When the manager of the small specialty store in Landover Mall heard about the shooting several blocks from the mall, he know it was only a matter of time before the rumors began.
Sure enough, within days, he began hearing about "the violence" that had occurred at the mall, and a year later people still talk about the incident as if it actually happened.
"Anything bad that happens around here must have happened at Landover Mall as far as the public is concerned," the manager complains. "We've got a bad reputation regardless of whether it's true."
For a shopping center which opened amid considerable fanfare only eight years ago to have an image problem is ironic, because Landover's original proponents saw the mall as a much-needed economic and psychological boost for Prince George's County. But despite its indoor fountains, potted palms and prestigious department stores, Landover merchants must struggle with a perception of the mall as a tough, crime-ridden place with low quality merchandise.
To a large extent this image is based on the mall's location near a number of low income housing developments and on the racial and economic changes that have occurred in central Prince George's County.
When Landover Mall was built, it was designed to capitalize on an influx of upper middle class families that was expected in the area. Those families never came in the predicted numbers, however, and in their place there developed a clientele that was less affluent and predominantly black.
For a time, many merchants now concede, there was almost a sense of despair as the affluent families that were the mall's premise began shopping at White Flint Mall in Rockville and new developments in Montgomery County, Laurel and Annapolis. Little effort was made to promote the place or maintain it, according to some merchants.
These days, however, a renewed sense of optimism is apparent at Landover. Merchants for the most part have adjusted to their largely black audience and tailored their merchandise to suit it. Crime has been checked and a new promotion campaign is planned for the fall.
"I think people (now) realize that they will get a lot of traffic into their stores, but it won't be the kind of customer you get at White Flint," said Bob Radner, who owns jewelry stores at both malls as well as in Annapolis. "In White Flint people are slightly loaded and they walk in and spend $60,000 for a diamond. Here you just get a different trade."
Eight years ago, of course, no one could have predicted that any such adjustment would be necessary.
In its early days, Landover was the largest enclosed shopping center in the area, with some 1,200,000 square feet and over 6,000 parking spaces.
At either end of the two tree-lined promenades were Woodward and Lothrop, Garfinkel's, Sears and The Hecht Company. In between, on two levels accessible by elegant escalators were 130 stores and restaurants offering the best that Washington had to sell.
"There was a lot of excitement then," said John Price, head of the Mall Merchants Association. The stores flooded in their newest gimmicks and best lines, expectations rose and then quite subtly something happened.
Within a year or so, the merchants who have been there since the beginning say, they noticed the crowds were, not quite as big as they expected, the affluence wasn't quite as great as predicted and business, while good enough, wasn't stupendous.
Although none of the stores will divulge their profits over the years -- and executives of the mall's owner, The Lerner Corporation, refused to respond to inquiries -- all agreed that the income levels predicted for the mall were somewhat exaggerated.
The promise of the mall began to change and several things were responsible, most important of which was probably inaccurate population projections.
When the mall's developers were persuading the county commissioners to support the mall, they estimated that Prince George's would have just under 1 million persons by 1980. In fact county residents now number only 675,000, some 300,000 under the projections.
"When we came out here on a bus tour," when the mall first opened, said one Garfinkel's employe recently, "it was said that there was going to be wonderful growth in this area. It never happened though, and now the surveys show that growth for the 80s is going toward Fairfax.
Coupled with the less-than-expected growth was a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups imposed by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The moratorium, which started the same year the mall's construction began in 1970 and lasted eight long years, seriously curtailed commercial development in the area directly around the mall and high-priced residential development in the fields to the east. Both had been expected to bring in well-salaried customers anxious to spend their dollars.
"What happened over the last ten years," said Price, "is that Metro has opened (making Washington more accessible to the suburban shopper), Laurel center has opened, Annapolis has opened and other older malls have explained and become enclosed and that has curtailed our trading area."
The result has been that in the years after Landover opened its customers were drawn increasingly from only the Landover area and other close-in neighborhoods of Prince George's.
When the mall opened in 1972, about 35 percent of its customers were black, according to mall merchants. Over time that figure changed to 65 percent or 70 percent, making Landover now the area's only major black shopping mall.
When the change first began to occur and customers came from surrounding neighborhoods such as Glenarden and Palmer Park that are almost completely black, the store managers had some difficulty adjusting.
They complained about "street kids" hanging out and causing trouble and grumbled that they drove away "other" customers. At one point two years ago, the mall merchants association tried to get Metro to remove a public bus stop from the mall grounds because of the large number of "youths" they brought into the otherwise controlled environment.
"Young kids caused "mischief" at White Flint. Here, they were trouble-makers' and 'hoodlums'," said Kalman Brooks, who during the last seven years has managed two of the mall's dozen or so shoe stores.
The mall seemed to be on a downward skid, its parking lot and four office annexes preyed on by nighttime vandals, its spacious indoor walkways littered with beer cans, its fountains shut down, and its back alleys the territory of rats.
"Landover was not an upward trend," Price said, and nearly all of the store managers believe Price's assessment. Today, though, the sense of panic or despair about the mall's future that some said was present not so long ago seems to have faded.
"After a while I think people just realized they still had customers, they were just different ones. The young black dudes were coming in here to shop and they spent a lot of money," Brooks said.
The gradual adjustment by the stores to the mall's racial change can be seen in their merchandise now being offered. Garfinckel's will still carry the same delicately painted china bowls and expensive bric-a-brac and cosmetics that all their stores feature but they will emphasize other items -- "visual values" according to the store manager -- that seem to sell especially well at Landover.
Vanguard's Brooks said that about 80 percent of his sales are from the "high fashion young black trade." As a result, a table that sits loaded with shoes recently featured in Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine, with pointed toes, thin ankle straps and open weave leather tops, cannot be found in many of Vanguard's other stores."That table doesn't exist in Springfield Mall. It wouldn't sell."
The realization that the new clientele, while perhaps not as affluent as originally predicted, can be enticed into spending money at Landover has given rise of late to the notion that the mall is ready to come out of its long slump.
In fact, an ad campaign designed to spur the rebirth is now being developed for the fall. At the same time, the mall itself has gone through a massive clean-up job in the last few months and since January, the fountains have been gracing the mall with flowing, sparkling water for the first time in a while.
"We've been making an all-out effort to change our image," said one active merchant in the mall who asked not to be named. "We're groping through a rebirth.
Said Price, "We're telling people who stayed away because of what they've heard or what happened to them once to come back and take another look, said Price, "because really there's nothing around here that compares to Landover Mall."