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    Photos by Terrence Humphrey

    The tantalizing scent of Auntie Anne’s pretzels hits my nose and there’s no mistaking it: I’m at the mall. 

    A pair of women wearing fanny packs jolt by, arms angled and pumping. 

    “Hi, how are you, Dave?” a lady in bright pink running shoes says to mall manager David Jacoby.

    “Good morning,” he says, and then says to me, “One of our dedicated mall walkers.”

    It’s 10 a.m. at Mall St. Matthews and I’m here with Jacoby to talk shops. As we walk past the resident giant chess set, various customers and store managers greet him. “It’s like having a small city,” he says. 

    Among the dozens of mall tenants are a growing number of local retailers. In June, Cheryl Stuck opened her women’s clothing store J. Nicole, where White House Black Market was, across from Williams-Sonoma. The heavily perfumed, formerly an online-only store, recently opened near Forever 21. Oxmoor Center is seeing a similar trend, with vintage/womenswear store Betty Jeffries, little-black-dress boutique The New Blak and the Senegalese woven-basket shop Aesha’s Baskets all having opened within the last several months. 

    This may come as a surprise, given the gloomy reports of apple-pie-American retail chains closing by the hundreds. The Jefferson Mall Macy’s shuttered earlier this year and the Oxmoor Sears is closing in January. J. Nicole, which Stuck says she opened because she couldn’t find clothes she liked that didn’t look either too “old lady” or too young, has had to move several times as other malls have closed altogether. River Falls Mall in Clarksville, Indiana, where she started out, was redeveloped as a Bass Pro Shops and Bashford Manor Mall on Bardstown Road was torn down and replaced with a Lowe’s and Walmart. Did that make Stuck worry about the fate of malls altogether? “I think there’s always gonna be a place for a mall,” she says, mentioning the tangible experience shoppers have when they come. “I’ve been coming to this mall since it opened. I sat on Santa’s lap here.”

    When Mall St. Matthews opened in 1962, suburban arms of longtime Louisville retailers such as Kaufman-Straus department store and Rodes-Rapier (now Rodes) were both tenants, according to the Encyclopedia of Louisville. Oxmoor opened in 1971 with Stewart’s Dry Goods’ first suburban outlet. (Both malls are now owned by the real estate company GGP, which operates 126 properties in 40 states.) 

    Jacoby and Oxmoor manager Kendall Merrick say the main criteria in signing new tenants is that the store offers something different to customers. GGP even has what you might call concept scouts: people who attend festivals and other merchant-heavy centers specifically to seek out and recruit potential stores. Business owners unsure if their brand will thrive can test it out for as little as a weekend at a kiosk, or they could move in for a few weeks in an in-transition empty space. 

    Such is the case with Ralph London, owner of Betty Jeffries, who operated his business out of a truck for three years. Having little success at stores he’d been in on Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue, and seeing so many stores close, he had been against stand-alone retail. But the low commitment of the pop-up drew him into the mall, and when the ideal space — a former Sperry store — surfaced, he decided to give a longer lease a try. The wooden walls that came with the space fit his farmhouse aesthetic, which includes a section of local honey, purple martin birdhouses and pictures of his mom, whom the store honors. To make the space his own, he covered the back wall with mismatched wallpaper samples.

    “You know, I’m (an Amazon) Prime member. I shop the heck out of Amazon,” London says. “But when I go to Amazon, I go for a specific thing. If I needed a new curtain for my fitting room, I would want to shop for that (in person). I would want to know how opaque it is, the colors, the texture, things like that.” Amazon is even opening up brick-and-mortar stores, some at GGP properties in other cities. London says that, like any business, retail just has to evolve with the times. He says he used to never sell an item over $100, but now, with Kate Spade and Anthropologie as neighbors, some of his best-selling items are the pricier ones.

    New Blak owner Amanda Dare, who shared a store with another local maker on Frankfort Avenue before operating out of a bus for a year, had also done pop-ups in Oxmoor. When offered a permanent space with a small storefront and a large backroom — ideal for her and her seamstresses to make the clothing she sells — she took it. “It’s a scary thing,” she says, “because being in the other space, I could be closed one or two days a week. I could set my own schedule. Here, you kind of gotta be all in.” She says she now sells more in a month than she did in her first year. Like London’s store, the space Dare inherited looks like it was customized for her brand, with white and black walls and floors. Pop-y electronic music plays and empowering phrases (“Girl Boss”) adorn the walls and merchandise. “A lot of people walk in and they’re like, ‘Is this from New York? Is this from Chicago? Is this from L.A.?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘No, be proud of your own city. We’re from right here. We’re literally making it right in the back room. Let’s go meet a seamstress.’”

    The sweet grass used for Aesha Ndao’s baskets makes her space across from the Apple Store in Oxmoor smell earthy fresh. She and her products look right at home in the former L’Occitane en Provence space, which left her the warm yellow walls and red tile floor. “When I came in I was like, ‘It looks like this place was made for me,’” she says. She ran an African hair-braiding shop for several years but got tired of it and looked into selling baskets common in her native Senegal. For the past few months, people in her home village have been making and shipping the goods, which come as different shaped baskets, hot-plate pads, coasters and even cases for yoga mats and rolls of toilet paper. She sold at the Flea Off Market and other arts-and-craft fairs in warmer months, and some of her products are in stores on Frankfort Avenue, in NuLu and downtown, but she knew that going into the holiday season she needed a store where people could visit her. “I was like, ‘It’s gonna be an arm and a leg to just get into the mall,’” she says. “It seems like you have to be big-big to get into the mall, and I realized (you don’t).” She set up the store with the help of Oxmoor’s merchandise-display specialist. Her lease is through mid-January, but depending on how she does, she says she could stay longer.


    At Mall St. Matthews I meet Tammy Haight, whose store Mine and Yours sells Louisville-centric goods. She designs the T-shirts herself (one on display reads: “I love you to Louisville and back”) and prints them at Identity Customs, which is next door to Spinelli’s on Baxter Avenue. Haight has worked in the mall for 22 years, but in 2009 she opened her own shop and has since grown to four locations between St. Matthews and Oxmoor malls, both as kiosks and actual “in-line” stores. The kiosks sell Foozy socks, which are spirited with everything from Frappuccinos to butterflies to footballs. 

    Near Journeys and Aéropostale, Connie Chen runs the Pearl Center. She opened as a kiosk 17 years ago and upgraded to her current larger setup in 2010. When she first approached mall managers, she pitched it as a jewelry store, but they told her that they had jewelry covered by chain companies. So she said: How about a pearl business? “It’s like I live here,” she says, grinning wide. She hand-strings the bracelets and necklaces. “Sometimes I sit here 11 hours — no business. But at least you see a lot of new faces.”

    Jacoby says that about 60,000 to 75,000 cars pass the malls every day. 

    “It’s all about the location,” London says. “That’s all I’ve ever read my entire life. It literally is all about being in the right place.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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