Half Price Books has left The Village

In July of 1981 Half Price Books opened in a prominent spot on University Boulevard. The first store to be built at the corner of University and Kirby was White House, which opened in June of 1941. A local department store chain, they were known for building smaller sized locations throughout the Houston suburbs. It would be purchased by the Meyer family, a group of family members who had been employed in various positions with Foley’s until they sold out to Federated in 1947. At this point they would switch the name to Meyer Bros. White House. In 1950, Only nine years after opening the original White House location, Meyer Bros rebuilt the University store. This was done to create an anchor location for the new announced “Village Shopping Center”. The grand opening included two free Braniff all-inclusive trips to Cuba!

The Original White House store in from a 1941 ad.
The renovation was done in a Ranch Style to compliment the homes around, and the new “Village” shopping center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Meyer Bros. continued to operate out of this location. The company would eventually sell out during the late 50s to another department store chain which would quickly fold. The store space was rented out during the late 60s and early 70s to a few short lived clothing stores. In the early 70s, the space was divided. With the right side (Jos. A Bank) becoming a Vespa Dealership for many years, and the left side was first an exercise equipment shop, then an asian grocery store.

The Terrazzo tile entrance is one of, if not the only remaining original piece of flooring.
This was one of the original entrances into Meyer Bros. The store would have expanded to the left where the bookshelves now sit.
This wall is what was added to separate out the two parcels. This would have happened during the 1970s split. When the “Thai-Asian Market” took over the left half of the original building.

During the 1970s Rice Village experienced a decline, with the popularization of indoor malls, and suburban bound movement. The worst of this was during the late 70s. Many people focused on the idea that Rice Village was full of adult shops, seedy bars, and bad clubs. At one point, the Jos. A Bank portion of the building was used as a club. The reality of this was actually that Rice Village had become a mix of bars, some adult stores, and multiple ethnic food shops. Regardless traffic dropped, and so did the quality of tenants.

So far as I can tell, the balcony is in its original location.
The grand staircase at the rear of the store does not actually sit against the rear wall. There is a small passageway leading to what would have been the other half of the store.
I’m relatively sure a chandelier sat here at one point. It would have probably been removed after the Meyer Bros left.
This was one of the coolest things in the store, an elevation plan showing the facade which was approved by the city. Notice that Fu’s Garden sits where Joseph A. Bank now sits.

When Half Price Books announced their intent to move into what had most recently been a Thai grocery store, some updates needed to be made to the building. It was basically the leftover 2nd story portion of the original Meyer Bros store, and whatever little space existed under it. As such HPB also acquired a small piece of the building next door.  A book store was considered a higher end tennant for Rice Village at the time, even if it was used books. This would begin a chain of gentrification that gives us the Rice Village of today.

This back corner was expanded at some point with the room straight ahead being added on. The murals were one of my favorite parts of the HPB. Very well done, and providing useful information too!
A floorplan of the first floor from 2010. The two rooms in the top left, were built as an addition, and the Kids rooms actually expand into the building next door.
This was an addition room.
As was this one, the difference in floor level leads me to wonder if this is a result of leftover portions of the original 1940s store.

In the end, according to Half Price Books what finally drew them out was the hike in rent. It’s somewhat ironic to consider that the fact that Half Price’s own existence is what led to its eventual downfall. In a city like Houston it’s not hard to imagine Rice Village falling apart, and being torn down for condos, or other cheap housing. However this building has managed to stick around into 2020, let’s hope it remains a bit longer.

My attempt at a classic, February’s Retail Demolition Report

As with many of my current readers, I still have a huge, Swamplot shaped hole in my heart. The rise in my frequency of posting is largely due in part to a few readers contacting me and mentioning that this site helped somewhat to fill the void. In my research I sometimes check demolition reports. I have been wanting to share the demolition reports I’ve seen. However, I wanted to make some distinctions from Swamplot’s Daily Demolition Report. I’m only featuring commercial properties which have: some connection to retail, are interesting, or are historic.

