The Tacoma Mall is more than a collection of stores and restaurants. It’s the town square of the city.
They walk in circles. But then, that’s the point.
It’s 8 a.m. at the Tacoma Mall and stores won’t open for another two hours.
This is the time the mall belongs to The Walkers.
Singly, in pairs and in groups they come for exercise or companionship. Or often both.
Drinks in hand the walkers settle at tables. There are no turf battles but the groups all have long-established territory.
Adolph Chromey, 89, is sitting with his group of fellow seniors just outside the entrance to Nordstorm. A mall walker since 1988, he comes for exercise but admitted he spends just as much time socializing.
“Walk first, then sit down,” Chromey said.
When he first started Chromey would rack up four miles. Now, he’s down to just one. Aside from year-round perfect weather, the mall has another advantage for walkers.
“When you get this old it’s hard to go uphill and downhill,” Chromey said. “This is nice and level.”
Friend Jim Leisner has been walking the mall since 1991. He comes nearly every day when wife Margaret “kicks me out of the house.”
Leisner said the group of roughly 12 friends (the number goes up and down as the weather changes) met each other at the mall.
“Some walk at 20 miles per hour and others can barely walk,” he said.
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The group gives a collective nod at Ray Reding, 83. Reding uses a walker, which the group says, gives him a speed advantage.
When you get this old it’s hard to go uphill and downhill. This is nice and level.
Adolph Chromey, 89, on walking at the Tacoma Mall
Then they give Reding grief for being the only political moderate in the group. And for being hard of hearing.
Reding just smiles at the teasing that only long-time friends can give each other.
Asked their political stance the group, on cue, all lean their bodies to the right.
But politics is just one of many subjects the group covers. More than often it’s just catching up on one another’s lives.
“If somebody doesn’t come for a while you worry about them,” Leisner said.
They admit a lot of what they talk about is medical issues.
“The older you get the more medical stuff you talk about,” Fred Brown, 72, said. “And politics.”
Brown has been a visitor since the mall opened in 1965. He gets nostalgic about what it used to be. He ticks off various cocktail lounges and restaurants.
“Johnny’s was a big hangout,” he said.
Though Johnny’s at the mall, the Cascade Room, the J.C. Penney coffee shop and other watering holes are gone, Brown still likes the mall.
“It’s a little cross-section of society here,” he said.
Half a mall away in the food court another group is gathered at a table sipping McDonald’s coffee.
At one end of the table is Air Force veteran David Archibald, 78, of Tacoma. He’s been walking since 2002.
“It’s good people, good camaraderie,” he said. “I walk first and then I sit.”
Archibald makes one or two laps every morning.
“On an extreme occasion I might do three,” he said.
Across from him is Madison Monroe, 86, of Lakewood. The Army vet has been a mall walker for six years.
“I like to drink coffee and see my friends here,” Monroe said.
Like the other group, this clutch of about a dozen friends met at the mall.
“My doctor tells me that I need to take exercise and I like walking,” Archibald said. “I don’t do sit-ups, pull-ups and all that kind of stuff.”
The group has a lot in common. Most are men, most are African American, most are military veterans and many attend the same church. Three of the members are pastors.
There’s still 10 minutes to go before the Apple Store opens but there’s already a small crowd waiting. They face the store, as if intently watching a play.
Inside the store, about 20 Apple employees are gathered, talking among themselves.
Down the main corridor the roll-up doors to Macy’s are still down. Made of clear and colored plastic hexagons the doors seem out of place in the gleaming white mall.
They date to the original 1964 Bon Marche store.
Inside the store is another fixture that’s been there almost as long.
Meet shoe salesman Skip Butler. Butler, 68, has been selling women’s shoes at Macy’s/Bon Marche since 1970.
Shoes are a tradition in the Butler family. Brother Dave Butler sold shoes at Nordstrom. Their father managed Leed’s Shoe Store for 44 years, first in downtown Tacoma and then at the mall.
During 42 of his 45 years at Bon Marche/Macy’s he taught sixth grade full time at St. Patrick Catholic School — long enough to teach two generations.
“After I finished (at Macy’s) I would go back and correct papers back at school,” Butler said.
His customers at Macy’s are loyal, Butler said. Some he’s been selling to his entire career. In turn, he’s loyal to them and his employer. For one 15-year period, Butler said, he missed only three days of work.
The mall has grown and changed tremendously over the decades, Butler said. And so have his customers. For one thing, they are more price-focused than in the 1960s.
“They are looking for a deal,” he said.
Butler says he has no immediate plans to retire. But when he does. the Butler family tradition will live on. His daughter, Kressent Marston, is the store manager for Macy’s in Olympia.
THE ORANGE JULIUS MAN
The Orange Julius/Dairy Queen franchise at the mall is popular with customers of all ages, said manager Matthew Wickham.
The father of six said he likes handing ice cream cones to small children.
“Their joy is wrapped up in that tiny bit of ice cream,” he said.
Wickham has managed the store since 2002 — long enough to see some of those kids become adults.
