As White Flint mall passes, keen memories remain

John Kelly
Columnist February 20, 2012

It’s a good idea to be prudent when you see a crowd of excited people gathered around a bunch of sharp knives, but as we were at Bloomingdale’s, I wasn’t too worried. We were competitors, yes, but we were also kindred spirits. Everything was at least 30 percent off, and we couldn’t believe our luck.

This was at White Flint, the mall of my youth. Sure, Rockville Mall was closer to my house, but even then — only five years after it opened — Rockville Mall had a sad and desperate vibe, its many vacant storefronts making it feel like a zeppelin hangar of the damned. My after-school job was at Wheaton Plaza, but it wasn’t a mall then, it was a roofless shopping center, its pebble-dash common areas sun-blasted in August, frozen in February.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

For teenagers in my part of Montgomery County, White Flint was the fancy mall. Going there was like entering a terrarium of upmarket commerce, an aspirational biosphere. People in Bethesda might have been accustomed to glass elevators, but for us in Rockville, they were a big deal. (And no, White Flint is not — never was — in “North Bethesda.”) And so I reacted with some sadness when I learned that White Flint is going to be “deconstructed”: torn down to be turned into a “town center.”

Not that I go to White Flint much anymore — My Lovely Wife’s a Bethesda girl, in the tank for Montgomery Mall. But we were there over the weekend. Our destination was the Williams-Sonoma store, and our quarry was a coffee grinder. We are now empty nesters, the two of us, and for some strange reason, our reaction to being without our college-age daughters is to obsess about espresso, as if we could somehow fill their absence by becoming infatuated with grind settings and frothing arms.

It turns out that our old coffee grinder isn’t appropriate for our new child, er, espresso machine. Do you know how much damage you can do to an arabica bean with a blade grinder? No, you must use a burr grinder, which is as superior to a blade grinder as a Dyson vacuum cleaner is to a dead ferret lashed to the end of a stick.


Stephanie Yun of the District shops in 2005 at White Flint mall. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

And so to Williams-Sonoma. But first we had to walk through the Bloomingdale’s housewares department — and into a feeding frenzy. The White Flint Bloomies is closing soon, and everything is at least 30 percent off. Those trendy pod coffee machines — Keurig, Nespresso — are 40 percent off. And the knives are 50 percent off.

As feeding frenzies go, it was a pretty orderly affair. Shoppers weren’t cold-cocking one another to get at the Henckels and Wusthof brands, but you had to sort of wait your turn for the knives, shuffling past like visitors to the Declaration of Independence. My wife had her eyes on a nice eight-inch chef’s knife, but it was part of a seven-piece set — a seven-piece set that for some reason now had only six pieces.

“I wonder if they’ll break up the set,” she said to me.

A man standing nearby overheard us and sidled up. “They say they won’t,” he said. “But I’m hoping the manager might change her mind.” He wanted the five-inch santoku knife that was part of the set.

A slightly harried woman dressed in Bloomingdale’s black came over. The policy was firm, she explained. No sets would be broken. Order would be maintained. This was not “Lord of the Flies” on Rockville Pike. This was Bloomingdale’s in White Flint mall.

“Okay,” my wife said. “We’ll take the set.” She turned to the man: “And I’ll sell you that knife.”

The set was $250, marked down to $125. The guy gave us 50 bucks for the santoku knife and the sharpening steel. It was the best sort of capitalist transaction. We were all pleased with the outcome.

When historians write of great buildings, they seldom include shopping malls. Sure, you can walk the dusty ruins of the agora in Athens, but who will memorialize White Flint? Who will re­cord the triumphs and tragedies of its shoe salesmen? Who will remember the comely ladies who spritzed you with pleasing scents as you navigated the Lord & Taylor perfume department? Who will sing of the Eatery?

Perhaps no one. But let the record show that in the year 2012, the Kellys got the last J.A. Henckels ice-hardened, no-stain, eight-inch chef’s knife ever sold at the White Flint Bloomingdale’s.

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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