During my childhood in San Antonio, in the late 1970s and '80s, my family had a hierarchy of places to go shopping.
For groceries, H-E-B was the third and last brief stop on a long day or night of grocery shopping for our seven-person household. (Handy Andy and Albertson’s were the priorities.)
And when it came to going to the mall, the traditional spots nearest to our house were North Star Mall, Central Park Mall, and Wonderland Mall.
But for various reasons, we favored Central Park Mall. It wasn’t as big, crowded, or seemingly convoluted as North Star, its neighbor to the east of San Pedro Avenue. Central had opened in 1968, eight years after North Star launched.
But now, the Sears at Central Park Mall has recorded its final sales and everything is officially gone — and I’m waxing nostalgic.
For my clan, Central Park Mall had it all. Long before I arrived on the scene, Central Park was home to Hopp’s TV and Appliance, Singer Sewing Center, a few banks, a Handy Andy, a post office, a liquor and sporting goods store, and even one of Mickey Mantle’s restaurant franchises. But in my day, despite the plethora of choices at the food court, there was just that something about getting your Orange Julius at Central Park.
The mall had plenty of options in toy stores, book stores, and music stores. (Read: More than one book store and a music store where you could buy cassette tapes, 8-tracks, records, and CDs. Ahem.)
The format for visiting Central Park Mall was always the same, and when I was age 6 or 7, it felt like an eternity awaiting my opportunity to visit Toy Box or Kay Bee Toys.
But of course, the adults had to make their purchases first. Montgomery Ward, Sears, Dillard’s — or any other store with just clothes, shoes, and jewelry — all bored me at the time. And after an half hour or 45 minutes of department store shopping, stepping into the toy store(s) felt like a kid stepping into a candy store. (Which would eventually be the final stop.)
Central Park Mall was where I began my collections of G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, sports cards, and comic books. If I were lucky enough to score extra time with my mom or aunt inside Sears or Ward’s, it was all about getting the latest Atari video games. And there was extra extra time, you’d pop into the Gold Mine arcade.
The mall had a classic water fountain, surrounded by statues, in the middle of the lower level. Each of the four statues represented a season. People would stand at the upper-level railings above the fountain the flip a penny into the water.
Many of the kids rode the indoor Venetian carousel. I probably rode it at age 3 or 4. If Polaroids of that exist, they are lost in a room somewhere in my old childhood home. (No, you can’t pay me enough money to go looking for that.)
If there was time during the family visit to Central Park, I got my hair cut at a locally owned and operated salon. I actually had a regular barber, Terri, who managed to cut my hair from whenever I could remember — perhaps age 4 or 5 — to age 16 when she retired.
And yes, Central Park Mall was the place to go visit Santa Claus.
The mall was only yards away from a Fox movie theater, where the Target store complex sits now. It was a fairly cheaper and smaller theater than the ones that used to dominate San Antonio’s movie house scene back then. I have memories of seeing ET: The Extra Terrestrial and Poltergeist there, but it was memorable to many locals for its long run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings.
The 1990s saw definitive change. North Star Mall expanded and modernized, drawing more visitors, while Central Mall stagnated. It looked and felt older. Improvements were few, far between, and insignificant.
Tenant stores left for greener pastures or closed up permanently. First, the smaller merchants. Then, the major retailers peeled away.
My occasional visits to Central Park, in the early to mid-1990s, had shifted to the book stores (there were two, then just one), sports apparel, and collectibles shops.
Eventually, my longtime barber shop shuttered. The mall in the mid to late '90s was a scene of mostly older people walking the interiors for exercise, antique shops, a driving school, closed storefronts, night clubs, and occasional events, such as book, sports cards, and similar bargain sales. The vast parking lot along Loop 410 was the original setting for the annual cowboy breakfast, the kickoff to the stock show and rodeo.
But Central Park Mall’s time had come and gone. The mall closed up for good in the early aughts.
At the time, then-new landowner Mark Granados envisioned something entirely different for the 50 acres. He and business partners tore down Central Park Mall in the mid-2000s, except for the Sears store and its adjacent car repair shop.
Park North Plaza would arise in its place, a blend of what you see now — the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, local and chain restaurants, stores, specialty offices, and a conference center. The Sears car repair shop disappeared in the last year or so, replaced with a Shake Shack, and chain retailers Orvis and Jared.
And now the very end of Central Park Mall has arrived with the shuttering of the Sears store.
It’s been an sobering contrast these last several years: droves of people visiting newer neighboring ventures, such as LongHorn Steakhouse, Whole Foods Market, and La Madeline, while the parking lot outside Sears, once teeming with cars, has been practically desolate.
Not unlike other legacy retail corporations, Sears as a company has struggled to innovate and keep pace with the growth of Amazon, Walmart, and specialty stores. The Central Park location is unlucky mainly because of the times and poor corporate decision-making.
An older version of the city’s North Central Neighborhoods Community Plan recognized the significance of the mall’s once significant impact in San Antonio’s business scene saying, “Central Park Mall served San Antonio well for more than 30 years, and is fondly remembered for its antique carousel that provided youth with an experience of old fashioned entertainment.” (Luckily, folks from Summit Christian Center of San Antonio had the foresight to buy the carousel when it up for sale around the time of the mall’s closure so the carousel lives on.)
While the final physical vestiges of Central Park Mall disappears, in a sense, the memories will last. Memories of a time when Central Park Mall looked and felt huge when you were a kid, and yet it was intimate and small enough to embrace and make it like your home away from home.