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THE PIONEER: Sweet, Dead Azalea

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But you won’t catch me weeping for it today, although the drab, vacant site does have the power to make me pause and savor a few memories before driving on. They are a teenager’s memories, recollections of hanging out in the central court, shopping for back-to-school clothes at the old Thalhimers department store’s first suburban branch, and — oddly — the scent of now decidedly unfashionable aftershaves and colognes such as English Leather and Jade East. They say that the sense of smell is the most evocative of the past. Does anybody wear Jade East anymore? Do they even make English Leather these days?

Azalea Mall was the first Richmond shopping center to incorporate the word “mall” into its name. That gave us the opportunity to have fun with this new-to-Richmond word, playing on the homophonic word moll. In our sophomoric fantasies, the Azalea Moll was a pulp-novel blond bombshell hanging on the arm of a gangster in a pinstripe suit and a felt hat. We imagined that she lived in the stockroom at Woolworth, I suppose, and came out only late at night to flaunt her brassy good looks to titillate the night watchman. Sophomoric vocabulary fantasies were OK then. We were, after all, not far past our sophomore year. Today the cool kids would label us as word geeks. Come to think of it, they probably did then, too, even if we didn’t realize it.

But I’m not a teenager any more, and trying to conjure up personality defects that might or might not have cursed me all those many years ago is little more than mental gymnastics today. The Azalea Moll never was, and Azalea Mall is no more.

Although it might be tempting to urge you to light a candle or lift a glass of champagne or whatever one does to mourn the loss of a part of Richmond’s commercial past, I won’t do that. Change happens. Demographic patterns change. Cities sprawl. What’s trendy and chic and hot one day is forsaken soon enough. And most times, that’s all for the best.

But as we brace ourselves for the openings of two more shopping centers — both of them bigger and better and cooler and hipper than anything Richmond’s ever seen before — I can’t help wondering: How long will it be before they’re considered quaint and dated and out-of-fashion. How many years will it be before weeds spring up through cracks in the asphalt at Short Pump and Stony Point? And when those sites, too, stand abandoned and desolate, will we care as little as we do about the demise of Azalea Mall. Probably so.

It takes a long time for a Virginian to come to grips with the fact that change is sometimes good — and always inevitable. Now, I’m glad I’m there. Otherwise I’d be spending a lot of my time weeping for things that really don’t matter. S

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