Shopping Before Malls

Yes, there was life before malls!


Remember the world before malls? When I was growing up, we bought many things at small, local stores in Watertown. Between several independent drug stores and a couple of five and dimes, we could find much of what we needed right in here in our hometown, and several chain discount stores were just a short drive away. But when any of us had to do more serious shopping, particularly for clothes, we'd "go in town." That meant going into Downtown Boston where the large department stores were located.

Jordan Marsh and Filene's, the major stores, were located across the street from each other, and there were entrances to each from the Washington subway station underground. (That is the station now called Downtown Crossing.) When you needed new clothes, those were the places to go. These stores were so well-known and popular that when Jordan's Furniture was new, its commercials always said, "Not to be confused with Jordan Marsh." Ironically, the furniture store is still there; the department store is not.

When I was little, my mother and I would take the bus to Harvard Square and catch the train into town. I was never sure why, but my mother preferred Jordan's to Filene's, so we usually went there. For some reason I always enjoyed looking around in the Notions department; I don't know if stores even have those anymore. Jordan's had a restaurant on the top floor and we'd always go there for lunch, with me insisting on having one of their delicious pieces of chocolate cake.

Of course the original Filene's Basement was the best place to get bargains. I don't recall going there with my mother back then; for some reason she preferred Jordan's basement. But when I was in high school and college, I went there frequently. There were no dressing rooms back then; if you wanted to try something on, you had to do it out in the open right on the selling floor. When we went shopping there, my girlfriends and I would wear leotards as tops so we could still get an idea of how something would fit when we tried it on over one.

Then malls came along. Yes, there had already been malls for a while, but not that many and not that close to Watertown. Shopper's World in Framingham was actually one of the earliest malls in this country, but it was not a fully-enclosed mall.

The first time I was ever in a mall was one weekend in high school when I went camping with a friend and her family in Connecticut, and on Saturday afternoon they drove us to Springfield to a mall. At the time, it was an amazing thing to see. But the first mall I remember shopping at is the Burlington Mall, which I believe opened when I was in junior high. I remember when it was a new mall and we were excited to go there. I always found that mall to have a lot of good stores, but a car's needed to get there from here.

Then a mall came to Watertown. The Watertown Mall opened when I was in college. Though I wasn't in Watertown much during my college years, it was still great to have a mall so close to home. Though it was small, it was anchored by Bradlee's and Stop & Shop. Bradlee's seemed to have higher quality items than some other discount stores, and I was able to find many things, including clothing, there. Walgreen's was next to the supermarket and it was  great to have both a major supermarket and a drug store in the East End. (Since they moved out a number of years ago, we have neither.) The smaller stores in there have come and (mostly) gone, and now the Registry of Motor Vehicles takes up a big chunk of the mall.

In 1983 the Arsenal Mall opened right across the street in some buildings that were once a part of the Watertown Arsenal military facility. There was a huge Ann & Hope discount store that carried most anything you'd be looking for, and Marshall's and Filene's Basement were great off-price stores.

As the years have gone by and the retail landscape has changed, the malls in Watertown have been losing a lot of stores and are not what they used to be., With the possible exception of  Target, they tend to just be convenient places to pick up a few things rather than being destinations. For serious shopping, folks tend to go to the larger malls in the 'burbs, and in recent years more people have been enjoying the convenience of online shopping. I don't know if anybody "goes in town" anymore.

Eileen Coleman June 07, 2012 at 03:38 AM
Marian, you brought back so many great memories! My mom always preferred Jordan's, too. We also had our special lunches. It always tasted so special. When I was older, I discovered Filene's basement, but I went only once. It was too busy for me. When Burlington Mall opened, I remember it being so big! Thanks for taking me back in time. Loved it. Eileen
Marian Ferro June 08, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Eileen, Thanks for your comments. That's interesting that your mother also preferred Jordan's. I loved Filene's Basement: I got so many great things there! And you're right, the Burlington Mall did seem really big when it opened. And there are even bigger malls now!
barbara r June 10, 2012 at 03:05 PM
You are right that mall shopping is not what it used to be. In fact, there is a movement away from the huge stores and malls to the local, independent businesses that create diversity and character in a town. There is a whole movement across the nation and in Watertown that hopes to get residents to "Shift their Shopping" to local, independents. We now have a Watertown Local First organization that represents our mom and pop stores (big and small), restaurants, and non-profits. If other readers are dissatisfied with mall shopping, look in your neighborhoods and Shop Local. You will be pleased--and help our local economy.
M C Stringfellow June 10, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Growing up in Watertown was for me It was the 1950's. Watertown Square was a metropolis. I remember a lot of the stores. Once you passed the Firestation, there was a small block of stores. Lefkowitz Furniture, a beauty salon and the other two stores were closed. Passed that, you had to cross a street to get to the next block (Major stores). On the corner was Mom's Donut Shoppe followed by small store, W T Grants, a Lingerie Shop, Shoe store, The Bell Shoppe (womens clothing), Gorins's, The Rercord Shoppe and Woolworth's. There was also Otis Brothers further down. I remember Whitney's and Barbara Secord Dance Studio and Kennedy's where we could buy the best peanut butter made fresh daily. Then there was Woodlands Dairy across from West Junior High School. The Public pool was a place for summer fun and meeting some great people. Behind Marshall Spring Elementery School was a dirt playground with a very large blue rock at one end. This was a mega place to play. In the Spring we flew kites, Winter we used the hill for sledding. Moxley Park on Bemis Street, was the place to be in summer. Park instructors, Little League games, Tennis and Basketball. In Winter the Tennis and Basketball courts were flooded and we used it for skating. As I look back over the last 50 years, I truly have to say, my generation was probably the last to experience the type of freedom I had growing up. There is much more to say about WATERTOWN.
M C Stringfellow June 10, 2012 at 03:51 PM
I have not lived in Watertown since 1962, but I am thankful for the memories, education, and the friendships I made during that time. I know things have changed, but the core of the town is the same. May it stay that way.
Marian Ferro June 13, 2012 at 02:58 AM
Barbara, Thank you for writing about the movement for local shopping. I wasn't aware of the group in Watertown,
Marian Ferro June 13, 2012 at 03:00 AM
MC, Thank you for sharing your memories of Watertown. I remember a few of the places that you mention, but I think many were gone before I was around.
Arnold S. April 20, 2013 at 06:32 PM
With Watertown making national news during the past couple of days, I was looking at Google maps of the area. I grew up in Cambridge and Belmont. Wen just a youngster in Cambridge, my family got milk delivered from the Woodland Dairy and would drive out there for the greatest ice cream cones. Glad to see there is some mention of it out here on the WWW.
Donna Thompson May 06, 2013 at 06:23 PM
Thanks to those of you who remember Woodland Dairy with such fond memories. Charles L Woodland was my grandfather .


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