Fade to bland

Goodbye diversity, hello Wal-Mart

Ayanna Singh said Florin Mall merchants were told the mall would be renovated.

Ayanna Singh said Florin Mall merchants were told the mall would be renovated.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Say what you will about the beleaguered Florin Mall, but it looked a lot like Sacramento—not slick and new and state-of-the-art, but made up of small businesses and boasting a rich diversity.

Enter the mall, and to the left was Star Beauty Supply, selling skin and hair products for women of color. Go to one end of the last aisle perpendicular to the main one, and you’d find Culture Collection, selling African goods. A couple of doors down was Betty’s Imports, a Mexican-themed gift shop. At the opposite end of the aisle was Reflections Gift Bazar, a colorful store with merchandise from around the globe. Across the way was the Afghan-owned Sunshine Gifts, next-door to Toy Castle, which is run by a Vietnamese couple.

At least, this was the case before Tuesday, February 28, when the South Sacramento mall closed its doors for good, 39 years after they first opened. Developer Buzz Oates sold what he owned—which was the entire mall minus Sears, the last remaining anchor store—to a Bay Area company in the fall of 2005. An open-air mall called Florin Towne Centre, anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter, is set to open there in late 2007. Sears is separately owned and will remain in business.

For the small-businesses owners, this means accepting the fact that the unique stores they love are being given the boot in favor of something more, well, monocultural.

And for many, it means starting all over.

Ayanna Singh loved her Reflections Gift Bazar, tucked away in a corner near the Sears entrance, selling Indian jewelry, Ethiopian neckties, Ecuadorian handbags, Moroccan wallets, Islamic art and African wall hangings. It was the perfect job for someone fascinated with cultures since childhood.

“I didn’t want to open a store that just catered to one culture or one race. This is my vision of the world,” she said.

Singh opened the store in July 1999 with her husband, who emigrated from India earlier that decade. She says she puts in about 74 hours a week at Reflections, often 13-hour days. Business took a hit in the last couple of years as the mall was reduced to just one anchor store, but it was still going well for her. When Oates began purchasing the mall piece by piece starting in 2002, she said, she and other tenants were under the impression that he was going to improve it. The sale this past fall to the company turning it into a Wal-Mart shopping center caught her off guard.

“He told us he was going to do renovations and bring in other stores, and that’s what we kept holding on for,” Singh said. “I was disappointed. Everyone here is struggling to pay our rent and all. And I’ve had a lot of good memories here, and the management has been very supportive of me,” she said. She has no immediate plans for life after Florin Mall.

The store owners and managers say they were told that their businesses would have space priority when Florin Towne Center opens. But more than a year-and-a-half is longer than many of them can afford to be out of work, and their businesses undoubtedly would suffer with the giant discounter as its competition. David Hashwa and his family will take their Oxford Street clothing store down the street to Southgate Plaza. Though he says he was lucky to find a place to move to, he would rather stay at his store’s 20-year location at the mall.

“I don’t like to move. I hate moving. It’s too much work,” said Hashwa, a Palestinian-American from Jerusalem. He said that a lot of merchants weren’t prepared for the change.

Murad Kabani of the Treasure Island jewelry store echoed those sentiments. “You have to pack up and find a new place and start again,” said the Pakistani immigrant whose store will move downtown. “You can’t compete with Wal-Mart. It’s a big fish.”

Along with the small businesses will go some of their unique products that are as diverse as the merchants—the jewelry with Islamic symbol engravings that Kabani sells, or the traditional African apparel sold at Culture Collection. “I don’t know what [customers] will find at Wal-Mart, but it will be manufactured if they do,” said Singh.

Rashad Abdul-Hameed of East West Fragrance, which will relocate to Folsom Boulevard, said the diversity of the mall and his client base is something he will miss. He said African-Americans make up 65 percent to 70 percent of his sales. “I went through some self-denial [about the closing]. We had been here this long and was used to it, and I said I wouldn’t believe it until they padlocked the doors and I saw the bulldozers,” he said. He looked around the main aisle, which was pretty much empty, with some bargain hunters taking advantage of clearance sales and a few longtime shoppers going to their favorite stores one last time. “It goes beyond just a business relationship. It’s like watching a part of you die.”