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Grand Cities: A magical mall for the curious

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Charis Brossart (center) offered to share her extra strawberry shake with fellow Del's Cafe guests Amy Robinson (left) and daughter Carrie Brossart. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 12
Sari Sandberg, assistant manager at Ferguson Books, decorates a window at the store in the Grand Cities Mall this week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald4 / 12
Dennis Herbeck says military relics always are popular with collectors. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)5 / 12
Louis Christoffer manages the Grand Cities Mall in Grand Forks. "The tenants we have here are very faithful," he says. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)6 / 12
Nicholas England had no trouble finding the Department of Motor Vehicles office inside the Grand Cities Mall. He was there to get a title for his new motorcycle. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald) 7 / 12
5-year-old Daymon Guzman watches his grandpa, Alonzo Guzman, cut Richard Lorenzen's hair at People's Barbers in the Grand Cities Mall this week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald8 / 12
A record number of nearly 300 children participate in this week's Vacation Bible School at Hope Church, which is located in the Grand Cities Mall in Grand Forks. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)9 / 12
Anything with drawers is wildly popular, says antique dealer Dennis Herbeck, one of many independent antique dealers at Plain & Fancy Antique Mall within the Grand Cities Mall. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald) 10 / 12
Dennis Herbeck is one of many independent antique dealers at Plain & Fancy Antique Mall within the Grand Cities Mall. He says the trends in collectibles always are changing. Lately, he said people favor the rustic look when it comes to decorating pieces. Hunting and fishing are popular styles, and military collectibles always are popular. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)11 / 12
From left, Rylan Spain, Luke Nicholson and Oliver Melquist play ballon tag where they try to pop each other balloons with their feet as they run around at the Grand Cities Mall. Hundreds of kids attended Vacation Bible School at Hope church during the first week of June. The church provides a daycare and has recently added an enclosed play area for many activities outside the Grand Cities Mall. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)12 / 12

Don't say you haven't been warned. The signs out front clearly state: No loitering.

If you enter the Grand Cities Mall on South Washington Street you had better have a purpose in mind. This day, a Herald reporter had a plan. She was going to hang out — not exactly loiter — but hang out and meet the people and places in the mall.

After all, it had been a good 40 years since she last spent a whole day just hanging out here.

Way back when — when she was just 11 or 12 years old — she had hopped a Greyhound bus in Devils Lake to travel to the big city with her best friend for the weekend. The girls (with permission) were going to spend three glorious days with the friend's grown sister, who had the coolest job ever. She worked at The Shirt Shoppe in the South Forks Plaza (the one and the same Grand Cities Mall) — where she pressed a giant iron to turn out T-shirts on demand. Pick your shirt, pick your print. They had TV images of The Fonz, sparkly pink kittens and graffiti-like sayings such as Keep On Truckin'.

While the big sister worked all Saturday to make some money, the younger girls worked just as hard to empty their pockets of theirs.

Freedom. Bright lights. Store after store, one after another. Cotton candy and ice cream. This place was magical.

Still shining

And it turns out it still is. One day is simply not enough time to explore all there is to see and do at this community mall first built in 1964.

Sisters-in-law Lori Landa and Robin Turner agreed when we found the hardcore fans on their daily 4-mile mall march.

"We love our mall. I grew up in this mall," Landa said. "We'd come here and hang out all day. I'd go to bat for my mall any day."

The women rattle off their favorite stores, new and old. Sadly, Babe's Oxen Shop and the "plastic puke" it sold are gone. So, too, the movie theater where thousands sat through first dates with sweaty hands. But there still are plenty of stores to love. Take, for instance, Jack's Shoes and the "awesome shoes and customer service," Landa says. And Service Shoe Shop and Shoe Repair, where half-dead hockey bags go to come back to life and thousands of zippers are ripped and replaced.

After only a few minutes, one might think Landa and Turner are just as much a fixture of the mall as its old-style lamp posts and orange and sage-green tile. They're here so often they call themselves the unofficial mall directory.

"If we see people looking up and looking lost, we know what they're looking for. It's usually the DMV," Turner says.

That sounds like a strange thing for a mall, but it's here. And plenty of people do find it, including Nicholas England, 18 and fresh in town from Arkansas. He sits in a long row of chairs, busily filling out his paperwork to transfer a title. Stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, he just purchased a sweet, dual-sport motorcycle in cherry red.

It's his first bike, he says, and he bought it for "the freedom aspect, for pleasure, to run around the woods."

We didn't ask, but being military and all, England might have come straight from People Barbers across the way.

The four-chair shop was established in 1965, and Alonzo Guzman has been manning the clippers since 1980. Slow and steady, he trims Malik Boswell's hair. We ask him how many haircuts he figures he's done in 37 years.

"I wish I knew," Guzman says, then quickly follows with a laugh. "No, I don't want to know. When I started out, I used to be one of the youngest barbers. Now, I'm one of the oldest."

Rocky McFarlane is here, too. In jeans, a red T-shirt and a farm cap on his head, he waits his turn with four others along the wall — behind them, posters display pictures and the numbers for all the possible styles. Ahh, if only it were so easy to choose.

"The only difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut is two weeks," McFarlane says. "If you're going to get a good haircut, you need to get it cut every 10 days." We'll give him that. He says he used to be a barber, too.