1134 Hamblen according to some old Chronicle Ads this was originally a Phillips 66. Source: Google Street View
02/03/20 – 1134 Hamblen Rd Humble, TX 77339 Late 70s Coastal Station looks like it hasn’t sold gas in a few years
02/04/20 – 812 Westheimer Rd Houston, TX 77006 Theo’s Greek Restaurant which closed in January due to planned demolition of the strip center it leases space in.
02/13/20 – 747 Dairy Ashford Rd Houston, TX 77079 Originally a Bill Blankenship Firestone most recently an independent auto shop.
02/24/20 – 2600 S Richey St Houston, TX 77017 UTBAPH (Used to be a Pizza Hut) property now owned by 7-Eleven
02/25/20 – 1508 Westheimer Rd Houston, TX 77006 Demolition of a storage shed by new occupant “Cutthroat” possibly a third location of the Barbershop?
02/28/20 – 4111 Fannin St Houston, TX 77004 Demolition of the former Sears Midtown Auto Center, great Street View from when it was still open. Seem like it will become a parking garage.

Welcome back Taco Bueno!

Welcome back readers, this week we find ourselves at a closed Carl’s Jr. Not for an update on the departed burger joint, but rather what will be taking its place. Back in April of 2019 Taco Bueno announced their intent to repurpose the building. For those unaware,  Taco Bueno is a mid size quick service “Tex-Mex” style restaurant. Take that categorization with a grain of salt, as their menu somewhat resembles Taco Bell’s.

Although a few advantages Taco Bueno has over Taco Bell would be, a higher reputation of quality, and a semi-local connection to Abilene, Texas. The company has had issues with ownership, and debt within the past few years and had emerged from bankruptcy only 2 months prior to the announcement of the Katy store.

The base of the Carl’s Jr. Sign remains in place, painted black. The top star section has been completely removed. Notice a Taco Bueno banner on the other side of the driveway.
Taco Bueno’s banner can be seen next to the door. The neon open 24 hour sign is a holdover from Carl’s Jr. Most of what has been done to the building has been an attempt to the cover up the previous tenant. The red canopies which hung above the windows have been removed.
Stone has been added to the entryway replacing brick. The stucco has also received a new coat of paint, the lighting and metal canopies were retained.
The interior is mostly untouched. Some table tops have been taken out, and the internal canopies/signage were removed as well.
The metal from the canopies along with the vinyl from them were sitting around the dumpster. The sign is the one of the aforementioned interior signs. This was the “Refreshments” one.
The Carl’s Jr. logo was covered as soon as the location permanently closed.
The menu board was left in this half removed state. Everything will likely be replaced by the new Taco Bueno.
This paint color is likely what the entire building will end up in. Plaster stars were removed from both sides of the building.

As implied in the title this is actually Taco Bueno’s second attempt in Houston. In the early 80’s the company expanded into Houston in a venture lasting only a couple of years. Let’s hope that this attempt lasts a little bit longer. Although honestly, I’m a bit more partial to the idea of expanding Taco Casa.

 

Mercado Cerrado

In a somewhat shocking update to the Mercado 6/Big Kmart saga, the flea market in West Houston has bit the dust. The store which I visited on two separate occasions in the past few years, has been purchased and gutted. The news seemed to break early this year around the time I published my last update. A few online reviews noted that “the store” was closed, but I naively assumed this meant individual shops. Driving back to the future 7-Eleven from Sunday’s post I noticed the vacant parking lot and stopped to snap a few photos.

The doorways which were Kmart originals have been removed to allowed construction equipment to enter the building. Many doors in this structure were welded shut essentially forcing the demolition of this entrance. Much of the metal caging has also been removed from emergency doors.
The new owner is listed on this paper, but other than the fact that Mercado 6 closed there isn’t really any information. It seems like vendors weren’t told anything either.
Look straight back you can see that for the most part the structure has been gutted. A couple of lights have been installed to help construction, but these older Kmarts have almost no natural light.
Looking to the left of the entrance you can see that the loading docks have had their metal caging removed. The caging around the doors has also been cut open. It’s a bit scary to think what would have happened if this place ever caught fire during the flea market days.
Look up and into the ceiling you can kind of see where the central customer service desk would have sat. It would have been under the sideways metal framing.
This is pointed in the direction in which the KCafe sat. It would continue to operate as a snackbar mostly untouched from the Kmart days.
Moving down the building the next significant thing is the former Garden Center. This has been multiple things over the years, but was most recently an event hall for the Mercado.
This is where the Garden Center’s greenhouse sat. At one point it served as an outdoor gym. The fencing stayed up through much of the life of the building but was eventually cut down.
This display case was left by one of the tenants when they moved out. Looking online this does resemble some of the Big Kmart Jewelry displays. I can’t say so definitely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this unit was left behind when Kmart took over the Venture space.
The last remaining business on the property is the used car lot in the Southwest corner of the parking lot. This always operated separate from the Mercado. While there were outdoor businesses which leased space from the Mercado they were limited to opening on Saturday and Sunday.

