Glen Burnie is the kind of place where you can buy a gun, find a plumber, and get a tattoo, all in the same strip mall. I grew up in Pasadena and Glen Burnie, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Everyone around here claims their property is waterfront, even if the water can only be seen across the street peeking through trees, or just a pond in the distance that you can only smell.
The old ladies will call you sweetie and doll and hon, and they bake apple pies that they probably left out on the windowsill. The young people will scare the hell out of you, and they have neck tattoos that they probably got in prison. In Glen Burnie, you can find a great hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, as well as play Keno in a scuzzy lounge that serves expensive seafood.
Glen Burnie was the kind of place I was going to get away from as a teenager—as soon as I had a job, I was going to move to some place cultured, some place like New York City. But I never did. I only made it as far as Baltimore City, just ten miles north. Perhaps I’m just lazy, though I suspect I was never actually seeking “culture.” I wonder if anyone ever remembers what they were seeking when they were seventeen. Maybe those are the types of people who become famous.
The girlfriend and I are looking for a house to buy together. In the meantime, we needed an apartment to rent where we could feel reasonably safe and live cheaply for the time being. We chose Glen Burnie. It’s been a learning experience for the girlfriend who grew up in beautifully-landscaped Ellicott City—an upper-class area that was recently named the number two best place to live in America.
Needless to say, her parents didn’t take the kids out to dinner at the Taco Bell in Glen Burnie.
“I never even ate Taco Bell before I met you,” she says.
Around here, she’s afraid to enter the stores before me or pump gas at the station where the crazy man asked if she wanted to buy some CDs out of his bag. She doesn’t understand why the woman at the convenience store blow dries and hairsprays her hair up like that. She wants to know what that child is doing unsupervised in the parking lot. It looks like he has dirt smudged on his cheeks.
Alright. Look, I got this. Stick with me, babe. I know how to talk to these people. I can blend in. I’m from here. Don’t worry about that CD guy. I think I went to high school with him.
Glen Burnie was established in 1812. In the 1950s, my grandparents bought a house here. The area was sometimes known as “Glentucky” because of the people that came from rural parts of the country, but it was a growing hub by the 1960s and 1970s. Its main road, Ritchie Highway, was the only connector between Baltimore City, the state capitol of Annapolis, and the beaches of the Eastern shore.
Glen Burnie was so booming that it supported three huge shopping malls within just four miles of each other. The Harundale Mall was a landmark—the very first enclosed shopping mall east of the Mississippi, opening in 1958. It was followed by the Glen Burnie Mall in 1962, and the Marley Station Mall in 1987, each mall just a mile apart on Ritchie Highway.
You can still find a lot of strange old things around here.
Crab Towne is an old thing—a place where you can buy a dozen crabs and a case of beer. You drink a few of the beers there and take the rest home. In the back, there’s a complete 1980s arcade frozen in time, and all the games still cost just a quarter.
And the National Tourist Association recommends this place—at least, at some point in history they did:
Glen Burnie still has some charms, little flecks brushed off the shoulder of Charm City just north. But Glen Burnie is also changing, fading in sections and crumbling in others.
The Harundale Mall was where I was supposed to meet Scooby Doo during his whirlwind tour across America in the Mystery Van in 1985. On the way to meet him, I sat in the backseat chattering about how I also wanted to meet Fred, the leader of the gang, and shake his hand. I especially wanted to meet Daphne, too. I had a thing for red heads.
“I don’t think they’re all gonna be there,” my mother warned. But then she delivered the true gut-punch: that Scooby Doo wasn’t going to be real—he was just a guy in a dog suit. This news was so devastating to five-year-old me that I still remember it as one of my earliest memories.
I met fake Scooby Doo that day at the Harundale Mall, the first fully enclosed mall in America, featuring innovative designs such as sky lights that allowed natural light into the mall.
It’s now a Superfresh with a skylight. The other half is a Burlington Coat Factory.
So what? Stuff changes. Retailers close. New ones open. Maybe I’m too sentimental. Our grandparents lived when America was booming—when we manufactured cars and built shopping malls and saw films in ornate movie palaces. Our parents came of age as part of the youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s, when the progressive music and fashion and leisure shaped their identity.