The music and company are good, and we'd like to stay for the gossip, but we must move on. As Guzman asks Alexa to "play a song by Dean Martin," we leave the men to their talk and go next door to Attractions Hair & Nail Salon. There, longtime stylist Coleen Brorby is rolling out a client's color and style.

"We have the best job. We get to make everyone feel good when they leave. It gives them a lift," she says.

Playtime, good time

Near the center of the mall, two moms are giving their small children a different kind of lift as they climb a playground ramp. It's always a blue-sky day here at Midtown Kidtown, where a yellow school bus and red fire truck roll through the village. When Shellon Glumm and Kellie Lamoureux are asked what their favorite part of the squeaky-clean park is, they answer simultaneously: "The fence."

It always keeps the kids within view and earshot, they say.

"It's a great spot for kids when it's too hot, too rainy or too cold," Lamoureux says. And "it's nice to go pick up things you need at the store and have something to bribe them with to help them last. They always know this comes after."

Close to the playground is another child-friendly store. "This is where the fun stuff happens" reads the fancy sign on the window of Ferguson Books & More!

Peek inside and you know the message must be true. A tiny grocery cart is filled with plastic vegetables, fruit and canned goods. Certainly against regulation, a fire truck gets a bath in the kitchen sink. Puzzles, toys and books — all meant to be touched — are strewn everywhere. And on the store shelves, there are more educational wonders: Imagenetics, a Melissa & Doug sushi playset complete with shrimp and bok choy, Moon Shoes and The Amazing Squishy Brain.

"This is a kid-friendly store, big-time," Assistant Manager Sari Sandberg says. "My 8-year-old comes in here and has a blast."

She nods toward the play corner and shrugs, "We just kind of leave it until the end of the day and start fresh."

It's easy enough for adults to get lost in the exploration, too. Judy Lee of Roseau stops by to find the latest Nora Roberts trilogy. Several others come to trade books for credit. The store carries both new and used books, as well as vinyl records. Stevie Nicks' "The Wild Heart" sells for $6.99, but you can pick up Freddy Fender for $2.99.

A store within a store, Max Anadon runs his Aeroport Hobby Shoppe, where he carries all sorts of hobby planes and cars. He sells it at "wholesale," he says, to compete with the internet. He can keep a leg up by offering his customers both good prices and hands-on help.

Sandberg says her favorite part of the entire store, though, probably is the classic book section. "I love the vintage classics, the leather- and cloth-bound classics," she says.

Next, she shares something shocking: "Luckily, we don't have any, but they actually have books bound in human skin. An old medical college had them."

What? She prints out a reference as though to prove it. Hmmm. Moving on, it seems now might be a good time to break for lunch.

Del's delicious

Of course, lunch will be at Del's Cafe, where Allie Azure says the caramel rolls are one of the most popular items on the menu. We pass on that but enjoy some delicious dumpling chicken soup and a hot turkey sandwich. At a neighboring booth, Destinee Abrego delivers Charis Brossart's strawberry shake along with the extra in a frosty stainless steel cup. "They were hoping you'd do that," Brossart says.

"It is unusual for them to bring you the extras, and it's good, too," she tells fellow guests Amy Robinson and Carrie Brossart.

Mall Manager Louis Christoffer says there's a genuine family feel to the mall.

"People feel a sense of ownership with the mall," he says. "The tenants we have here are very faithful. We have different events to stay community-oriented."

A big one happening this week at one of the mall's anchors was a four-day Vacation Bible School held by the ever-growing Hope Evangelical Covenant Church. The church bought the mall in 2015 and runs it through a separate management company.

The Rev. Paul Knight says, "We want the kids to get out of their parents' cars and run with excitement because they can't wait to come to church."

Well, he definitely got his wish this week. The bible school had a record enrollment of nearly 300 children. More than 75 volunteers and parents also joined the fun and raucous singing at the science-themed event.

Another subject

And if it was science happening at one end of the mall, it was history happening at the other. We talked to Dennis Herbeck, an independent antique dealer, at Plain & Fancy Antique Mall.

"There's history with just about everything," Herbeck says, and we can't forget it. Collectors, especially, take the good with the bad and that's one reason military items are so popular.

The trends in collectibles are forever changing, he said. Current decorating trends are driving part of the business. More and more people today are going for the rustic look "so they might want a piece that's more primitive instead of something beautiful."

Other popular collectibles are hunting and fishing items and anything with drawers. "People love drawers," Herbeck says.

We have been to this store many times, but it has never been as fascinating as it is with a guided tour. It's like a trip to a museum, so it deserves a good chunk of time all to itself. We'll have to plan a return trip.

The day is late, but we can't leave until we check out Kmart — the original megastore and anchor that started it all. We mosey past the blue and purple kiddie pools, and the rows of water guns, sandbox toys and bubbles to reach Chelsey Wentz at the service desk.

Wentz has worked at the store for more than seven years, she says. Her phone rings just as we ask her what's the weirdest question she's ever had in Customer Service.

"Excuse me please," she says to the reporter at the counter.

Then, "What?" she repeats out loud to the caller. "Do we sell coffins? No, we don't sell coffins."

Prank call? Coincidence? Either way, definitely weird.

And no coffins are necessary here. This mall is alive and well. The only thing that seems to be missing is a store that sells bell-bottom Hash jeans to match that powder-pink kitten tee.