Nothing is more quintessentially 80s than hanging out at the mall, those suburban monuments to consumerism where latchkey kids like me grew up. Later, in my teens, I would work there; including my first real job at McDonald’s and two different go-rounds at The Gap. By far, though, my favorite place at the mall was the record store. While my friends would blow all their allowance at the arcade, I bought records. Then, cassettes, CDs, books, magazines… I was a music addict. The record store was my fix.
In my town, the West Manchester Mall was the local crown jewel of discretionary shopping. Aesthetically sterile and devoid of any appreciable design element, the property was your typical sprawling single level. In the 80s and early 90s, you could actually still smoke inside; imagine casually walking through the mall or standing in line at the food court smoking cigarettes. It’s hard to fathom today, as is the fact that the mall once supported not one, but two music chain stores: Wee Three Records and Camelot Music.
Camelot Music was founded in Ohio in the mid-1950s by two brothers, Paul and Robert David. Under the brand names Camelot Music and the Wall, the company operated over 450 stores at their peak, making them one of the largest music retailers in the United States based on store count.
I spent every moment I could in that store, where the clerks taught me almost as much about life as they did about music. Later, as my musical tastes expanded and my first car made me mobile, I would ditch the corporate mall stores for grittier, independent alternative shops in nearby Lancaster, Philadelphia or Baltimore. But when I was still a kid, Camelot was king.
My obsession with record stores didn’t diminish when I went away to college, though my purchasing budget certainly did. Syracuse had its own retail treasures to unpack: the massive Record Theater on Erie Blvd., the student run Spectrum Records at Schine Student Center and indie joints like Desert Shore or Oliver’s off campus. Further out was the region’s industrial music mecca, Rochester’s Lake Shore Records; while I continued to spend holidays and breaks working at the shop back home. Truth is, I spent more time in the record stores than I did in class, as both my collection and my university transcripts will attest.
By the time I became a keyholder and a manager with my own Camelot Music store – at the now long defunct Fayetteville Mall near Syracuse – it felt like things had come full circle. Foot traffic at this location was slow to moderate, which might account for our regional manager’s willingness to let me go off script with our in store catalog. After a few months of transition, our stock of alternative releases rivaled that of any independent seller in the region. Our location even managed to customize our “New & Hot” section, swapping out corporate-mandated pop stars for the likes of Liz Phair, Skinny Puppy and The Smiths.
Still, when I was cleared to run an in store promotion in support of a fledgling start up’s genre tribute – Cleopatra Records’ INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION – I felt a bit like we’d gotten one over on the retail world. Without the pictures to prove it, I still might not believe it; but there it is…Reconstriction Records, COP International, Cleopatra… for all the mall to see.
Sadly, youth doesn’t last forever. Nor, it turns out, do corporations (see: Toys “R” Us). In late 1998, Camelot was acquired by Trans World Entertainment and its mall-based music stores re-branded as F.Y.E. In 2001, after years of vacancies and consumer indifference, Fayetteville Mall itself was demolished. ReConstriction Records is long gone, too, though Cleo and COP remain.