My generation came in the late 1970s and 1980s—the Reagan Years—a time of optimism and decadence in which the national dept tripled, and when ketchup was considered a vegetable. We had three shopping malls, six or seven toy stores to choose from, and endless places to see movies and eat hamburgers. Yet the growth that Americans enjoyed during the 1980s came at a huge price for the generations to follow.
This is why I believe my generation has a sense of nostalgia generally reserved for war veterans. We have watched the places we used to eat, the places we saw movies, and the places we shopped disappear. They shuttered when Wal-Marts came to town, when the economy collapsed—and the buildings still sit, their signs and logos stripped away and fading in the sun, empty shells that have sat dark and vacant for years.
So perhaps you’ll understand my feelings of nostalgia—a word that literally means “a return to home.” I know what it means to be home again, and to be homesick. I am watching Glen Burnie become a ghost town before my eyes. I feel sad for a place I hate, this podunk town with nothing good in it, but maybe that I means I love it.
Here is the aforementioned “family” Taco Bell, where we once dined as though it were a three course meal. Nachos and cinnamon twists were the first course. Tacos and burritos were second. A Choco-taco came third.
Here’s the Friendly’s, where we ordered Fish-a-majigs and grilled cheeses, followed afterwards by sundaes with smiling Reeses Pieces faces.
This one has been vacant for years and years—maybe fifteen or more—and yet there are still Christmas green garnishes hanging in the dark windows.
Then there’s the former Shoney’s, still with the original awning.
Now a Woo Chon. And yes, it is next to an animal vet, stereotypical or otherwise.
Here’s the Jumper’s Hole Movie theater, where I first saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
It was a strange, old purple building has sat there abandoned and chipping away for years and years. I thought it would be a great, haunting photograph. I just saw it last Tuesday, alone in the parking lot with blades of grass poking through the cement, biding time.
But I missed it by a few days—or maybe even by a few hours.
Of all these things, it’s the toy stores that make me saddest. As I mentioned, there used to be six or seven toy stores in the area in the 1980s and 1990s. Now there is just one left standing, the Toys R Us. I feel bad for kids today. Wal-Mart is the number one retailer of toys. Wal-Mart is also the biggest seller of bananas and dog food. To me, toy stores were vast, magical places that had nothing but toys. Wal-Mart has just seven aisles.
I think about the FAO Schwarz in New York City and how it was depicted in movies like Big and Home Alone 2. Watching those movies as a kid, that place seemed like a most perfect Heaven. All those millions of toys, life-size stuffed animals, huge playhouses that one could dart in and out of, and of course, the giant piano that you could play by walking on. Even the way those scenes were shot seemed to be bathed a golden luster. I didn’t just want to visit FAO Schwarz in New York City. That would not be enough. I wanted to live there forever and ever, amen.
I finally did visit the FAO Schwarz for the first time as an adult. The millions of toys were there, as well as millions of people. Mob hordes of them: screeching and poking at the Toy Story 3 display, hemming and hawing next to the stuffed polar bears, mugging and cheesing for pictures wearing every funny hat in the store. A spectacular nightmare. But I still had my hopes of accidentally wandering onto the giant floor piano in some remote corner of the store. At first I’d be modest as my feet tapped the keys, but then I’d enthusiastically hop into a rousing rendition of Chopsticks, just like in the movies.
I followed the signs leading me towards the giant piano. In the distance, I heard a crowd. So maybe I’d have to wait for a few others to take pictures on the piano. That’s fine. But then I turned the bend, where I saw the massive black hole of a line filled with bus loads of children and their families. They waited and clamored for tickets to a timed experience on the piano. Meanwhile, the current group of four-year-olds allowed past the velvet rope clumsily hopped around, creating a cacophony of sounds—discordant piano notes, screaming, crying—all to the rhythm of their parents’ flashbulbs.
But even FAO Schwarz isn’t immune to the economy, having filed for bankruptcy several times. It once was Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz that swallowed whole the mom-and-pop toy stores, but now even the giants are beginning to fall. Toys R Us is still alive and kicking as the number two toy retailer, but I wonder if children today still sing the “I Don’t Want to Grow Up, I’m a Toys R Us Kid” song while running in slow motion towards Geoff the Giraffe.
