Your happy shopping store

Greensboro Daily News, 20 October 1974

On 7 February 1975, Belk opened its new 160,000 square foot department store in Greensboro’s Four Seasons Mall (now Four Seasons Town Centre). On opening day, the full-line department store featured not only the standard clothing and housewares departments, but also a “Sight and Sound” electronics department, a books and records department, a fabric and crafts section, a candy counter, and a Swiss Colony outlet.

Greensboro Daily News, 1 October 1939

Approximately a week earlier, the downtown location on Jefferson Square had closed after thirty-six years. The closing of this flagship location at Elm and Market Streets marked the beginning of the end of downtown Greensboro’s tenure as a major retailing destination. Sears had relocated to Friendly Center the previous year, while S.H. Kress has closed its store as  part of a larger program of store closings nationwide, but downtown remained viable just prior to the opening of Four Seasons Mall. When Belk relocated, however, taking with it such notables as National Shirt Shops and Vanstory’s (reborn in the mall as Frankenberger’s), it was only a matter of time before the central city was devoid of major retailers.

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Final day at Jordan Marsh, January 1978 (photos by a much younger version of yer humble host).

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Thalhimer’s (now Macy’s) closed later in 1975 in favor of an expanded location at Friendly Center, and in January 1978, when Jordan Marsh (formerly Meyer’s) locked its doors for the last time, the era of downtown department stores ended in Greensboro.

The migration to the suburbs had begun in 1957 with the opening of Friendly Center, one of the first “regional” shopping centers in the state. But for the next fifteen years or so, downtown still reigned supreme, as Friendly housed only small versions of the major downtown stores, including the first branch of the Belk chain to open in a suburban shopping center. Four Seasons Mall changed all that in 1974, with its 900,000-plus square feet of retail space, its 5500 free parking spaces, and its anchors that were even larger than the downtown stores they replaced.

From 1976 to 1998, Greensboro boasted three Belk branches: Four Seasons, Friendly, and Carolina Circle. Carolina Circle Mall, a new regional mall in northeast Greensboro, opened in 1976. Although this center never offered solid competition to Four Seasons, it probably did help accelerate the decline of the center city. Carolina Circle closed in 2002 and was bulldozed a few years later, replaced by a Walmart Supercenter.

Four Seasons expanded to three levels in the late 1980s, and the Belk store added an additional level as well. This was the dominant retailing center in Greensboro at the time. But in the 1990s, Friendly Center began a massive expansion, including a relocated Belk store that opened in 1997. The momentum shifted to the non-enclosed center–a nationwide trend. Despite being much older, Friendly Center was better located, in a more affluent area with a more central location. The demographics of Southwest Greensboro, where Four Seasons was located, began to change considerably. All the same, Four Seasons remained a relatively successful property through most of the 2000s.

But cracks were developing. Belk Four Seasons closed its third level in 2009 due to declining sales. Those of us familiar with the process recognized this as the beginning of the end of Four Seasons Mall and assumed Belk would be out before long.

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It happened this weekend. The closing of the store was announced last year, but the final day of operation was Sunday 18 January 2015, just two weeks shy of the store’s fortieth anniversary. Interestingly, the Four Seasons branch operated six years longer than the much-loved downtown store it replaced. Sadly, its will almost certainly have the same effect on its surrounding retailers too.

The era of large, enclosed malls is unquestionably drawing to a close. Only the strongest centers are surviving the most recent purge, which has been driven by online shopping and the consolidation of major retailers into just a few national and regional chains. Empty anchors are common as are malls in which one of the anchor department stores has been replaced with a Target, a Walmart, or even a multiplex cinema.

The few malls that continue to be really successful tend, somewhat ironically, to be those with the most centralized locations, those such as Southpark in Charlotte, Lenox Square in Atlanta, and even Friendly Center in Greensboro. My guess would be that these centers have succeeded because of their proximity to “old money” neighborhoods that were largely insulated from the urban decline of the 1970s and 1980s and are now even more appealing than they were forty or fifty years ago.

Four Seasons is not one of those malls. Located in what was a solidly middle class area that has in recent become a solidly working class area of recent immigrants and African Americans, it does not provide the coveted demographic it once did. And very few developers have the imagination to come up with a workable vision for a property like this. It’s sad; I grew up with this mall and my first three jobs in high school were here. I wonder if my parents felt the same way about the decline of downtown Greensboro.

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