Where did everyone go?
Ask that question aloud inside the Orlando Fashion Square Mall and, if not for the ambient pop music playing in the background, you could probably hear your voice echo off the building's high ceilings in reply.
This emptiness is evident on a muggy Tuesday evening in June, with just a few folks ambling about the mall's air-conditioned confines. On first impression, you feel like you're crashing a wake for the consumer industry.
The nail salon next to the main entrance is mostly vacant, minus a woman getting a pedicure while her bored son pouts in a corner chair across the room, his face resting in his palms. The lights inside Dillard's – which has been reduced to a sales and clearance outlet – are dim, some flickering. The mannequins in the windows nearly outnumber the people looking into them.
There was a time, of course, when Fashion Square wasn't a ghost town of materialism. But that era is more past than present – a time when the gag gifts you bought at Spencer's were still funny, when eating a Sbarro's slice every day after school still seemed like a good idea, when malls were still ground zero in the pubescent social order.
A native Orlandoan, John Tran, owner of Fashion Square-based H&Q Jewelers, isn't totally removed from those days. His family has made a living running businesses in malls across Central Florida, from here to the Oviedo Mall and elsewhere. He says he even went trick-or-treating at Fashion Square as a child.
But as a shop tenant for the last three years, Tran can't help but notice that Fashion Square has seen better days – and a more reliable customer base.
"To be honest, most of my clients here are not people who are wandering the mall, it's people I'm actually bringing in," Tran says. "This is a destination mall. You come in here because you know what you want – 'I'm looking for a shirt, it's at Macy's.' It's not necessarily the kind of place where you'd walk around and window shop."
The mall's decline is obvious, with its early-1990s interior and obscure retailers, and H&Q's business here has suffered ever since the nearby outlet of women's clothing chain Charlotte Russe bailed, depriving him of a chunk of foot traffic. But regardless, he says he's in it for the long haul: As long as Fashion Square's here, he'll be here, too.
"I've established myself here," Tran says. "Now that I've built a reputation here and I don't need the people who are walking around daily anymore, I have my consistent cash flow."