Trying to look up what is going to happen to the building is unsuccessful. The company which bought the property was created solely to buy it. It does share an address with some other retail investment properties, but again it doesn’t point to much. From what’s going on inside it does look like the building shell may be saved, although we’ll have to wait and see if anything on the exterior is saved.

7-Eleven’s less than triumphant Houston return

As with many of the subjects of my website, Houstonians of a certain age will remember when one of the largest convenience stores in the area was 7-Eleven. Originally founded in urgh… Dallas, the chain operated under the name “Tote’m” initially. It would not be until after World War II that the store would famously change their name to represent store hours of “7-11”. This name change would also allow for expansion into territory, like Houston, which was already held by the similarly named “U-Tote’m” convenience store chain.

These “six-sided” stores were some of the last that 7-Eleven built in Houston. They were so new, that when Stop n’ Go acquired them they made it a point to note that the stores would not be remodeled.

Houston’s first 7-Eleven would open in 1953 at 5115 Allendale in Southeast Houston near Sims Bayou. With the company announcing plans to build up to 100 Houston area stores within the next few years. A number which they would not only quickly reach, but exceed. Finally after years of fighting a highly diversified market compared to many other parts of the country, 7-Eleven decided to Exit Houston in 1987 (Thanks to Aaron J. from Carbon-izer for helping me confirm). They sold their 270 location chain to Stop-N-Go who converted most, but not all locations over closing a few in the process.

In 2014 the first hint of the Slurpee Giant’s return to the Houston area was teased when 7-Eleven acquired the majority of Victoria Based C-Store Speedy Stop’s retail operations. Included in the purchase were four locations in the Houston Metro area. These stores had all previously been operated as Speedy Stops, but after the acquisition the branding was covered up and the Tetco name (another brand which was acquired) was used instead. This was kept until 2018 when some Tetco signs were replaced with 7-Eleven. During this time 7-Eleven would also acquire Stripes. The plan seemed to be to convert all stores into 7-Elevens, using Stripes as a distribution channel.

5700 New Territory Blvd Sugar Land, TX 77479
2480 S Hwy 35 Byp, Alvin, TX 77511
18555 Tomball Pkwy Houston, TX 77070 (Converted to Tetco, had some type of conversion but was not completed)
6102 Hwy 6, Houston, TX 77084 (Was a Speedy Stop, then was quickly sold to an independent likely never Tetco)

This is the New Territory location, I had a chance to check it soon after it was converted. As of the publishing of this article this is the closest 7-Eleven to the Houston City Limits. Originally the white sign was completely green for Speedy Stop, then the middle was swapped for a white Tetco sign. Finally, it was all turned white.
The logo stripe is a new addition. It stretches across all the windows. Another update worth noticing are the shopping baskets. I know these were somewhat more common in convenience stores of the past. However, I’m unsure if these baskets are a remnant of a heyday or an import from their Japanese parent company.
Slurpees and Big Gulps are among some of the most iconic 7-Eleven products. They were actually available as soon as the Tetco name switch was complete.
Although the brand availability has changed somewhat, the GM section of the store remains mostly the same. The coffee bar is on a reused island, but has been modified somewhat.
Most updates, including those related to the Deli section was done under the Tetco banner. This includes the section seen here, and an open face cooler to the left.
And here’s the aforementioned cooler, Now this does somewhat resemble a Japanese convenience store, where “grab and go” selections are very prevalent.
I believe the wood paneling and tiles all received updates, but have no easy way to confirm this. The store had very little backroom space compared to how much product a 7-Eleven tends to keep. Meaning there was a bit of “organized chaos” mostly made up of the drink back stock.

As mentioned earlier in the article, I took these photos around 2018. The reason I have been sitting on them for so long is I, along with many other Houstonians had been expecting the return of 7-Eleven. The acquisitions were made with quite a bit of fanfare, and with press coverage. The reality is that outside of being able to buy Slurpee’s and other 7-Eleven exclusives at Stripe’s we’re not much closer to having actual locations inside Houston city limits. At least this was what I thought until I took Eldridge Parkway home a few nights ago.

