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Remembering Sunvalley Mall in Concord, CA

Figure skaters at an ice rink
Figure skaters at an ice rink
Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Having grown up in the area, I remember the mall in 1980 and how important it was to my friends and I for the next ten years. This is a list of the tenants who made it a special place:

  • The ice skating rink. My sister was a figure skater there and she performed in large shows. The performers' families gathered on tall bleachers to watch, and there was loud music overhead. The venue also had a small clothing shop to buy new leather ice skates and cute spandex outfits to perform in. In the back there were vending machines that sold hot chocolate and healthy snacks, and plastic picnic tables to sit down. The entire venue had rubber tile flooring because most of the people walking around wore ice skates.
  • The movie theater. It was part of the General Cinema chain and during the weekends they featured The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight. The audience waited for certain cues in the movie that would set off dancing throughout the entire theater, or holding cigarette lighters in the air as if they were at a rock concert. They threw rolls of toilet paper as high as they could so that they would create streamers as they came down.
  • Santa's Village (The North Pole). It was a large enclosed space, not an open kiosk area, and I vaguely remember that it was located behind what is now the Sunglass Hut. On the inside it was a completely different world. It was Santa's Village with artificial snow, artificial trees, big gingerbread houses with workshops inside, and elves that were robots that moved. It was similar to a ride at Disneyland called "It's a Small World". Guests walked through it (it was a walking tour), and at the end they met Santa Claus who sat on a very huge throne, and a photographer who was dressed in a green elf costume.
  • A marketing firm had an office in the mall and they sent survey takers out into the public halls to ask people to take blind taste tests of ice cream and things like that. Kids loved it but it's probably illegal now.
  • Sanrio Surprise which is commonly known as "The Hello Kitty Store." My favorite characters were the "Little Twin Stars." They're fraternal twins; a little girl with pink hair and a little boy with blue hair.
  • The pet store. It was called "Doctor's Pets." My beloved black Labrador Retriever probably came from there. During the late 1980's Parvovirus spread through the enormous kennel and the entire store immediately shut down. Later it was rumored to have been a puppy mill, which makes sense because mine stopped growing at fifty pounds. I had never heard of a puppy mill and so I thought that he was a hybrid of a smaller breed that looks like a Lab, or maybe he was the runt of his litter. (I didn't mind that he was small because I could pick him up to put him in the bath tub).
  • The Disney Store. It came along later but it was an instant hit and everyone wanted to work there. The store was never about the merchandise: It was a miniature theme park that had life-size Disney characters (robots) atop a soffit that was ten feet above the floor, and they had a huge movie screen in the back that played Disney movies all day, and an enormous pyramid of stuffed animals. A few years later Disney sold it to a different company that lacked imagination and they killed the atmosphere.
  • Kay Bee Toys. It was a large toy store on the lower level near Mrs. Field's Cookies. They always had battery operated robots and things that flew around in the air at the front of the store.
  • Brookstone. It came along later but it was a strong "Must See" destination from the very start. Thank God it's still there. With that said, back then their products were extremely overpriced to the extent that they were out of touch. It's still expensive today but not like it was.
  • The San Francisco Music Box Company. It was a fancy shop full of very expensive music boxes. All of the girls went there to wind them up to listen to the music and watch the miniature ballerinas dance.
  • See's Candies. It moved to a different shopping center across the street. Now the mall has the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory which is great but it's way too expensive. One pecan cluster (one chocolate) costs over $3.
  • Hickory Farms. It was a gourmet food gift shop and the staff always gave everyone free samples of sausage, cheese and candy.
  • There were two separate food courts on the lower level at both ends of the mall. At the J.C. Penney end there was a full service restaurant called Anna Miller's Pies, Orange Julius (it's still there but in a different location), a really great French bakery, a Chinese buffet that had a huge dragon, Taco Bell, Burger King, and later Sbarro's Pizza (which is still there). During the Christmas season there was also a pop-up store that sold big gift baskets from Hickory Farms. Directly upstairs was a full service French restaurant called Vie die France. Downstairs, at the opposite end of the mall, at the Sear's end there was a McDonald's (it's still there but now it's half of its original size), Mrs. Field's Cookies (it's still there), a really great Hofbrau that had hot carved turkey sandwiches on a fresh roll with steaming mashed potatoes and gravy, and later a large Cinnabon bakery. Directly upstairs was a second Anna Miller's Pies which was also a full service restaurant (it is now Johnny Rockets).
  • Contempo Casuals. It was a hip destination for young women, the same way that Victoria's Secret is today. They had bins full of low cut lace thongs and tight spandex dresses. Later it was bought by a different company called Wet Seal which opened a popular store in the mall but it was very different than Contempo Casuals.
  • Express. It looked like an over-the-top dance club with a high arched ceiling that had neon lights that ran from front to back, and the signage on the front said "Express" in huge hot pink neon letters in a scribble font. Everyone loved it. It was a trendy clothes store for young women and during the early 1980's the big thing was fluorescent colors, and so all of the merchandise was either fluorescent or black and white. There is an Express clothing store at the mall now but it's completely different - it's nothing like the original. The new one is cliche and boring.
  • There was a large menagerie of high fashion women's shoe stores that had every wild, crazy trend and then some. However, the girls at school wore plain white Keds, plain white Reebok's, white moccasins, plain black flats, or pink Converse high tops. I was the only adventurous one who ventured outside of the norm and I usually ended up with comfortable flats that had some flair, like purple leather with a suede bow. I thought that the other girls had no style at all and they thought that I was incorrigible with my rebellious purple flats. And bright coppery red hair. I'm sure that had something to do with it too.
  • Baskin Robbins Ice Cream. I'm almost certain that they had 31 different flavors that were in large tubs behind a huge L shaped glass display case.
  • Selix Formal Wear. It was a tuxedo rental shop that had life-size mannequins that were impeccably dressed.
  • Sugar Plum. It was a somewhat formal dress shop for little girls. My dad took me there to buy a dress to attend his client's wedding.
  • Wilson's Leather. During the early 1980's high school girls bought skin tight leather clothes there so they could pretend to be rock stars. Their idols were Joan Jett, Olivia Newton-John, ABBA, Pat Benatar, Deborah Harry from the band Blondie, Ann and Nancy Williams from the band Heart, and Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac.

