgiving arrives. This gives me some general idea of which stores I need to hit aside from Macy’s (which I always shop at) and JC Penney (typically my first stop so I can pick up my annual Mickey Mouse snowglobe).
As I plan my morning (if you can call midnight “morning”), I think back to years past--pretty typical for Captain Flashback--and recall the olden days when I got deals at Kaufmann’s, not Macy’s, and enjoyed a snack at Wendy’s (although Five Guys is a more than adequate replacement). One of my earliest North Hills Flashbacks focused on those great old stores we all miss. Just in time for Black Friday, I’m presenting you with the antithesis of that article: the gone and happily forgotten stores.
Yes, there have been some amazing blunders at Ross Park Mall. Some have drudged on for a year or more while others came and went in a matter of months. A few of these may ring a bell, but some may only be recalled by the one or two people who actually shopped there.
Here, in all their glory, are Baret’s Biggest Ross Park Blunders:
Sinbad’s Kebab Grill. I’m going to start with this obscure food court tenant only because it holds the distinction of being the shortest-lived non-temporary store at Ross Park Mall. Gone after two months in business, Sinbad’s was a great idea on paper. Why not bring Middle Eastern cuisine to an already diverse food court? Sadly, Sinbad’s couldn’t generate any momentum and pulled out after not having any takers for its food. A lack of marketing and general reluctance to new cuisine seemed to be the issue. Personally, I would have stuck this restaurant in Oakland, where open-minded college students try nearly everything.
Buttermaid Bakery. While we’re at the food court, let’s also stop for some baked goods. Buttermaid occupied the same space as Sinbad’s (which is now home to Five Guys) but didn’t have much luck either. They lasted a little bit longer but were hurt by poor presentation. Ross Park is a very competitive market and displaying what look like C-grade goods in a dull, generic environment is no way to get customers, even if those goods taste like A-grade material. Although a bakery by the same name has been operating in Southern Park Mall in Youngstown, OH for decades, this version of Buttermaid was a flop in every way.
Farmtown Market. We’ll complete our three-course food court meal with a stop at Farmtown Market, the most recent closure on this list. Farmtown Market opened in January 2012. When I first caught sight of it, I immediately noticed the lack of printed menu boards. Instead, someone had tacked up generic “meal deal” prices using stick-on letters (usually acquired inexpensively at Vater’s Hardware). The sign, which didn’t even light up, sported an off-centered logo (both in positioning of the text and the logo within the circle itself). Not knowing what they served, I looked the business up online and saw their specialty was comfort food. This excited me--why not stop in for a meatloaf and macaroni to think of days of old? Why not have a place where you can get Mom’s homemade grilled cheese after a rough week without the eight hour drive to Mom’s house? How about a place to get some sketti and ketchupy butter for your favorite “Honey Boo Boo” wannabe? As great as the idea was, the restaurant had a few things going against it. For starters, the name conjured up images of Soergel’s Orchards, not Mom’s Kitchen. The presentation looked about on par with the lemonade stand run by the neighborhood eight year olds. Although I had heard the food was quite good, the effort put into the restaurant appeared minimal. Why trust an eatery that looks about as appealing as the cafeteria at your old middle school? This was remedied somewhat by May, when actual menuboards appeared (although they still didn’t describe what was sold at Farmtown Market). It was a classic case of “too little, too late”. By the second week of June, Farmtown Market had joined its resting place among failed food court tenants. The cause of death was poor presentation and a lack of good marketing for the Market.
American Country Collection. Before I wrote for North Hills Patch, I maintained a retail blog called Ross Park Almanac. I used to mercilessly bash this store for its horrible presentation of excellent goods and the fact most people who shopped at the newly-fancified Ross Park of 2008-2009 weren’t going to go there for items which would be better suited for the annual craft sale at church. The space was huge, occupying what had been Eastern Mountain Sports, which had taken over three smaller spaces itself (Walden Kids, Koenig Art Emporium, and American Dental Center). Given the size of the space, there was no coziness to this country cottage. This, to me, is what made it such a horrible idea. The items inside were actually quite nice and would have been great accents in any dwelling, but a huge store which had the coldness of an IBM factory selling homey home decorations simply was not going to cut the mustard at “Posh Park Mall”, especially in the era when Nordstrom and Louis Vuitton were the hottest new stores in the North Hills. The store was usually deserted whenever I walked past, with four the highest number of customers I counted inside (that number was on a Black Friday; one or two was typically the norm on a good day). If the store presented its goods better and re-opened in, say, Wexford Plaza, it would flourish!
Audrey’s Attic. During American Country Collection’s run, Audrey’s Attic moved in to be its next-door neighbor. Nothing had done well in the old Florsheim space since the store’s departure, and Audrey’s Attic looked to reverse the curse. However, they failed to do so for two key reasons. First, like so many other stores, the presentation suffered due to a lack of effort to upgrade an old mall space. (From a distance, I could have sworn the sign still said “Roberts Shoes Florsheim”). More importantly, however, was the quality of the goods inside. I have seen homes and apartments decorated with accents from stores similar to American Country Collection and they look great! However, Audrey’s Attic wasn’t selling cute little wooden signs with catchy saying such as “I kiss better than I cook” painted on them. Instead, they were selling things which looked like leftover prizes from carnival games at the Big Butler Fair. Combine these two elements and you have a store which will generate even less traffic than American Country Collection. True, Audrey’s Attic has enjoyed a good run elsewhere, but certainly not at Ross Park.
