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Willow Lawn Examining Strategy

Anchor store Dillard's is leaving The Shops at Willow Lawn in mid-September. And the shelves are growing bare at Tower Bookstore, which will close Aug. 10.

The departures highlight the ongoing evolution of Willow Lawn, a sort of hybrid between a mall and a shopping center. What's happening? It's figuring out its place in a market that's about to gain two upscale malls in a matter of months, says Kris Warner, director of corporate communications for Federal Realty Investment Trust, the Rockville, Md.-based company that owns the mall.

Dillard's exit, Warner contends, can be seen as a positive. “It gives us the ability to look at that space, and look at the whole center.”

During the past few years, there have been contrasting changes at Willow Lawn. Regal Cinemas Inc. closed its movie theater there in October 2001, but Barksdale Theatre has been able to draw audiences to its unique second-floor theater. As the 65,000-square-foot Dillard's packs its bags, Old Navy is settling in, and Kroger is beginning a $5 million expansion. And as Tower Bookstore closes, the mall's owners say a replacement is ready to take over. (A Staples? Insiders say that's what they've heard; Warner wouldn't confirm it.)

Perhaps the future of Willow Lawn, Warner says, will have nothing to do with the two high-end malls trumpeting their arrival in the Richmond area. “Do we want to compete with them?” Warner asks. “Or let it evolve to whatever the community needs.”

And she says Willow Lawn shouldn't be blamed for Tower Bookstore's closing. “I don't think it's a problem with the spot at all,” she says.

The bookstore, situated next door to its music-shop sibling, opened two-and-a-half years ago. Granted, it has been in a tough position regardless of its location. Its parent company, West Sacramento, Calif.-based Tower Records, is in financial straits. Tower Records hasn't posted a profit in more than three years; it defaulted on $110 million in bond debt last month, and it is looking for a buyer during hard times in the industry.

Then again, Tower Bookstore was located less than a mile away from Barnes & Noble Booksellers at Libbie Place. That didn't make things any easier, acknowledges Jeffery Ham, general manager for Tower Bookstore. But last week he was too busy to elaborate on the store's closing.

Ironically, Barnes & Noble left the Willow Lawn location in the spring of 2000 when it opened at Libbie Place. That fall, Tower Bookstore moved in, occupying the 15,000-square-foot space between Starbucks and Tower Records. It was one of 10 such free-standing stores at the time — a new format the company was trying out.

With all the changes, Warner says, her company is in for an interesting challenge. Federal Realty's development team has been studying the mall and hopes to devise a new strategy — perhaps by the end of the summer. — Jason Roop

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