“The other day I had this girl come up and she said, ‘Ever since I was a little girl you’ve worked here,’ and she was getting married,” Wickham said.
Years ago a customer informed Wickham she was 94.
“I said, ‘No, you’re not.’
She pulled out her ID and said. “I look good, huh?’”
The pair struck up a friendship that lasted until the woman’s death.
“I was able to visit her two weeks before she passed away and that was a week before her 102nd birthday,” Wickham said. “I spoke at her funeral.”
Since then he’s spoken at another customer’s funeral.
Wickham makes friends with both customers and other mall employees.
“In the morning I can’t do my work, because every two seconds it’s ‘Hello’ and ‘Good morning’ to people,” he said.
Near the mall’s food court is a play area for children. A row of benches allows parents such as Tom Nguyen to keep an eye on their kids.
Nguyen was taking a break from the store he owns, Red Nails Salon, to let his 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, have some fun on the play equipment.
Being one of the few independent store owners at the mall gives him some freedom.
“I can take a break when I want,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen and his wife have had the salon for 11 years.
Sophie spends one day a week at the family business, Nguyen said. She likes the food court, he said. Just then Sophie lifted up her shirt to show her apparently empty stomach.
Soon, father and daughter were headed to lunch.
That left the play area to Daisy Castillo of Lakewood and her 1-year-old daughter Yaretzi Becerra. Speaking in Spanish, Castillo said she visits the mall about six times a year, mostly attracted by sales.
“They have food, play areas for the girl and stores I like,” Castillo said.
Mackenzie Porter is watching her friend Cassie Cosmos get her hair curled at the Evolution kiosk. The pair of Gig Harbor High School students made a beeline for the mall as soon as school got out.
“We don’t come here to hang out with people,” Porter said. “We come here to shop. We’re shopping addicts.”
They visit the mall once or twice a week, a ritual since the girls turned 16 and started driving. They usually stay until closing.
“You can do homework here,” Cosmos said.
“I don’t do homework here,” Porter countered.
On their shopping list: jewelry, makeup and clothes.
Cosmos ticks off their customary stops, “Forever 21, Sephora, H&M, Icing, Bath & Body Works….”
“We can’t go into a store and not buy something” Porter said.
“We actually high-five each other if we walk out of a store without a bag,” Cosmos said. “We’ve only high-fived each other once.”
Barely into their excursion Porter has already bought $80 worth of makeup at Sephora and Cosmos purchased a trackpad for her Mac.
We don’t come here to hang out with people. We come here to shop. We’re shopping addicts.
Mackenzie Porter, Gig Harbor High School student
And where does the money come from?
“I have my parents’ credit card,” Porter explained. “I have my own credit card. I swipe it, I’m good to go.”
“I get an allowance,” Cosmos said. “And I babysit and I dog-watch.” said.
Down the corridor and inside Old Navy, Lincoln High School students Ky Tran, 14, and My Lam, 15, are looking at clothes.
The store is one of several they hit on their weekly shopping trips. The girls usually spend five hours at the mall.
“We just keep walking around,” Lam said.
“I just follow her,” Tran said.
Often they see their fellow Lincoln High students as well as teens they know from other schools. They know each other from sporting events and social media.
The pair aren’t big shoppers.
“I usually just buy it if it’s on sale,” Lam said.
It’s a few minutes before 9 p.m. and Liz Peterson is wiping down the glass countertops that surround her in the Piercing Pagoda kiosk. It’s the sixth and final time she’ll perform the task on this day.
Peterson has had her sales job at the kiosk for a year. It’s a very public job.
“We see everything. And they see you,” Peterson said. “Nothing surprises me any more.”
Peterson said some customers see her not as a saleswoman but as kiosk worker. She explains the difference.
“I’ll try to talk to them and they’ll just ignore me because they think I’m going to pressure them into buying something,” she said.
She’s learned to cope with it.
“I grew a thick skin and learned to smile at everyone,” she said.
We see everything. And they see you. Nothing surprises me any more.
Liz Peterson, saleswoman at Piercing Pagoda
She’s also learned not to judge people by their looks.
“The person who you don’t expect to buy anything can end up buying a thousand-dollar chain,” she said.
Kiosk workers all know each other, Peterson said. And sometimes commiserate with each other.
“We all experience the same things,” she said.
Body piercer Kelly Durbin is killing the last few minutes in Body Expressions by flying a small drone around the store. He’s laid up with a broken foot after a motorcycle accident.
Along with most of the mall stores he’ll drop the doors to his story at exactly 9 p.m.
“It’s like clockwork,” Durbin said.
And, like clockwork, the doors start to drop when the clock hits nine.
Within four minutes a man on a floor polisher is spinning circles outside the entrance to Nordstrom.
At the Auntie Anne’s pretzel restaurant, two employees are putting the day’s leftovers in a bag. They will be donated to the FISH Food Bank.
One by the one lights go off and customers dwindle away.
In a few hours it will all start over.