The Discount Mall brings only happy memories to Jonathan Escalante.
He used to dive in and out of the small shops to examine the toys or try on a cowboy hat two times his size. Back then, the 19-year-old said, the mini-mall was the most crowded place he’d ever been.
“I remember we went shopping for Christmas when I was really young and it was so full, like everyone was rubbing shoulders,” Escalante said, standing inside the mall earlier this month.
“I lost my parents so fast because I kept wandering off and it was scary for a minute before I found them again,” he added, as a toy gun sounded nearby. “But that’s what this place was. It was always an adventure.”
Shoppers have gone to the Discount Mall, in Little Village Plaza, for nearly three decades. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the mall is a shadow of what it once was.
Vendors call out to the few people walking by, hoping to sell them what remains on their shelves. For some, sales have plummeted.
The Discount Mall, 3115 W. 26th St. has more than 100 vendors selling boots, jewelry, car stereo systems, clothing, sporting goods, toys and quinceañera dresses.
Daniela China has worked at L&L Gift Shop for the last seven years and she’s never seen the mall so empty during the holiday season. Sales have been abysmal, down 40%.
“A lot of the problem is online shopping, people are just choosing to stay home and buy things,” China said. “Also, a lot of our shoppers are from out of town and people are either not traveling or think that we are closed because of COVID.”
China said those out-of-town shoppers usually come from Texas, California, Indiana and other places to visit family in Chicago. The mall is a bit of a tourist attraction for Hispanic travelers, since it is reminiscent of traditional markets in Mexico.
This year, fewer people are traveling, and “without those shoppers, we are taking a huge hit,” China said. “They would come here to buy something, ask for recommendations on where they should eat and we would recommend nearby restaurants. It kept our local economy alive.”
Around the corner from L&L Gift Shop at Denise’s Fashion, Angelica Contreras sat behind her register. It was late in the evening, and she hadn’t had a single sale all day.
“Our sales are down about 30% and there really is nothing we can do,” Contreras said. “I’ve been here for about 12 years and there have always been slow days but this has been a slow year.”
Besides the pandemic threatening the livelihoods of the vendors, the future of the mall itself — which has served as a business incubator for Latino immigrants — is uncertain.
John Novak, president and founder of Novak Construction, purchased the Little Village Plaza for $17.5 million. Novak told the Sun-Times earlier this year he wasn’t sure the mall was “the best use of the property” and wanted to bring in “more recognized national tenants” like Target.
He noted at the time that the change wouldn’t happen overnight and could take a couple years.
The Discount Mall isn’t the only thing at risk. The plaza’s tenants include a bakery, a pizza parlor, and a laundromat.
China and Contreras said if the new owners replace small businesses with big-box retailers, it would threaten the fabric of the community. They said Novak Construction has not given them an update or accepted any meetings.
They won’t even pick up their calls, China said.
“It’s a big concern for us because for a lot of people, this is all they have and if we are only going to get two more years, we want to be prepared for it,” China said. “But with the whole COVID thing, many of us haven’t been able to really save. We essentially lost a whole year.”
For Escalante, the closure of the mini-mall would signal the end of an era for Little Village’s working class.
“This is what it means to live in Chicago now. We saw it happen in Logan Square, in Pilsen and other places,” Escalante said. “We commit ourselves for decades in a place only to get pushed out for a Starbucks or Whole Foods.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.