Ailing Cloverleaf Mall conjures plenty of memories. Could it exist without them? 

The Call of the Mall

To the west, cars glide by on the way to places newer, richer, fuller.

At Cloverleaf Mall, the few who come pay less and prefer peace to pace. They meet friends to walk. They sit to talk. Some shop, sometimes. It is how the mall endures. Even the brochures seem to settle for the pace: "Always Cloverleaf Mall," they urge. But malls aren't meant to have empty spaces, inside or out. And Cloverleaf Mall has plenty of both. It has for long years at a time.

Earlier this month, Regal Cinemas closed its eight-theater complex behind the languishing shopping center. Others have come to expect closings. But I can't help wondering if this might be the one to signal the mall's swan song. After all, I grew up at this mall. I pay a visit.

I enter the food court where only four out of 10 vendors are open, and only six people sit at tables. This is where the movie theater used to be, where carpet ran red, and the smell of popcorn was torture if you didn't have some. On my 10th birthday in 1978, I had come here with friends to see Walt Disney's "Return From Witch Mountain."

The food court empties into the mall. It's clean and bright, and the ceiling seems surprisingly higher now than it did when I was young. In front of me lies a Kay-Bee toy store. It used to be in another place. I still see trees growing there behind a fa‡ade made to look like a shop in New Orleans' French Quarter. It was home to La Vogue, a woman's clothing store that was once as chic as it was cheap. The dress I wore to my first high-school dance came from La Vogue. I can picture it: a long pink sundress with strawberries and flowers printed on it. I laugh at the memory.

Cloverleaf Mall opened in 1972 when I was 4. My mother took my brothers and me there often. As I remember it, it was always busy. It's the opposite of this today.

Monday afternoon isn't the best time to size up business at the mall, Chesterfield County Police Officer M.R. Dawson explains. It's much livelier on weekends, he says, especially when teens pile in after high-school football games.

Dawson is one of two county police officers assigned to the community police station located in the mall next to the immensely dark and vacant JCPenney department store. The station opened two years ago, three years after two female mall employees were murdered while working at a store just a few feet away. "It definitely had an impact," says Dawson. People feared for their safety. Many never came back. But those who did, he says, noticed security improved. Ever since, mall management "has been trying to bring business back," he says.

Jay Lafler knows how difficult this can be. He was the manager of the 80-store, 750,000-square-foot mall back when business was booming. In 1996, just one month before the murders, Lafler left his corporate job to manage the mall again and help draw people in.

Tenants had been pulling out, anxious about crime and the widespread perception of it. Many moved west and customers followed. So did my family. Our trips to Cloverleaf grew rare. By 1992 only 20 percent of the Cloverleaf's original stores remained. Today, only Sears remains from the original roster. Ten retail spaces are vacant.

But Lafler, who now works for General Services Corp., says the mall's future is destined to change. As a member of the Chesterfield Business Council and the Eastern Midlothian Business Association, Lafler is working to convince others that, with support, the region could thrive again. "People resent the fact that tenants have left without good reason, not because of business but because of perception," he says.

Cloverleaf has had some bad luck, Lafler acknowledges. Still, he says, there are half a million people within a 14-minute drive of the area spanning Midlothian Turnpike and Chippenham Parkway. "I used to have people come up and tell me stories about the good memories they have," he says. "People want to see Cloverleaf come back."

Many wonder if it can.

"They might as well put the funeral wreath on the door," laments Ruth Roark.

"It's dead," agrees Bernice Oskey. The ladies, both in their 70s, have been coming to Cloverleaf Mall regularly ever since it opened, they say. They walk mostly, several times a week in the afternoon. They used to have lunch here, too, until Picadilly cafeteria closed.

"I feel safe here," says Oskey, whose hot pink blouse matches her lipstick.

"We're not in assisted living yet," says Roark with a laugh. And as long as they can drive, they insist, they'll keep coming. "I'd be real depressed if it closed," Roark confesses.

I walk around the mall trying to put things in place as I remember it 20 years ago. McCrory, People's, Kinney Shoes, Thom McAn, Stride Rite, Hofheimer's, Stuarts, Thalhimers. It's silly fun but it's no use; I have forgotten. What I envision is a blur of drugstore wigs, loose pushpins and spinning sale racks. I come again to the police station. Long ago it was Sam Goody, and before that, Harmony Hut. I bought piano sheet music to Bette Midler's "The Rose" there in 1980 when I was in the sixth grade. I memorized the song and played it to death.

It's hard to say whether memory or time has done more damage to Cloverleaf. I look in the stores today: Dynamics, Deb, Rave, Kosala Fashions, Shingar, ZAP, Diamond Connection, Up Against the Wall, Ingle's Nook. Some of them appear to be empty, even of workers. For the first time I realize how quiet it is. Perhaps the most constant thing about the place is the peaceful sound of the fountain

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