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North Hills Flashback: Long Gone Ross Park Gems

Do you pine for Lechter's? Do you crave a meal from Juno? Do you want to play with toys at Natural Wonders again?

After posting a commentary on the Ross Park Horne’s store, many folks with whom I’ve shared the article have told me how much they miss the iconic chain. Some have even commented on the Ross Park store itself. This prompted me to look back at a few other old Ross Park favorites, most of which are long gone, for this week’s edition of North Hills Flashback.

Hallmark. We’re going to start with a very recent departure. Let’s say you’re going to the mall at 4:00 AM to take care of your Black Friday shopping. Since you want to get as much done in one day as possible, you decide to pick up your Christmas cards while you take care of the gifts for everyone in your family and circle of friends. With no good gift ideas for Grandma or Aunt Betty, you also decide to pick up a Keepsake ornament and a Yankee candle. Convenient, right? How about when you get your girlfriend a surprise pendant at Tiffany’s? Wouldn’t it be nice to supplement that with a romantic greeting card? Again, Hallmark to the rescue. What about the gift wrap you’re going to place that gift in, only to stick it in the recycle bin as soon as it’s opened? Unfortunately, Hallmark closed shop in February, scratching yet another original tenant from the mall’s list of stores. Sure, one can go up the street to McIntyre Square or some other Hallmark store, and many Ross Park shoppers (your friendly author included) have resorted to this, but the practicality of having a greeting card store at a mall is something we got used to. (It’s also a staple at most other malls; even some lower-tier malls I’ve visited have Hallmark stores). For those who preferred Carlton-branded greetings, there was once a store for these as well (oldtimers may recall that store began its life as Card Cage). I think nearly everyone out there could agree Ross Park needs a greeting card store again.

Juno Trattoria. If there’s any single tenant missed from the olden days, it’s Juno. Picture this: after years of hesitation, you finally ask out the girl of your dreams. She accepts. You don’t want to take her to some average chain restaurant, so you go to Ross Park Mall. (Cue loud “WHAT?!?” here). Yes, there was once a very fine Italian restaurant at Ross Park known as Juno, perfect for everything from a casual lunch to a hot date. The food was exceptional, the atmosphere was pleasing, and the taste of the angel hair pasta is still in my mind fifteen years later. This was arguably the best Italian food in the North Hills during its run. Sadly, Juno is no more in spite of its popularity during its time at Ross Park. For an idea of the specialties on the menu, look up the August 20, 1987 issue of the Post-Gazette (page D5).

Wendy’s. The longtime anchor of the food court, Wendy’s was by far the most recognizable name when it set up shop in an already impressive food court for the time. Fellow Patch user “kfs” informed me this particular Wendy’s was not allowed to sell certain chicken products due to an anti-competitive clause in their lease (Chick-Fil-A, of course, would be the competitor). This is evidently why Wendy’s bolted from Ross Park in 2006, giving way to Flamers and Oh! Oh! Burrito. During its run, Wendy’s seemed to be the most popular tenant at the food court and was missed by many, at least until Five Guys came along.

Cheryl & Company. Fifteen years after its departure, many are still pining for Cheryl’s. The cookie retailer, which hails from Ohio, had one of the sharpest interiors of any mall store, featuring a checkerboard scheme and a well-designed cookie counter. The cookies themselves were amazing, as were the other “gourmet gifts” they sold. Unfortunately, Cheryl’s was a victim of the Great Lease Expiry Exodus of 1997. Today, the closest store is located at Beechwood Place, an upscale mall near Cleveland. However, cookies can also be ordered via mail and web order. Still, nothing beats eating frosted cut-outs while shopping.

Fancies. Long before the upscale retailers came along, those who wanted expensive trinkets and nicknacks went to Fancies. Located on the lower level, Fancies was the place where children were told not to touch anything. The store seemed to do well but abruptly left in 1992. Whether it be figurines or Christmas ornaments, Fancies had a little bit for everyone.

