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Auctioning Off a Dead Mall

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PHOENIX — The body parts come as a surprise, even if you expect them, when they’re the only things left behind.

When a mall has closed — its stores shuttered by recession, new spending habits or a deadly virus — the mannequins sometimes remain. They’re stripped and dismembered, their detached legs propped against bare walls and severed hands thrown into abandoned back rooms. The mall has become a “dead mall,” emptied of people and their products.

But not everything is gone; there are still the things nailed down, like counters and display cases, or scattered, like the fake body parts.

Before a dead mall can be reborn — renovated as senior housing or office complexes, as developers have recently attempted — these remnants must be cleared out. And because malls are temples of consumption, these items are being increasingly sold to the highest bidder.

While a relatively new phenomenon, public liquidation auctions of shopping malls are on track to become more common. The coronavirus gutted retail sales, but malls were already in trouble; in the United States, 25 percent of enclosed malls (of which there are 1,200) could close in the next five years.

Two weeks ago, in Phoenix, auctioning began at the vacant Metrocenter mall, which closed in June, and will continue on a weekly basis through January. By then, the auctioneers expect to have listed about 1,000 lots.

So far their catalog has included a collection of 37 fire extinguishers (sold for $140); a neon Wetzel’s Pretzels sign ($750); a large mall directory ($275); a security system of cages so large they can only be described as multi-human size ($325). Upcoming items include 25 food court tables; the plexiglass bins that held candy in a candy store; the contents of an empty Victoria’s Secret; a lot of nine mannequin torsos (six female, three male).

While a majority of buyers at these auctions are surplus buyers and may be more interested in things like light fixtures and racks, EJ’s Auction and Appraisal, which is running the Metrocenter purge, estimates about 30 percent are collectors.

“There is a very, very strong market for signage: anything neon and retro, but even the newer stuff has value on the collector market,” said Erik Hoyer, the company’s chief executive.

When it opened in 1973, Metrocenter was Arizona’s largest mall, a symbol of new affluence in a suburbanized desert. Inside, families skated on an ice rink; outside, teenagers cruised around the parking lot (and, as adults, were inspired to cruise again — “one last cruise!” — when they heard Metrocenter was closing).

Mr. Hoyer, 55, was one of those teenagers, “causing trouble, doing what teenagers do,” he said. “And so we knew that some of the items would pique interest of people my age specifically. There’s a lot of nostalgia there.”

But it’s not nostalgia for individual malls driving interest in these auctions nationwide: as in Omaha this fall; in Knoxville, Tenn., last December; or in the suburbs of Detroit and Chicago in 2015. It’s nostalgia for malls themselves.

Online, large communities have formed around discovering and documenting dead malls. Groups of people gather to discuss them on Reddit, YouTube and Facebook, fascinated by the emptiness and the decay. Most of these enthusiasts are old enough to remember spending part of their adolescence in a fully alive mall (so, at least about 30 years old).

Now they realize they can own pieces of the corpse.

At the end of 2019, Paul Shore placed a bid on a wooden bookcase used in the offices of the Knoxville Center Mall, in suburban Tennessee. He didn’t get to examine the shelves closely, but the disorganized assortment of contents they held were part of the deal. He won the lot for $60.

When he later sorted through the load, Mr. Shore kept any mall-branded souvenirs, including a box of pink nail files and individually wrapped hand-held mirrors. He kept several stuffed cow ornaments from Chick-fil-A, and a map used in the mall’s office to mark sound system zones. His best find, though, was a set of laminated marketing posters advertising the mall to potential tenants.

“Those were kind of unique,” he said.

Besides the bookcase, Mr. Shore won a few more items at auction: a large metal sign pointing in the direction of J.C. Penney ($29) and a collection of 30 mall-branded cloth bags ($52). After picking up the last of his winnings in May, Mr. Shore drove more than three hours back to his home to Georgia.

Mr. Shore, 35, said he is “intrigued” by desolate retail spaces, which includes malls but also big box stores like Kmart. Acquiring their memorabilia is just a more tangible version of what he does on his YouTube channel, RetailWorld: collecting footage, new and old, that he hopes may preserve some memory of malls. (His last video about the Knoxville mall was more than 16 minutes long.)

“I just think for myself and other people I know that are into the same thing, we want to hold on to that piece of history and have a memento or keepsake for past things from their former glory,” he said. “Something to collect to remember a time that’s passed and a place that’s passed.”

His nostalgia is rooted in his childhood in Florida, when every Friday his parents took him to the mall, he said. Today he tries to shop at malls whenever he can. “I don’t want to see malls go away,” Mr. Shore said.

In some corridors of Metrocenter, the recently liquidated mall in Phoenix, the floors are covered in plastic BBs from a recent airsoft game — which is similar to paintball (without the paint) and simulates military combat. At an auction preview last week, small white balls crunched underfoot.

Somewhere in the mall, a radio played the Cranberries’ “Linger,” which echoed eerily off the walls, stretching as far as it could through 1.3 million square feet. While most Metrocenter stores were stripped of anything but lights and displays (and those mannequins), their back rooms look ransacked, as if they’d been quickly abandoned.

Documents were thrown on the floor or left forgotten on a desk. Here was someone’s résumé: a 2014 graduate whose skills included self-motivation and graphic design. There was a letter from the corporation commission, informing a jewelry store that its article of organization had been approved.

“It can be a little bit spooky out there,” Mr. Hoyer said. Recently, he watched “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” which was filmed in part at Metrocenter, to see if he could recognize any fixtures still in place. He couldn’t. The mall has had too many lives. And deaths.

Erik Pierson, 39, a dead malls enthusiast in Arizona, went to the first auction preview and plans to attend more, though he has not placed a bid yet. Mostly he has enjoyed the experience of seeing the mall in its final, uncanny form.

“I went there as a kid and obviously I’ve covered it quite a bit on my YouTube channel,” he said. “But that was the first time that I had been in it since it was closed. And it was bizarre. It was kind of bittersweet because I love that mall.”

Some people remember the ice skating rink. Others remember the huge fountain that did timed shows, spitting water up and up, as high as the second floor, before it came crashing down onto tile with loud splats. The fountain was covered years ago.

The mall’s prolonged closure has inspired people to share remembrances like these, almost endlessly. Everyone has a story about Metrocenter (or insert any local mall’s name here). But stories don’t keep malls alive.

“I think a lot of people just forgot about it,” said Mr. Pierson, who predicts more property owners will turn to auctions as closures accelerate. “And now it’s gone.”

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