In 1988, my father was transferred to the Naval Reserve Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. We moved to a small suburb called Cary, which had a population of 45,000 in 1990 and has since grown to a massive town of 176,000 people.
When we first moved to Cary, there wasn’t much. It was a sleepy little town that had not yet been embraced by all the buildup that would come decades later. I have fond memories of the Winn-Dixie, Roses, and a couple of video stores, but Cary didn’t even have a Walmart, Target, or much else at the time. What it did have was a very old mall, one built in the 1960s called South Hills.
South Hills wasn’t your typical 80’s mall. This was a small older building that and featured just handful of shops indoors and most of the shops were outdoors. It was anchored by a Kerr Drug and Burlington Coat Factory, but inside was a license plate DMV, a vacuum cleaner repair shop, a trophy shop, and a small sports/junk store that I once bought an issue of Sports Illustrated from 1993 after UNC won the NCAA championship.
The highlight of the mall was Tom’s Train Station. This store was like a micro toy store for us kids. All sorts of toy trains and toy train accessories lined the walls and while I never bought anything, it was always a wonder to walk through and admire all the tiny, crafted trees.
Outside of Tom’s Train Station was a huge setup that featured a running train set that you could push the button and activate. It was changed up periodically and always drew the attention of kids of all ages.
While Tom’s Trains will always live on in my head as the best part of South Hills, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that for a while actual reindeer could be viewed in South Hills Mall. Every Christmas, real reindeer were brought in from Oregon for photos. It made for a fun Christmas tradition in addition to seeing Santa.
Last year, it was announced a massive sports complex was going to replace South Hills. As usual, a developer wanted the land and the historic mall will be demolished. While, the inside is pretty dead (Tom’s Train Station closed in 2014), the mall is anchored by a Roses, Tuesday Morning, and a very busy Asian market. There’s even a children consignment store that was very busy on a Saturday morning when Brandy and I stopped by the mall. Knowing that it could be shuddered at any moment, I wanted to take it all in one last time.
I started off in Roses, which used to be Burlington Coat Factory. I hated Burlington Coat Factory as a kid and outside of getting a cool Simpsons toiletry set, I have no fond memories of the hours wasted in the messy store.
Inside the mall, some shops remain, but all were closed on this Saturday. I was surprised to see Tom’s Train Station had set up another train display. I was even more surprised to find the buttons worked and I could power up the trains!
It was eerily but also nice standing alone in the small indoor portion of the mall. You won’t find another mall like this one. The brick, the strange office that sits over the top of the stores, the light posts, it’s truly unique and it’s a shame it won’t be better utilized.
Surprisingly, as slow as South Hills has been, it survived a much new mall called Cary Towne Center. It originally opened in 1975 as Cary Village Mall and was much smaller like South Hills. In 1991, the mall expanded to 1.11 million square feet and was renamed and began a mega-mall. This was the mall I consider my childhood mall and it was closed in 2021 and demolition began in 2022. Epic Games (maker of Fortnight and Gears of War) bought the land to build a new headquarters.
Sometime in the very near future, Cary will no longer have a mall. Shoppers will continue to flock to North Hills, Crabtree, Triangle Towne Center, and Southpoint to get their shopping fix. It bums me out a bit, because I do miss walking around a mall, especially when it’s not all that busy. Some of Brandy and my early dates were at the Chick fila inside Cary Towne Center. I bought my first CD at Cary Towne Center. And I spent a lot of time walking around South Hills Mall with my grandmother. I guess, it’s part of getting older. Things change and evolve, but that doesn’t mean it feels good.