This gas station was originally an independent selling Chevron branded gasoline. At some point it was slated to be converted to a Stripes. Exterior vinyl signage said to apply at the Stripe’s up Westpark a few blocks.This would have been the last time I saw it. The store sat vacant for quite some time.
This sign replaced the old Chevron sign and was clearly one of the newest pieces added to the gas station.
However it looks like within the past few months new signage has been added. Combining 7-Eleven with Laredo Taco Co. ( I went back to get better photos but with the cloud cover most of my night shots ended up better)
The gas pumps and canopy are essentially untouched from the independent days. Although a large inter-modal storage container now sits between pumps 2 & 3.
The car wash system looks like it completely replaced, including new draining dug.

At this point it looks like the remodel is fully underway. Hopefully I can try driving by on a weekday and see if the shutters are open. If this is the case, we will likely have a new 7-Eleven within Houston city limits by summer.

Retail News: Closures and Openings

Welcome back loyal reader to another edition of Random Retail. This one comprises some photos from the past month as today we take a look at openings and closures in the Houston area.

Let’s start with the new Meyerland H-E-B. It had its grand opening January 29th, and I was there about three days prior. When Meyerland Plaza opened in 1957, it included a Henke & Pillot grocery store as one of the major tenants. Located in the Southeast corner of the shopping center, near where Cafe Express sits today. This store would eventually be converted to a Kroger, and would shut down in 1980. It was used by a number of short term liquidation businesses before being demolished during the 1990s renovation of Meyerland Plaza.

The store was built to the West of JCPenney which meant that they lost some parking space, and the former Meyerland State Bank was required to be demolished. The garage does have signage directing banking customers to the new location across Endicott Lane.
The elevated parking structure helps on two fronts. One it does add some parking back to JCPenney, with some spaces on the first level being reserved for the store. Second it helps prevent excessive flooding damage. The issue is bad enough that it required HEB to permanently close their old Meyerland store prior to building a replacement. Some infrastructure doe exist on the first floor, but it’s mostly off the ground by a bit.
This new parking structure has given JCPenney a new entrance. If you so desire you can either swap between stores, or even purposely try to fight HEB traffic to visit Penney’s!

Next, Xfinity is coming to Highland Village. Replacing long time tenant VisionWorks, previously known as EyeMasters, who replaced Workbench, a furniture store in 1989. This new store represents a growth in retail presence by Xfinity. The goal of the stores is to boost technology sales, including mobile phones.

VisionWorks closed prior to (or right at?) Christmas, with Xfinity immediately starting demolition and renovation. At this point it looks like the new store should be poised to open by the end of February.

Other previous tenants included Chez Orleans Creole Restaurant, however the building has been substantially rebuilt from those days. Older readers may even remember when Suffolk street went all the way through Highland Village into Oak Estates.

The next story takes us Southwest of Houston. The former New Territory Randalls has a new tenant, Al-Rabba an international food store with a decidedly Arabian name. This Randalls was one of the last non-Safeway locations to be built. It was the 70th location (likely including the Austin stores) and rightly opened to quite a bit of fanfare. It was a concept store, ditching a drop ceiling for exposed roofing. It also included new features like in store dry cleaning, photo and video processing, along with a full in store restaurant. It was painted in a hunter green color scheme that was also used in the Woodlands store. New Territory was also rumoured to have sold beer and wine prior to any other location.

This very Randalls was actually my first job during high school. While the store had recently been converted to the standard Safeway lifestyle format it still had hunter green shelves in the back.

The store did quite well serving not just New Territory but the quickly developing Greatwood and Riverpark subdivisions as well. They were initially open 24 hours and would remain so for many years. The scaling back in hours would actually happened slightly before I started working there, but it did not affect me as I worked in the deli. The stores decline began in the mid 2000s when the Riverpark Shopping Center was developed. A pad side which had been purchased by Albertsons was sold to HEB when the prior company exited Houston. This new HEB was the first in what would become the Richmond (later to become Sugar Land) area. Both stores were able to maintain steady traffic for many years. With HEB handling the majority and Randall’s getting the overflow.  However conveniences like Curbside pickup, and lower prices led to HEB winning out.

I visited a day or two after the store’s lease had finally expired. Everything left in the store was for the new owner to deal with. There was actually a meeting going on inside of the store. Even ripped apart this store still looks so much nicer than a standard location.

Finally it seems that Carl’s Jr. has exited the Houston market for good. Right after Christmas I stopped by the North Shepherd location to snap a couple of pictures. Via Google Reviews it has been confirmed that all except the N. Highway 6 locations have closed. The company website has not been updated and lists all locations as open, except for the missing N. Highway 6 location. Carl’s Jr. entered the West Houston market in full force in the early 2010s with aggressive growth. The plan was to get a steady foothold on the well developed West, and then build to the newly developing East.