Collector’s Choice. Why not offer some competition for Fancies? Collector’s Choice did exactly that. Owned by the same guy who ran the Hallmark store, Collector’s Choice also sold nice little thingamabobs for those who wanted to decorate their homes or offices. Again, this was one of those places where you had to be careful what you touched. This could have been what took Fancies out, as it was quite popular. Like everything on this list, unfortunately, it is also no more.

Natural Wonders. The toy store for those with a scientific mind, Natural Wonders catered to both children and adults. Think of the Carnegie Science Center gift shop on steroids and you have Natural Wonders. Unlike World of Science, which sold exclusively science items, Natural Wonders had something for math, art, and especially nature fans. (Long before whitenoise CDs were popular, Natural Wonders had them). I could spend hours on end in this store and never get tired of it; apparently, many other shoppers did the exact same thing. The company itself is now defunct.

World of Science. Since I brought it up, World of Science represented something no longer found in malls: science stores. They were a fad of the 1980s and early 1990s, a place where the average Joe could go to purchase a basic chemistry set, a telescope, or a model of a double helix. Sadly, these stores no longer exist; this is truly a shame in a day and age when science is emphasized more than ever in our schools. Why not bring these back in an effort to increase passion for the subject?

Docktor Pet Center. Speaking of science, what about animals? Pet stores used to be mainstays at malls but, like so many other store categories, have gone by the wayside. Docktor, of course, wasn’t your typical big box PetSmart or Petco from today. Instead, this was a small store selling pet supplies, fish, birds, cats, and dogs. Yes, it was possible to buy a dog at Ross Park Mall at one time. (The only mall I have been to recently selling dogs is Louis Joliet Mall in Joliet, IL, which features a store called “Furry Babies”; apparently, these stores exist at other malls in Illinois and Wisconsin as well). The entire Docktor chain is now gone, due in large part to the animal activists who complained against cramped and often unclean conditions at these stores.

Merry Go Round. Long before the hip teenagers shopped at Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch, high schoolers with a sense of fashion went to Merry Go Round. Similar to stores such as American Eagle in target demographic, Merry Go Round fell victim to not being able to catch up with the times, having been surpassed by its competitors. The cautionary tale of Merry Go Round is well-known among current teen retailers, who don’t wish to end up in the memory books like this chain. For all you teeny boppers of the 1980s, this one’s for you!

Hillary’s Ice Cream. Before Dairy Queen served its first Blizzard at Ross Park, Hillary’s was dishing out the hard serve across from the food court. The ice cream was quite good and provided a nice little treat for those needing a break during their shopping experience. Hillary’s always did well but eventually changed ownership, becoming Cool Temptations in the process. Unfortunately, it eventually pulled out (despite Cool Temptations having equally good treats). Hillary’s is one of those gems not always remembered at first when bringing up old stores, but then becomes one of those “ohhhh yeah, I wish that was still around” eateries. I think we can all agree the mall could use a great hard serve ice cream stand. Graeter’s franchise, anyone? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit one of their stores in Columbus).

Lechter’s. Kitchen stores have come and gone, but Lechter’s is the one most fondly remembered by longtime shoppers. When it came up at the 25th anniversary party last year, nearly everyone in attendance recalled it. The selection was huge, the prices were good, and the service was exceptional. Le Gourmet Chef eventually came (and left) to take over this segment, but Lechter’s will always be remembered as a true Ross Park original. Unfortunately, the company is no more, leaving only our old Cooks Club products as artifacts of a truly great store.

Everything’s $1.00. For those who balk at the upscale stores of Posh Park Mall, keep in mind it once had a dollar store. (Also, if you think Ross Park is upscale, go to South Park Mall in Charlotte, which has even more upscale boutiques along with a poorly-constructed roof). The dollar store was one of the better ones in the region and was on the lower level in a space now occupied by a Payless store. (I’d call this the “budget space” but it once housed Kay-Bee Toys, which certainly wasn’t cheap). The store was always crowded and seemed to have an emphasis on toy-type products. I used to buy all my party favors for my birthday parties at this store in my younger days. Some shoppers will remember the huge stack of plastic chairs at the front of the store. Everything at this store was indeed cheap, but actually cost $1.07 due to Allegheny County’s tax rate. (I remember having to borrow seven cents from my mother once when I bought something here and brought only a $1 bill). It’s doubtful this sort of store will ever return, but the next person who bashes Posh Park Mall will only have to look back to the past to realize it did indeed have blue collar roots.

