A shopping center full of what once was…

8 minute read

October 21, 2015, 8:40 PM

On Thursday, October 15, my friend Elyse and I went to check out a rare thing in the area of retail: an abandoned Ames store, with the signage mostly intact, just outside Baltimore.  For those of you not familiar, Ames was a chain of discount department stores, operating, for the most part, in the northeastern United States.  Through the course of its history, Ames acquired and absorbed two other retail chains, purchasing Zayre in 1988, and Hills in 1998, converting stores from their original names to the Ames brand.  And each of these acquisitions was a contributing factor to bankruptcies.  The Zayre acquisition led to a bankruptcy that lasted from 1990 to 1992, after which the company emerged and returned to profitability.  The Hills acquisition led to a bankruptcy in 2001, which led to the chain’s demise in 2002.

The last we heard of Ames was this final voicemail:

Um, just a couple reminders.  Payroll needs to be called in by 10 AM on Monday.  Um, you can call it in at any point.  Leave a message on your payroll representative’s, uh, voice mailbox, um, either with the hours worked, or for salaried associates, number of days worked.  Um, you can call that in at any time between Saturday night and Monday morning by 10 AM.  Please make sure that the mail, um, post office, has been notified of the forwarding address to the Ames home office, 2418 Main Street, Rocky Hill, Connecticut, 06067.  Once again, uh, when leaving the building, um, set the perimeter alarms, bypass the motion.  This will, uh, help reduce the number of false alarms after we vacate.  Interior lights should be shut off by the breaker, leaving only a few night lights on, scattered around on the salesfloor.  The vacate checklist, notate anything that is left, um, from the fixture liquidator, such as any telephone equipment or ticketing equipment.  If they haven’t sold it, it will be left where it is.  The main thing with all of the fixtures and anything that has not sold is that it be left in the building neatly.  Once again, the final vacate checklist.  The photos, stamps, should be forwarded to my attention, and mailed by Tuesday, November 12.  Once again, I’d like to thank everybody for all their help and cooperation over the past few months, and I wish everybody the very best of luck in the future.

Listening to the audio of the voicemail, you can definitely detect more than a hint of sadness in the woman’s voice, especially toward the end.  It’s clear that she was very close to tears as she was recording this, as the finality of everything may have really started to hit home.  But in any case, the take-home point is that the buildings were more or less put into mothball status, and any fixtures that went unsold were left in place.

Now fast forward to this year.  I had been tipped off that there was a former Ames location just east of Baltimore at the Diamond Point Plaza shopping center, with the sign still mostly intact.  I didn’t quite know what to expect here.  I found the location on Google, but other than verifying the Ames building, I didn’t look around much on Street View.  When we got to the shopping center, we were both surprised about how empty the whole place was:

A very empty Diamond Point Plaza

The only thing missing was a few tumbleweeds rolling through the parking lot.  This shopping center was, for the most part, dead as a doornail.  The only business open in the main shopping center was the Chuck E. Cheese’s visible at the edge of the above photo, and a freestanding former Sam’s Club building housed some sort of sketchy-looking liquidation company.  Everything else was vacant.

The Ames, however, was pretty cool.  Though it was missing the front, it was otherwise entirely intact:

The Ames sign

Even the glass tubing inside is mostly intact.  I wonder how much refurbishment it would need in order to work again.  It’s pretty impressive that the sign has survived this long, i.e. that it wasn’t removed as part of the company’s vacating the store, and then has survived a few hurricanes, snowstorms, etc.  I suppose the signage was just like everything else in the store, i.e. if it didn’t sell, it was to be left where it was, neatly.  Considering that I’ve seen photos of a number of former Ames stores where the sign was left in place, I guess removal of the signage wasn’t a priority when the stores closed.  After all, it’s not like anyone would find any more operating Ames stores when they were finished.

Here are some more photos of the exterior:

As a “box store”, the exterior of the Ames was for the most part unremarkable, except for the sign.  I really loved that sign.  I also got some photos of the interior through the front window:

Interior of the former Ames store

Interior of the former Ames store

Clearly, the instruction to leave any remaining unsold fixtures in place in a neat manner was followed here, with the remaining unsold fixtures still stacked together 13 years after Ames vacated.  I also never realized that floor tiles could curl like that in the bottom photo.  However, considering that the roof is clearly in poor condition (an auction website for the property from 2012 also states that the roof, HVAC, and electrical are most likely in disrepair), I guess that the water did its thing.  Considering the amount of water damage that I saw in the building, I honestly wonder if the building is capable of safely housing another tenant, or if the water and subsequent growth of mold and such has rendered the building beyond economic repair.  Considering that the vast majority of this shopping center is vacant as well, I’m guessing that this building will probably never house another tenant again.