Pittsburgh Gift. Exit Audrey’s Attic, enter Pittsburgh Gift, which was the next tenant in the former Florsheim location. After witnessing the bust which was Audrey’s Attic, I certainly had some semblance of hope for this store. However, it proved to be just as big of a disaster as its predecessor. The gifts they were selling would have been better suited for the shelves at Five Below, a “deluxe dollar store” where no item is priced above $5. Furthermore, despite the name, nothing in the store had anything to do with Pittsburgh aside from the fact there was a 96.69% chance the business was operating in Pittsburgh. There were no Steelers items, Pittsburghese dictionaries, or pictures of the city skyline. Most of my friends were expecting the store to be along those lines and, like me, tended to avoid this place, which was gone within a few months.
Oak Warehouse. After focusing on the past few years, it’s time to go back to the early 1990s. Taking over for Fancies on the lower level, the store sold mediocre oak furniture. The mall already had the excellent This End Up and its department stores. Like many of these blunder stores, the store had only one or two customers inside at any given time. True, furniture stores aren’t going to be as crowded as most other businesses, but this store was truly deserted. I knew of only one fan of the Oak Warehouse. He was devastated when it closed, especially since he didn’t even get the chance to buy something there. (This, of course, was because the store was another short-lived venture).
As Seen on TV. (Sings in the style of the late Andy Williams) “It’s the most...wonderful time...of the year. With the Clapper and Chias and bad gift ideas you see on TV! Please don’t buy those silly items for me!” These commercials, which only get aired this time of year, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those products. We also have favorites such as “pops-a-dent” (which I’ve heard is a huge gimmick). In high school, I took TV production and knew the difference between a well-produced segment of television and the B-and-C-grade stuff. Most “As Seen on TV” commercials are B-grade commercials selling D-grade products. The only thing better than selling these through TV-home shopping is setting up a store to purchase them at what was, in the early 2000s, a bourgeoisie mall (not yet upscale, but definitely more than a typical mid-market complex). Needless to say, nobody was fooled by the marginally effective products sold here; the store was gone after a brief run at the upper level entrance near Macy’s, where it certainly made a grand first impression on visitors expecting a mall without gimmicks.
Just Dogs Gourmet. Another blunder from the Macy’s entrance corridor. This short-lived bakery looked every bit as nice as Mrs. Fields, located directly across the hall at the time. However, the treats were for canines, not humans. I have been blessed to have some special dogs in my life; my dog-owning friends would undoubtably say the same thing about their special four-legged pals and, like me, like to spoil their dogs. I know people who spend a great deal on high-quality toys, let their dogs sleep on beds and other human furniture, and even take their dogs to work with them. However, spending a ton of money on a consumable treat which may or may not be in their dog’s best health interest was not something even the Ross Park shopper with tons of cash to spare would consider a smart buy. In other malls, these stores have sometimes popped up as kiosks, which makes more sense since they don’t do much business. However, since it was an actual store, it is definitely worthy of this list, especially since it didn’t make it half a year.
Get Inked. Amidst the luxurious new boutiques and designer stores at Ross Park Mall in the early days of Nordstrom was this obscurity. For those not into street dialect, “get inked” means to get a tattoo. The clothing sold at this store closely paralleled the tattoo/Ed Hardy culture and looked quite punkish to say the least. Get Inked attracted customers but certainly didn’t fit the image of Ross Park at the time. It moved during its run, which didn’t even last a year, going from the former Bombay Company space to the ever-changing Lane Bryant store (often used for the temporary Christmas store in the late 2000s). For every customer who loved the store, there were about five who complained about the image of the store. The fact that it didn’t last a year and apparently didn’t want to stand up for itself in the unique climate of Ross Park place the store on this list. The company still operates a store at the Mall at Robinson (I’m not sure if they merely moved or if they had two to begin with) where I’ve heard it’s possible to get a real tattoo. Yes, you can get inked at Get Inked, just not at Ross Park.
Colorado Pen Company. Speaking of ink, how about a place selling high-end pens? Enter this short-lived store, which came around in the late 1990s as everyone was moving away from using pens and other writing implements in favor of computers. Why spend a few hundred on an old-fashioned writing instrument when the bright-colored iMac at Sears (still sold there at the time) was only a few hundred more? Furthermore, a dozen Bic pens cost about a buck in 1999 for those rare instances where a pen would make more sense than a computer. Granted, there were still plenty of uses for pens at the time (and still are--I still hand-write my Christmas cards in cursive), but nobody was going to invest in something that impractical. Perhaps the owner saw a potentially successful business due to the Y2K scare, but everyone knew it was a huge hoax in the day and can look back and laugh at all the “apocalypse” supplies they bought. If you bought bottled water, flashlights, or a spare radio, give yourself a point. If you dumped a few hundred on a pen at Colorado, give yourself five bonus points. If you thought fountain pens were really going to sell at a busy fashion mall, give yourself zero points and keep in mind your space was vacated with the turn of the millennium.