Kay-Bee Toys. I might as well bring this one up since it was just mentioned. This store had two stints at the mall, appearing at first on the upper level. After a hiatus in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it returned to the lower level until the chain went out a few years ago. Unlike the huge Toys R Us down the street from the mall, this store was a very traditional mall toy store. It didn’t have the bike department or huge selection of video games found at its competitor, but those at the mall with children found themselves pulled into this place quite often. For those of us who were children in the earlier days of the mall, the upper level location near Kaufmann’s probably brings back memories of Batman figures, Legos, Barbie dolls, or Ninja Turtle playsets. The second iteration of the store never seemed as successful. This was due to the expanding presence of big box stores as well as the shift away from toys for many youngsters, now more interested in electronics (and not just video games). The mall does have a toy store once again (Smart Toys), but the feel of an old-school Kay-Bee is something which will never again be found at Ross Park.

Babbage’s. Before electronic downloads, everyone had to buy software on diskettes at a store. Babbage’s and Electronics Boutique were the places to do this at Ross Park. Electronics Boutique (which was later a GameStop) was around until early this year. Babbage’s, on the other hand, was out far earlier. In its early days, Babbage’s sold software for the Apple II, MS-DOS, and black and white Macintoshes. I remember buying a copy of the After Dark screen saver (flying toasters!) at this store. In its later days (and location, having moved from the JCPenney corridor when J. Crew took over part of its space to the main mall entrance), Babbage’s focused on video games, including the trade of used games. Unfortunately, there were already a bunch of other places to buy video games in the North Hills and Babbage’s wound up the odd man out.

Ross Park News. Also at the upper level mall entrance near Kaufmann’s, this little newsstand was quite popular during the malls first two decades. The owners were always among the friendliest people in the mall, the selection of newspapers and magazines was unparalleled in the North Hills, and the store offered a decent selection of food and stationary-type items. Street Corner News is only a fraction of what Ross Park News had been in terms of size and selection (although it does carry on the tradition of having a newsstand at the mall).

Koenig Art Emporium. When I was a kid, I loved art. I used to spend a lot of time creating pictures and crafts, going through hundreds of crayons and markers each year. I had my share of paint sets and eventually became hooked on my all-time favorite medium: oil pastels. (I still keep a set handy and have used them to create bulletin board decorations for classroom use). Having an art store (or an “arty mart”, as I used to call it) was a dream come true for an art-loving youngster, especially at his favorite mall. I think anyone out there with a passion for drawing or painting will agree this is a store which is much-missed (especially with Prism, a larger art supply store on McKnight Road, now gone).

WaldenBooks. Bookstores are a dying breed due to the shift to electronic publishing. The entire WaldenBooks chain, later part of Borders, is now gone. Until 2007, this store thrived at Ross Park. Readers came from left and right to pick up the latest release from their favorite author. For me, this was my “toy store” as a child. I think I drained at least a year of pay from my mother’s account at this place. (I still enjoy reading but now utilize the library far more frequently now that I have to pay for my own books). The opening of a large Borders at Northway didn’t stop WaldenBooks from succeeding at Ross Park. True history buffs may also recall Doubleday Book Shop on the lower level.

WaldenKids. Owned by the bookstore, this was a unique hybrid of a Smart Toys type store and a children’s bookstore. Train toys, in particular, were quite popular here (all of my Brio sets and Thomas engines came from here). Sadly, this store folded long before its bookstore cousin. Today’s children will never have this fun yet educational store experience, one in which children could freely explore the toys and browse the books, many of which had some sort of hidden educational value.

CVS. Malls used to always feature drug store. Northway, of course, had Thrift Drug. Ross Park had the only CVS in the area. While it did have a pharmacy, used by plenty of Ross Park customers, it also was a popular stop during the back to school season. Why not take care of pens, pencils, notebooks, and binders while buying shirts, jeans, and shoes? The convenience of a CVS in a mall is what is missed most about this store. However, most enclosed malls no longer have drug stores, dropping them in favor of fashion or other goods. (The former CVS, incidentally, has never been home to a clothing store; Hallmark held the space until earlier this year when Smart Toys took over).