I should mention that the neighborhood's demographics have changed dramatically. During the early 1980's the community was diverse, having a mix of American born families who were primarily white, black, and Mexican, with a few foreign born families from all over the world. Now that diversity is gone. Nearly every time I go to Sunvalley I'm the only white person for as far as the eye can see. An entire ethnic group is missing. Where'd they go?

Additionally, the economic demographics have also changed, as the ratio of owner occupied homes versus income rentals (absentee owners) has fallen dramatically. As an example, research the small neighborhood that's located behind Mancini's Sleepworld on Sunvalley Boulevard. (It's in Pleasant Hill on the border of Concord). During the 1970's nearly every house was occupied by its owner and they maintained them properly. House paint was low quality back then and so people had to repaint the exterior of their homes about every five years, and they actually did it. They didn't have a drought and the norm was to have a lawn (Kentucky Bluegrass) which they kept watered and manicured. No one could afford an automatic sprinkler system and so they all stood in their yards for fifteen minutes a day with a hose to water everything, and they actually did it. Most households had two cars and they fit in the garage and driveway. By sharp contrast, now most of the homes are rentals (income properties) and no one is taking care of them. The houses are neglected. They haven't been re-painted even though the quality of exterior paint has improved exponentially and it lasts longer by far. They let their lawns go and they didn't replace them with drought tolerant ground cover even though it requires almost no maintenance. And the streets are lined with parked cars. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the houses contain toxins such as black mold inside of the walls or exposed lead paint.

In order to get neglected houses repaired the City of Pleasant Hill or Contra Costa County will have to issue citations to the property owners and give them a deadline, and after they miss their deadline then the authorities can hire contractors to do the repairs and then send the bill to the property owners, and when they miss that deadline then the authorities can put a lien on their properties and sell them at an auction. After the houses have been sold the former owners may be given more time to pay off their liens and get their property back. It's called a redemption period and the amount of time varies by state. If the property owners miss that deadline then the buyers get to keep the properties. Unfortunately, the buyers are in limbo during the redemption period and their money is tied up in a house that they may have to return to the former owner. It's a form of gambling.

There are still a lot of children in the neighborhoods surrounding Sunvalley mall. Kids today are invisible because they don't play outside like we did in 1980, and because their families are tenants they don't have a tire swing hanging from a tree in the front yard or a huge dog running all over the place and taking naps on the porch. It's not home. With that said, during the weekends and on really hot days they all come out at the same time to go window shopping at Sunvalley mall with their parent(s), and they wander around the halls which is what the mall experience is really all about. As an observer, I assume that the cash registers don't scream "kids." With that said, I'm curious if they would suddenly appear on the books if the right tenant moved in, like a cheap drop-in daycare cleverly disguised like a science camp, or one of the popular attractions from the Alameda County Fair, which attracted almost half a million visitors during their three week run in 2014.