Freweini Kiflemarian is straightening up stacks of button-downs, running her fingers along racks of poly-blend suiting until everything is just so.
They aren’t stylish, even Kiflemarian, a saleswoman, acknowledges. They are utilitarian, if slightly garish. Wide ties. Wide suits. Shirting in every color in the crayon box, including tangerine and robin’s egg blue. Her customers at the plainly named Ties, Shirts and More don’t want skinny ties, skinny suits. They want their suits at the low, low rate of two for $130.
Shops like Ties, Shirts and More fill Beltway Plaza Mall, one of the area’s oldest shopping malls. The owner of the shop is Indian. Kiflemarian is Eritrean, and she sells these rainbow-hued dress shirts and broad ties to a largely Latino clientele. She has learned to say a few words in Spanish, mostly greetings and numbers, because neck sizes and prices are important.
At Beltway Plaza, Spanish rings out from every aisle and the food court is populated by not Taco Bells, but various immigrant cuisines.
“It feels to me like back home. It’s the center of social life,” Kiflemarian says.
She laughs. There is one way it is nothing like home: Back in Eritrea, she says, she never imagined that she’d be speaking Spanish one day.
Unlike Tysons Corner or Arundel Mills, Beltway Plaza doesn’t house a Victoria’s Secret, a M.A.C. store or an American Eagle Outfitters. Mostly, Beltway Plaza has found a niche as a large — and faintly 1980s — urban souk, hawking the necessities, and the oddities, of immigrant life.
It can confound the users of Yelp, who bemoan its “shadiness” and who struggle to comprehend just what they’ll buy at Luv’n Time, the lingerie shop, or First Lady, with its Sunday sermon-appropriate power suits and lace hats the size of hubcaps.
“They’re not big merchants; they’re not big corporate entities,” says Jon Enten, a marketing consultant for the mall. “We have everything from African fashion to an As-Seen-on-TV store.”
In a retail landscape that is increasingly bleak, could this be this the future of malls?
The American mall is a goner, we’re told.
Macy’s is shutting down 100 stores, following Sears and Montgomery Ward and Finish Line and Circuit City in leaving gaping black holes in the American mall-scape.
Who will mourn the mall? No one, it seems. Its former customers now roam the aisles of Walmart and Target, or fill their carts virtually. They buy their Russian River Valley wine and fleece slippers from Costco.
Beltway Plaza, in the meantime, carries on. It’s the quintessential American mall, once flush with people, now scraping along as national retailers shudder. It is also . . . not.
Local real estate magnate Sidney J. Brown opened Beltway Plaza as an open-air discount mall in 1963 in Greenbelt, one of only three garden-filled towns in America developed for low-income families in the late 1930s under the New Deal.
Brown soon was entangled in litigation accusing him of being a District slumlord. (A consortium of local owners now operates the mall.) Greenbelt, envisioned as city filled with smartly manicured greenscape, eventually came to look more like a thicket of concrete and strip malls.
But the mall, with its awfully affordable S. Klein Department store, a two-screen movie theater and a pizza parlor, was a hit.
In the 1970s, The Post covered the oddity of the mall’s Leisure Learning Center, where you could sit in front of newfangled glowing screens and take computer classes. In the late 1980s, the mall was renovated and doubled in size as a Sports Authority opened (it has long since closed). The end result was a Frankenstein effect, with newer structures starkly jutting out of old ones, and an upper-deck parking deck that, from the street, awkwardly obscures the mall itself.
There’s hope for change yet again. Townhouses have risen near the mall. The FBI is looking at a parcel nearby to headquarter 11,000 employees. No one dares to say it, but maybe there are new customers to be had, and yet another life for this mall.
There are a few chain stores still. Target is nearby, and the biggest lure. But there is also Fallas, where signs direct customers to zapatos and skinny jeans for mujeres.
And there are other discount chains: Burlington Coat Factory, buzzing with a sluggish energy, was stocked before Christmas with holiday gift sets that no one was buying, and once-aspirational brands, such as Anne Klein and Guess, that people were. A tan wool Ivanka Trump cape with faux fur hung on a rack, mussed from the many hands that have tried it on and returned it to its hanger.
At Jo-Ann Fabric, the sewing aisle, a beacon of immigrant industriousness, was humming.
It was “very, very, extremely busy” in the days leading up to the holidays, a cashier said.
But the stuffed owls in Santa hats were already marked down — 60 percent off.
Two women in hijabs sauntered past.
Busy here is relative.
We trek to Import Cottage, where you can purchase brazen replica Louis Vuitton suitcases, large laundry bags emblazoned with “Charm of Africa” and untarnished Indian costume jewelry. The store’s lone employee has kicked his feet up on a chair. Just behind him, you can make out a photo of the shop’s Indian-American owner shaking hands with a young Hillary Clinton.
Not far from there, at the Greenbelt Lions Club’s annual charity present wrapping station, Rowland Hoke muses about what has changed in his two decades spending winters in the mall. Diverse customers have always roamed the mall’s stores, Hoke says. But Greenbelt has been transformed.
Shoppers who were once just black and white, Hoke says, have been replaced by Hispanic families. And, fellow Lion Dennis Boles marvels, customers from “practically every African country.”
Almost from the beginning, most of the stores occupying this mall have been mom-and-pops, says Barry Blechman, the proprietor of Beltway Plaza Hardware for nearly 40 years. “The national retailers, they’re looking at the big malls, and they don’t want to go in a smaller mall. That’s the way it is.” He describes the massive shift in the retail industry as simply another turn in a predictable life cycle — predictable mostly in that the shops that come inevitably go.
The sign for his shop says simply “Hardware.” But no one comes here for hammers or painters’ tape anymore.
Keys are what Blechman’s customers come for now: fussy electronic car keys, which would cost them several hundred dollars to replace at a dealership, but which Blechman can make at a cut rate. Getting a cut rate is why everyone is here in the first place.
Onward, to Twins African Fashion, where Comfort Adesigbin reluctantly pauses from prattling into a cellphone to discuss the mall’s multicultural clientele. Sure, many customers are Nigerian, she says, but just as often, they’re not.
“They are Americans! When they want to go to Africa, they come here for shopping, and they want to know what they need,” she says. She sells them shoes and traditional glitzy, long chiffon suits, bedazzled with jewels and embroidery. She gestures toward the front of the store, at the loud printed cotton shirts that have been selling well lately. (Dashikis, she is surprised to learn, have made a comeback among the music festival-going set.)
A stroll across the mall’s dated white-tiled corridors takes you past a cookie place that is not Mrs. Fields and a restaurant that is not Panda Express but Jodeem African Cuisine, offering the Nigerian specialties ogbono soup and fufu. There’s an El Taco Rico, about as large as a broom closet and just as dark, where quesadillas made with tortillas pounded from fresh masa pour out of the kitchen for a stream of lunchtime clientele.
Few utter anything but Spanish. It is practically the national language of Beltway Plaza.
Alejandra Ramirez knows it well, and sometimes, the other retailers in the mall run over to Hardware to have the 27-year-old translate for their customers. She obliges.
Her parents are from El Salvador. She was born here.
And next year, Blechman says proudly of his protege, she will be the new owner of Beltway Plaza Hardware.
She already speaks the language.