I also spotted an abandoned Hardee’s on an outparcel:

The building design screams “Hardee’s”, however, that faded flame signage with the section cut out of it on the front indicates that even though the building was built for Hardee’s, it was not the only tenant to occupy it.  I have no idea what this place used to be, though.  If you are familiar with what it was after it was Hardee’s, please leave a comment below!

[Update: I was informed by Reddit that this is Roy Rogers signage]

I also peeked inside through a side door that was not boarded up:

Interior of the former Hardee's

Looks like a typical Hardee’s inside.  I’m not sure how much of this decor is left over from the Hardee’s days, or if subsequent tenants redecorated.  In any case, unlike the Ames, it looks like it’s still in pretty good condition, though I don’t know who would want to open a restaurant in a dead shopping center.

I also spotted this labelscar above one of the vacated stores:

Tandy Leather

If “Tandy” sounds familiar to you, it should: this is the same Tandy name that was associated with RadioShack back in its heyday.  Tandy started out as a leather goods company, and then a few other companies, including RadioShack, in the 1960s.  The company took RadioShack as the corporate name in 2000, and the leather business was spun off to The Leather Factory around the same time.

The inside of the former Tandy Leather store was nothing particularly remarkable, so here it is:

Interior of the Tandy Leather store

Elsewhere in the shopping center, there was only one remaining tenant:

Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza

Yes, the only remaining tenant was a Chuck E. Cheese’s, with a vintage exterior sign.  According to the aforementioned auction website, they are on a month-to-month lease, so it is conceivable they could pull out of the shopping center at almost any time, with or without notice.  Elyse ended up having to attend to a personal need while we were at Diamond Point Plaza, so we went in.  I had never been to a vintage Chuck E. Cheese location before (I was a ShowBiz kid, after all), so I can’t speak much about the layout or decor’s vintageness, nor am I exactly sure when the location opened, but there was a sign for “Show Room” over the entrance to the main dining room, and that’s where I settled in to wait for her.

The show was a “two-stage” setup, with Cyberamic animatronics:

The two-stage setup at Diamond Point Plaza.

This show was, to put it nicely, pathetic.  The sound on the show was turned way down, meaning that you could see the lights and watch the animatronics move, but the only audio that you got was the mechanical clacking sounds that were a byproduct of the pneumatic systems that create the movement.  Generally speaking, if you can hear that clacking sound, then the show audio isn’t up loud enough.  This clacking of the animatronics isn’t particularly loud, and so it doesn’t take much to drown it out.  So if you can hear it, that’s really bad.  The show was actually louder in the restrooms than in the show room, for whatever that’s worth.  Of course, it’s not like the show used the animatronics that much in the first place.  Most of the show occurred on the television screens, and the animatronics just randomly moved around.

I’ve always considered the cyberamic versions of the Chuck E. Cheese characters to be inferior to the ShowBiz animatronics (i.e. the ones built for The Rock-afire Explosion, later retrofitted to CEC characters).  The cyberamic bots don’t have as many movements as the Rock-afire ones, nor are those movements particularly realistic.  Then there are two things that bother me about the cyberamic stage as set up for Munch’s Make Believe Band:

Munch's keyboard
The keyboard.

Pasqually's drum face
The drum face.

The keyboard, in the former Rock-afire shows, was reused from Fatz, the keyboard-playing gorilla.  This same prop was then recreated for the cyberamic stages when they were updated to the same design as the former Rock-afire stages.  That just bugs me in “annoyed” sense, but the drum face is worse.  The image on the drum face is from The Rock-afire Explosion, and it doesn’t make sense with the Chuck E. Cheese configuration.  The Concept Unification video showed a new face on the drum.  It’s one thing for this to be overlooked and left in place on the old Rock-afire stages, but to fabricate new Rock-afire drum faces for the cyberamic show really bugs me, because they had their own design and didn’t use it, instead deploying a design that was alien to the rest of the concept.

And then Elyse and I had matching outfits on this particular day:

Matching Power Rangers shirts, pants, and hats.  Yeah.  It was kind of fun, but I also told her that we’re never doing that again.  Realize that we went a few places after leaving Diamond Point, and at every single place we went, someone thought we worked there.  Seriously.  Two people in matching outfits, people think it’s a uniform, even though it looks nothing like what the real employees wear, and start asking questions.  It’s scary how little people pay attention to their surroundings, and how little they think about things.  In any case, after one too many of those encounters, you really just want to say to someone, “No, I do not f—ing work here, and therefore, no, I do not know which aisle has your hemorrhoid cream.”

We also had a small transit-related adventure on this same day, but I’ll post about that separately.