American Dental Center. So you’re out shopping and your tooth starts to hurt a bit. Hoping it’s nothing major, you walk to a store in the mall and ask if there’s an appointment available. There happens to be one in ten minutes. You take it, let the dentist examine the tooth in question, and find out you have a cavity. One week later, you’re coming back for a filling. A possible story? In the earliest days of Ross Park, yes. Formerly in a space on the upper level near JCPenney on the Horne’s side, American Dental Center was a chain dentist office located in a very convenient location. Dentists in malls, however, are another nearly extinct breed. Shoppers enjoying the temporary location of Ann Taylor can breathe easy knowing they won’t be getting a root canal in that particular space today.

Warburton’s/Au Bon Pain. Of all the former food court tenants not named Wendy’s, this has to be the most talked about. Au Bon Pain still has locations in Pittsburgh. Warburton’s was very similar in nature but had a distinctly British feel (as opposed to the quasi-French influence on Au Bon Pain). Warburton’s, in fact, was related to the British baking giant (whose US operations were acquired by Au Bon Pain in the 1990s; the Ross Park store converted in 1993). To get an idea of either eatery, picture a much smaller-scale Panera jammed into a mall food court. The food court currently is lacking a similar tenant, forcing shoppers to go to the Panera across the street from the mall if they’re seeking high-quality baked goods.

McDonald’s: I saved this one for last since it’s arguably the most interesting and oft-forgotten. Located on the lower level of Sears, this tiny McDonald’s was a new concept for the retail giant. Other restaurants had popped up in department stores (a notable example being Tic Toc, still thriving at the downtown Macy’s after decades of success inside Kaufmann’s) over the years but none had been a fast food eatery. While the concept was interesting and truly pioneering, it didn’t last, closing at the end of 1990. The menu was a bit stripped down compared to the other McDonald’s restaurants in the area (I don’t recall Chicken McNuggets being served at this location) and the eating area was indeed very small (many of the tables were the unpopular two-seaters). The restaurant was on the lower level near the lawn mower department (this could have been another factor in its unpopularity, as it was tucked in the rear of the store in a department not frequented by most shoppers). A short-lived restaurant called “Two at Sears” took over after McDonald’s left, but this only survived for a short while. I used to love this little McDonald’s and sometimes will still develop a craving for a burger while walking through the lawn mower area at Sears.

A few readers have mentioned some old North Hills businesses in the comment section. I’m always up for ideas for future columns and will be spotlighting some of those businesses in the near future! If you have any requests, let me know and I’ll see what I can do!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Pam November 09, 2012 at 10:32 PM
What was the restaurant called that moved into Dingbats on the mall property. I think it was a BBQ joint? Please help.O:-)
K December 15, 2012 at 06:18 PM
http://www.resist.com for your racial education! 24 hr update hotline 574-267-5036 Wake up North Hills!
Scott Baret December 15, 2012 at 06:25 PM
The restaurant was called Rome on the Range. It was a crossover between an Italian restaurant and a western-style steakhouse. It didn't last all that long; the building sat vacant for a while before it was demolished. The guy who owned it at one time was a higher-up with The Italian Oven, a much-missed restaurant from the early 90s across the street at Ross Towne Center.
Dani January 09, 2013 at 11:24 AM
United Colors of Benetton
Mark Kaminski August 27, 2013 at 12:44 PM
Great Article, but you forget to mention these? Service Merchandise: Place with the crazy ordering system, where the product came down a conveyer belt from the ceiling after you paid for it. Suncoast Video: Great Video Retailer also carried movie related apparel, toys, games, collectables. Pocket Change: Friday Nights in the Early 1990's there were lines of people to play Street Fighter 2. Probably around 100+ teens in the arcade on weekend nights. This was the best arcade in the North Hills. Tons of kids would hang outside and hook-up.

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