Post-Christmas rush, 1948

Depending on how long you’ve lived in Santa Fe, you might remember when Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, the Gap, and other chain apparel stores were steps from the Plaza. Their sale racks became a lunch-hour staple of mine when I hit my twenties, starting when a co-worker introduced me to the CP Shades annual New Year’s sale in 1996. For just one week, everything in the store cost about $20, which brought on a wonderful mess of excited women trying on everything in sight, the floors heaped with piles of comfy silks and linens.

All of those stores are gone. Now, a couple decades on, pricey boutiques and touristy T-shirt shops are plentiful, but there isn’t much else in the way of affordable clothing stores downtown. Of course I’ve heard the old refrain about how Santa Fe is so unique, so special — why would we need chain stores here that would make us just like everywhere else? It’s doubtful Santa Fe will ever really be like anywhere else, but we need these stores because most people who live here need clothes for work and casual occasions — and like everywhere else, these fashions tend to be found most inexpensively in corporate chain stores. A mall that features such stores can solve a host of problems for people who don’t enjoy shopping online — where fit and quality are hit or miss — and who don’t think traveling to Albuquerque should be required to find a decent pair of jeans.

The malls in Santa Fe have long struggled to offer us adequate shopping options. Twenty years ago, Santa Fe Place (4250 Cerrillos Road) was called Villa Linda Mall. Villa Linda had a bustling food court with a double-decker carousel in the center. There was a video arcade and a Waldenbooks. The major chain stores weren’t plentiful, but there were choices. (My mainstay was New York & Company, which closed years ago.) Somewhere along the way, the carousel disappeared and the arcade closed, as did Orange Julius. Villa Linda became Santa Fe Place, though I’ve never met anyone who actually calls it that. The mall has undergone some recent renovation, which has brightened it a bit, but numerous empty stores make it feel like a mall in decline. The Gap closed several months ago, and the long-shuttered Hollister, with its built-out entrance reminiscent of a surf shack, beckons like a haunted house. The food court now has just a handful of restaurants. My visit turned surreal when I realized there was a children’s trolley, mostly empty, zooming through the mall, and a few kids rode miniature electric horses dispiritedly around the vast empty space near the food court. Standing amid the unlikely traffic of this ghost trolley, the old carousel’s absence was conspicuous and sad.

But Santa Fe Place is not without value. There are plenty of clothing stores for teenagers, from casual to formal, and several places to buy athletic shoes. You can get a haircut, a mani-pedi, visit a dentist, go to the eye doctor, mail a package at the U.S. Post Office, and join the U.S. armed forces at a recruiting station. Boot Barn — formerly Western Warehouse — has an excellent stock of Carhartt pants and jackets, flannel shirts, and work boots for men. There is a halfway-decent array of women’s cowboy boots, but the women’s jeans come only in junior sizes, and most had rhinestones and other kinds of stitching and appliqué on the pockets — not exactly my style. I was looking for no-nonsense plain-pocketed boot-cut jeans, like the kind in which I imagine a woman could actually ride a horse.

Sports Authority carries a solid selection of exercise equipment and workout gear at reasonable prices. J.C. Penney and Dillard’s have a wide variety of styles in men’s and women’s apparel at a range of prices, including frequent and deep sales at Penney’s. I bought the perfect winter jacket at Penney’s for 70 percent off, and I’m still thinking about its dress section. But the stock in both stores is so crammed-in that it makes shopping there feel more like braving the chaotically arranged discount racks of Ross or T.J. Maxx than a department store, and the Dillard’s entrance from the parking lot greeted me with broken, dusty, and empty display shelves leftover from the holiday season.

The DeVargas Center’s inside mall (546 N. Guadalupe St.), once as empty as Santa Fe Place, is experiencing a renaissance due to the upcoming closing of most of Sanbusco Market Center in the Railyard. Many of your favorite Sanbusco stores are in the process of relocating to DeVargas, and by late spring nearly every space in the mall will be occupied. According to various proprietors, this hasn’t been the case in decades. Just as at Santa Fe Place, you can get your hair cut, get glasses or a mani-pedi, and mail a package at the U.S. Post Office. You can also buy handmade paper, fresh-squeezed juice, incense, clothes, and crafts from a variety of cultures. You can pamper yourself with a massage at two different spas, browse books to your heart’s content at Op.Cit and Hastings, or commune with bugs at a special museum. There are several restaurants at DeVargas, as well as Las Cosas, a kitchenware store that offers cooking classes. The UA DeVargas movie theater, despite competition from young upstart Violet Crown, still attracts a crowd. And though DeVargas could stand a remodel, it’s clean and smells pleasant.

My favorite DeVargas discovery was Blessings, a Tibetan-owned cooperative that sells the wares of 40 local vendors. Items range from locally made beauty products to silk kimonos and fine art. There is a real community spirit at DeVargas that seems to be growing as the mall fills, and I found things to buy that I didn’t know I was looking for, which seems key for a mall. Customers should be inspired to browse and window shop, not just run in and out for a pre-determined errand.

I was unsuccessful in my search for jeans at the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe (8380 Cerrillos Road), despite the existence of a Levi’s store there. A full range of men’s styles and sizes were available, but the women’s side of the store offered sizes only through about an 8, with most options sized for juniors and just one style that wasn’t “skinny.” (An inquiry about this unusually narrow sizing policy left on Levi’s corporate Facebook page went unanswered.) Guess and Tommy Hilfiger have stores there, as do Ann Taylor LOFT, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Eddie Bauer, all places that sell jeans — but the designer stores are still expensive, despite their location at an outlet mall.

The Fashion Outlets tend to contract and expand every few years, and lately the number of stores has been shrinking. Merrell, with its sturdy walking shoes and boots, is well suited to Santa Fe, and if you really need to get fancy for work, Brooks Brothers has you covered. Women can find undergarments galore at the Hanes store, where there’s always a sale. Under Armour seems like a good idea in theory, but the prices of its exercise clothes don’t dip far below full retail, and the music in there can be very loud. Sports Authority at Santa Fe Place carries Under Armour and numerous other brands, so it won handily in my personal comparison contest for selection, price, and overall shopping experience.

There is one store that stands out from all the rest at the Fashion Outlets: the Costume Salon. You may have seen the sign advertising “Steampunk” in the entrance and assumed the store was some outlet-mall version of Hot Topic. It’s not. Proprietor Julie Anderson and artist Stan Solomon have run the Costume Salon for eight years. It’s part art gallery, part costume shop, and part funky jewelry store, among other things. The enormous selection of upcycled vintage paste pieces are all made by Anderson, as are the delicate masks, and artsy handbags. Anderson is fascinating, and I kept finding things to take my mind off my fruitless quest for denim. Entering the Costume Salon is like walking into an antique curios store run by a good witch with a long history in the theater and a thousand stories to tell. If you haven’t been, you should go.

In a town this size, where stores and restaurants open and close fairly quickly, there is more to shopping locally than supporting small businesses. Brick-and-mortar chain stores — not their online equivalents — provide jobs for locals and contribute to the economy. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the case of the Gap, Old Navy, and other stores that are ubiquitous elsewhere and struggle here, such stores will close when their profits drop a few percentage points, and then I’m stuck heading to Albuquerque for jeans again. I have an idealistic theory that the more we shop at the local malls, the more they will thrive. If we embrace our inner mallrats and keep shopping there, the stores may just come to us. ◀