Although all signage had been removed everything else was pretty much business as usual in terms of a store closure. It does raise the question, could these stores come back?
All product in the store had been removed so it was obvious that this store had a proper shutdown. However it was filthy, which leads me to believe they have little intent to return.
While most of the lights were off, enough were on that you could get a sense of everything left in the building. Electronics were mostly still in place. With the only thing missing being food and packaging.

Open 24 hours Carl’s Jr. attempted to compete with the likes of Whataburger and Jack in the Box. Their food initially was good for the price, but the quality dropped quickly and prices rose. The restaurants also generally had a reputation of poor customer service, and long wait times. Ultimately poor management/franchising was likely a key, as the Houston locations had a history of randomly opening and closing with little to no notice to employees.

The single location may be where the product from these stores ended up. We will see if this round of closures is permanent or if the stores reopen. Although with Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s trying to seperate themselves at the moment I doubt they’re focusing on a slow market like Houston.

A 35MM Walk down memory lane

This last summer I took some time to visit friends and extended family in Cleveland, Ohio. The whole Northeastern Ohio region is like a time capsule for retail. Chains you thought went bust like Rax still reign king in small towns. While visiting I stopped into Discount Drug Mart and was surprised to learn that they still develop film. I bought a roll, and a camera from Goodwill. Here are some of the photos I took.

This Dairy Queen is right outside of the Goodwill I purchased the camera from. I headed to Elyria (a suburb West of Cleveland) as I felt I could take better photos.
The Abbe Road Drive-Thru likely hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. The Dairy Queen is immediately behind this building, and was a former Hardees.
After a few picture in Elyria (most of which were unusable) I headed down to nearby Grafton to visit the Sparkle Market Grocery store.
I had driven by the Sparkle Market on one of my many previous trips to the area but have never stopped in before. I knew they were a local store with only the single location. Check out the fluorescent lights through the window!
This is the photo I am most proud of. The juice dividers, which were still being used to hold frozen juices, are likely from the 1980s. The cooler was painted a bright orange which can be seen below, and the chrome trim was all well kept.
Most of my photos turned out to be very blurry. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a better camera next time I shoot on film. The produce section reminded me of the original Houston Safeways with the use of mirrors above the produce.
Although a poor shot, I wanted to include at least one to show what the store looked like. Still very vintage after all these years. Not terribly busy either.
As my readers are mostly Houstonians, I wanted to give you something you might recognize. An old Kroger! Despite being an Ohio based company Kroger has not had a presence in Cleveland since the 1980s. This was due to a labor and union dispute. Most stores were sold of to regional chain Giant Eagle.

A funny little vignette to end with. While driving out of the former Kroger parking lot, I ran over a nail. I was able to make it onto a nearby highway before noticing and pulling off. This last summer hit a high temperature record for Cleveland of 97 degrees. Predictably (according to Murphy’s law) I had my flat tire on this day. Once I stopped and began to change my tire, I had multiple people stop and offer me water or help. They were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the heat. Thankfully my Texan background and Cleveland’s much lower humidity made this a relatively painless tire changing experience. By the way, turns out sweating works, it just has to be able to evaporate!

I hope you enjoyed watching me muddle through a film shoot. This was a practice run for a Houston attempt. Though I will definitely have to buy a better camera before that.

A Return to Mercado 6

A little over a year ago I made plans to return to Mission Bend’s most prominent Flea Market, Mercado 6! Well, I was finally was able to head back and get some photos of the interior of this former Kmart. Now masquerading as a flea market, store 4884  as it was formerly known was mostly built during 1992 opening in early 1993. At 110,000 Square Feet it was a notably larger Kmart store. Its size puts it on par with a standard Wal-Mart of the time. This was at a time when most Americans knew Kmart for having smaller and older stores compared to competitors. This new store was a state of the art location with a K-Cafe/Little Caesars, Pharmacy, and possibly an Auto Center. Along with an expanded selection of its basic fare (clothing, home goods, etc..) It also featured Pantry Items, which including some basic grocery, expanded cleaning supplies, and an expanded pharmacy selection.

The recent repainting has the building looking closer to a Kmart than it has in years!

