(This post is a reprint of one that I had shared at my old semi-private Livejournal in 2008 and documents the last days of a once-popular enormous shopping center in Smyrna GA.)
The bulldozers will be moving into Belmont Hills later this summer. The venerable strip mall, which opened in 1950, is said to have been the first shopping center of its kind in the region, attracting tour buses from miles and miles away. The area has been decaying for years, and it will soon be bulldozed and replaced with a development of about a thousand condos and townhomes, shops and offices. So before it went, my older son and I went there for one last look at this dying Georgia landmark.
Belmont Hills was much larger than most strip malls of the modern suburbs. It had lots of storefronts stretching around different little avenues. In those pre-multiplex days of the 1970s and 1980s, it had a single screen cinema, a bowling alley, a used book and comic store, a video arcade, a record store and a Mexican restaurant. In other words, it had everything in the world that twelve year-old me wanted. Some of the property is still in use. Barely. The radio station has been here for about thirty years at least, but it only recently became a Spanish language station. The Furniture XPress Outlet was a grocery store, the anchor on the north corner of the mall.
I didn’t frame the one above too well. This is where the old mall’s first arm, stretching from the Furniture XPress Outlet, ended and wrapped around onto the first little side avenue. Back in the day, all the awning was this horrible blue, if I remember rightly. This was the site of the Sears Outlet Store. It was here, in the summer of 1981 or so, that I found a treasure trove of 89-cent Empire Strikes Back figures, all in little polybags with a weapon. The only selection: Hoth Rebel Soldiers, Stormtroopers and Snowtroopers. I spent $10, getting 3-4 apiece, and waited impatiently for snow. The storefront on the corner was the old Turtles Records & Tapes, about which a million Campbell/Wills/Osborne High graduates from the years 1982-92 have stories about standing in line for concert tickets.
Behind the principal facade of Belmont Hills, which faces Atlanta Road, was a smaller set of storefronts, as shown above, into which you enter from Windy Hills Road. If you can see the windows where the reflection of my car is visible, that’s the former location of The Book Trader, my first comic shop, a place run by a guy named Benny, whom my mother loathed. An entry about the Book Trader could go on for ages. Stacks and stacks and shelves and shelves of romance novels and Mack Bolan books, and stacks of late 1970s-early 1980s comics all with a little U penciled on the top of page 1 and sold for ten cents below cover price, and boxes and boxes of older books you could never look through yourself; you told him what you were looking for and he’d retrieve it. Anyway, behind the storefronts here, you can see the brickwork of the old bowling alley…
Or, as it became around 1995, a flea market aimed at the area’s Spanish-speaking population. I went there once or twice during our interest in trading cards, and let me tell you… that was one skanky, scary place. Below is the other strip, the storefronts that face the Book Trader side.
The one above is the loading dock for the old Sears Outlet store. And behind it is a barbed wire fence and an abandoned building in the middle of a field. I’m not sure what went on here, but we did notice ample evidence of homeless people making brief stops in the area, as well as two different police cruisers looking around slowly in the back of the mall looking for anything out of the ordinary, so we didn’t linger.
I also told my son that entering abandoned buildings is not a good idea, and certainly not the sort of the thing his father would do in his teens. Y’all just keep this precious illusion going and shut your damn mouths around him.
We’re now moving back around to the front, coming up the avenue behind the old Turtles. In the third picture, you can see Zoca’s Place, the restaurant that’s advertised on the Belmont Hills sign in the very first picture above.
As this below suggests, Zoca’s is in an avenue with fronts facing each other, away from Atlanta Road. (My back is to Atlanta Road here.) Across from Zoca’s is a storefront most recently occupied by NGP Staffing. I’m thinking that this was where Flipper’s arcade was.
And this brings us to Sub Station II. I must explain that, when I was wee, a “sandwich” was one of those things with a slice of Oscar Meyer bologna, a slice of American cheese and a little mustard. I’d heard of one of those exotic-sounding “submarine sandwiches” on television somewhere, and once asked my mother to take me to Sub Station II for one. “Absolutely not! That place is a biker bar!” she retorted. (I might be exaggerating the circumstances of my deprived childhood, but I assure you; this is the same woman who once asked why in the world I wanted to have dinner at a pizza place in Vinings, because “they say they sell drugs there!”)
Well, a very, very long time later – fifteen to twenty years later – I was living in Smyrna for a few months and it suddenly occurred to me that I never did eat at this “biker bar.” This isn’t a story that tells or writes well, but to cut a long story short, I rounded up my friend Matt, my first wife, and our daughter, who was then three, and we drove over here for the WORST SANDWICH IN THE UNIVERSE. It didn’t help that the four people sitting in this place had, in the two hours prior to our arrival, smoked more cigarettes than the entire population of Davidson County, Tennessee in any given year. They were actively pissed off that our arrival had interrupted them, and one of them had to get up and make us sandwiches.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Yeah, a turkey sandwich, everything but mayo.”
Him: “You want lettuce?”
Me: “Yes, everything but mayo.”
Me: “Yes, everything but mayo.”
Me: “No. No mayo.”
Him: *slaps on mayo anyway*
And so that was Belmont Hills, from 25-cent games of Defender to 99-cent copies of So Red the Rose by Arcadia, it was a part of everybody’s childhood down here. Farewell, Belmont Hills! May the bulldozer that knocks you over throw a tread!