BC Sports Collectibles. Speaking of overpriced items, how about a place selling authentic Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins items? Great idea, but the fashionitas coming to Ross Park aren’t usually the type who would spend $500 on an autographed 1994 Barry Foster jersey from a game he undoubtably missed that season with one of his many injuries. They likely also will not pay three figures for a hockey puck or baseball card. Sure, the standard Steelers jerseys will sell anywhere in Pittsburgh. Even the most fashionable lady who lives in or used to live in Pittsburgh has a favorite jersey or two in her closet. However, these authentics are better suited for a mall like Station Square, where plenty of tourists come to the city to catch a game, or perhaps in a block near PNC Park, Heinz Field, or Consol Energy Center. The store had all the potential to be successful but came at the wrong time (the Nordstrom era) to the wrong place (“Posh Park Mall”). Steel City Collectibles, on the other hand, has done well by selling a mix of autographed authentic and standard issue merchandise (and also by bringing in sports celebrities for autograph sessions).
House of Chess. This store opened when I was a senior in high school. I remember arriving at school one morning and heading to the tables in the hallway the physics room where my friends and I usually caught up before the bell rang. One of my buddies asked another if he had seen “that new place where you can play chess at the mall.” He said he had not and wondered if it was some sort of joke. I assured them it was completely true. The non-believer predicted it wouldn’t last long. Sure enough, my friend was right, as it was gone within a year. As the guy who brought it up mentioned, one was able to play chess against others if they stopped in the store. However, House of Chess was always deserted whenever I was there. The space it occupied was huge (it previously housed a DSW Shoe Warehouse) and was set up to offer free play, the sale of specialty chess sets, and chess clinics. After a brief run in the DSW space, it moved to the lower level, where it lasted a few more months before being placed into checkmate, having been cornered by a bishop who bought humble $8 chess sets for his parish in lieu of the $200 sets sold at House of Chess, a knight who went two steps north and one step west to the library to learn chess, and a queen who would have rather spent her time and money on clothing and socializing while at the mall.
No-Name Lingerie Store. Seriously, I don’t think there was a name on this store. Shortly after Media Play left the mall, this shop set up in half of the old space. There was no sign on the store, no customers inside, and lots of cheap-looking merchandise thrown on shelves and racks like goods at a garage sale. When I walked by the store for the first time, I laughed hysterically at the poor presentation. Had Donald Trump been with me, he would have probably thrown a temper tantrum and yelled “you’re fired!” in a voice loud enough to be heard all the way to the South Hills. However, there appeared to be no clerk in the store to fire. Needless to say, this store was gone in the blink of an eye and was the shortest-lived non-food court tenant in Ross Park history. I still chuckle when thinking back to this blip on Ross Park’s radar from early 2006, shortly before the mall was transformed into its current state.
Perfume Collection. Speaking of generic stores, Perfume Collection came around at the same time as Nordstrom. With perfume already being sold at plenty of other stores in the mall, why not introduce another competitor? In fact, why not make it a competitor with the most boring looking display in the mall at the time, the most generic name possible for a perfume store, and nothing to set it apart from its competitors? I never saw a customer inside the store at either of its two locations. This one at least had a name and a store clerk. However, it failed miserably, no doubt due to its lack of creative marketing in a mall where every bit of marketing counts when going against giants such as Macy’s, Nordstrom, and smaller stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch which sell the same product. The big question--what happened to all that perfume the store didn’t sell? There was probably enough that it could have been used as fill for the space which became Crate & Barrel.
Two at Sears. Quick, what happened when McDonald’s left Sears? Most people believe the area was converted to extra retail space. In fact, this is a correct answer, but there was another brief experiment which took place first. Two at Sears was a standard deli/cafeteria-type place which took over the old McDonald’s space for a few months. Although McDonald’s was marginally successful, Two at Sears was not. Customers flocked elsewhere, looking for food from established chains and culturally diverse entree choices. Very few people remember Two at Sears, which is why I wanted to save it for last. The restaurant even had a nice presentation, but did not offer unique enough food to spare its area from being converted to space to sell Lady Kenmores and Craftsman tools.
There you have it--sixteen memorable failures from Ross Park Mall. The next store to fail at Ross Park will undoubtably be one which is out of place at the mall, sells overpriced or nondescript goods, suffers from horrible presentation, or some combination of the three. As you shop at Ross Park Mall this Holiday season, never forget the blunders which have plagued Pittsburgh’s premier shopping complex over the years.
If you remember any of these stores or can think of other failures I may not have stuck on this list, please leave a comment!
NEXT TIME: Join me as we travel to West View to visit a “Tiny” store which sold goods for our favorite animals!