If you want to know the identity of America, look at the toy stores. We’re no longer one culture focused on the must-have toy like Cabbage Patch dolls, Game Boys, or Rubik’s cubes. We don’t all ride the same red tricycle. We’re a splintered culture with niche interests. Except for the occasional Zhu Zhu pet craze, there’s nothing the kids are begging for en masse. Add the Internet into the equation, and traditional toy stores are facing extinction.
So finally in my review of lost surburbia, I visited the sites of my favorite places to get toys growing up.
Lionel Kiddie City
Kiddie City was a relatively small chain of toy stores of one hundred locations, mostly on the east coast. Their slogan was “Let Lionel Kiddie City Turn That Frown Upside Down.” In the commercial, their Kangaroo mascot hopped on the frowning lips to invert it into a smiling face. I have a friend that contends the kangaroo was a pale imitation of Geoff the Giraffe, but I don’t know. I always liked the Kangaroo.
Today, Kiddie City is a Shoppers Food Warehouse.
While not specifically a toy store, Ames was a chain of discount department stores that at one time was the fourth-largest discount retailer in the country. I have fond memories of the place, wandering the aisles and picking out toys.
I also remember my mother’s burning, deep hatred of the place. You see, Ames was the kind of place that was always a wreck. The kind of place where you bought toys in beat-up boxes that always had a part missing when you came home with it. Where the return policy always wronged you, where the cashiers were always slow, and where the cart always hit your car in the parking lot.
“That Ames,” my mother would say with disdain.
And yet, she always crawled back with her head down. You couldn’t beat their prices.
Though closed for years, Ames inexplicably still stands—perhaps even stubbornly, defiantly.
All KB stores closed about two years ago. In the Marley Station Mall, my childhood KB is now this frighteningly-generic “Bounce Party.”
I keep trying to convince myself I would have loved this as a child, if only to stave off the depression of a room full of inflatable bounces and typo-wrought printed signs.
Come on. That’s kind of depressing, right? Even for kids. There’s no kids in there. Just a man staring at me through the glass as I take pictures of his operation.
K-Mart is one of those things that should have died a long time ago, but it just keeps getting back up and coming back. It’s one of those things that would crawl right out of a solution of borax and bleach still alive and kicking somehow.
I particularly love the racks of clothes outside with purple balloons tied to them. I love K-Mart. I used to love getting toys here, too, even if it also meant I had to endure some back-to-school-shopping in the clothing section.
K-Mart still smells the same, that almost-sweet smell of the plastic that the clothes come shipped in. Forget the well-lit and organized aisles of toys at Target. If you want to remember the authentic experience of shopping for toys in the 1980s, find a K-Mart, where the lights flicker and the place looks post-apocalyptic scrap vendor. Even the employees look like they just emerged from a fallout shelter, their eyes still adjusting to the sun.
Toys R Us
Finally, there is Toys R Us. Everyone has “their” Toys R Us. This one is mine, the original still standing, the same one I shopped at with my grandmother, holding her hand and conning her into by buying me crap simply by smiling sweetly.
You got to love that dated tiled look at the entrance. I walked around inside. I often still come here, just to browse and get a sense of things. I still buy things that catch my eye, and yes, the occasional birthday present for actual children in my extended family. But I’m not gonna lie. I come here for myself. I’m still hoping to turn the bend and see Geoff the Giraffe and run in slow motion towards him, just like in the old commercials.
I decided I should buy something for the post. After all, I had visited all my old haunts. I felt needy. I decided a giant one-foot Mecha Godzilla could make me feel whole again.
When I took him to the register, the cashier examined him closely.
“Who is this?” she asked.
“Mecha Godzilla,” I said.
“I thought Godzilla was some dinosaur-lookin’ dude. He all chromed out,” she said in a perfect Glen Burnie accent, in between chomps and snaps of gum.
Indeed, he all chromed out. I knew I had made the right choice. And I knew Glen Burnie still has a bit of charm left in her.