The size and extra features planned for the Epmenada Kmart where due to a nearby competition. Walmart which was located at 14550 Beechnut (right at the intersection with Highway 6) opened in 1985. This location was a standard to smaller mid 80s suburban store. There was also a Target at Bellaire and Highway 6, which had also recently opened in 1985. At the time, not many peopled lived off of Highway 6, except for a prominent new housing development located on the west side of the highway, named Mission Bend. Built mostly as housing for employees of the new Shell Research complex it was on the other side of Alief Clodine and the railroad (now Westpark Tollway). It easily dwarfed any other housing project in the area, and the houses were built to “luxurious 1980’s standards”.  Walmart and Target would continue unabated, without any serious competition in the area until Kmart announced their store. The location would put Kmart literally halfway between the competitors and directly across from Mission Bend. This threat would push Walmart which was just above 90,0oo Square Feet, to plan an expansion to put their store above 130,000 square feet. Walmart would add an auto center, snack bar, and expand their selling floor considerably.

The original doors are still in use (including the central “cart door”), however protective bars have been added on the inside.

As the development of Western Houston had continued for sometime, the desirability of the Mission Bend area began to collapse. It was quite quick process, and while many people have linked it to things such as the 1980s Oil Crisis, and overbuilding, some of it is likely due to the fact that much larger homes were being built further West for the same price. Housing issues aside, all three retailers were doing well in terms of sales. As previously mentioned no new meaningful competition would be built on Highway 6 between Alief Clodine and 90-A for years, and the Kmart would be the last new Mission Bend store of any real size until HEB opened their new store in the early 20000s.

While the Mission Bend area was experiencing as decline, the West Oaks Mall area (Westheimer and Highway 6) would experience a huge amount of growth. Just as Kmart was building their store another midwestern department store had made plans to enter the Houston area. Venture had decided to enter the Houston area by building 13 stores throughout the area. As this was Venture’s first major expansion they were able to spend quite a bit of money on choosing locations. An over expansion among other things would cause Venture to file for bankruptcy. This Bankruptcy filing would motivate Kmart to acquire 10 of these “prime locations”.

The original flooring and lighting is still in place, but outside of that nothing would even hint to this building being a Kmart to anyone traveling the interior.

In August of 1997 the Venture Department Store at 14411 Westheimer closed during the final stages of a liquidation which had begun only a month prior in July. The store was still quite new, only 4 years old, making it a year younger than the Highway 6 and Empanada Kmart location. Although the age difference was not what motivated Kmart to purchase the Venture location when liquidations were announced. It was the premium position directly across from West Oaks Mall, and next to the Kmart owned Builder’s Square.

The closings of original Kmart stores were also quite sudden, with Kmart treating this as a move, rather than closing and reopening. Venture staff was laid off, although they were given a chance to reapply at Kmart for new positions. After liquidations were completed, any remaining items were removed with only the building left. The idea was that Kmart could bring certain furniture from the old stores, and implement new items were slated to be replaced during the “Big Kmart” remodel plan which was happening across the nation. The Venture stores in Houston were purchased by Kmart purely for the ability reopen as Big Kmarts.

This was the the rear wall of the store. It was demolished adding space which formerly made up the back room.

By the late 90s Kmart was known to most in Houston as being a lower-end discounter. Many even considered it below Wal-Mart, and most consider lower than Target. This image problem was not just local. With a focus on expanding stores, and opening new Super Kmarts many stores had not received and sort of decor or signage update in years. The Big Kmart remodel was the plan to fix this reputation problem. Not only would Kmart improve the decor of the store, they would improve the reputation as well. Wider aisles were part of the plan. Along with a reduction in discount items and an increase in higher end brands.

The West Oaks Venture store was quite a bit smaller than that the Empanada Kmart. Coming in at about 97,000 square feet, Venture lacked many Kmart features, such as a Garden Center, Auto Center, and Pantry. Most Houston area Kmarts were 70’s and 80s locations, which meant that the difference in size could be dealt with. However, the Empanada Kmart’s wider product selection did have to be somewhat reduced to fit into its new home.

The backroom lighting is the using the original fixtures. The white wall ahead is the area for the Rear Restrooms and Security Office, both of which are original.

After the move was completed in 1997 the Empanada Kmart would end up sitting vacant for about 5 years. In 2002 Kmart was finally able to sell the property to a group of investors who had plans to open a flea market. As the store was undergoing a remodel during the move, many unneeded items had been left behind. Including display cases, register stands, and most of the contents of the K-Cafe. These would be reused by flea market vendors, one of which would essentially reopen the K-Cafe.

In its early days the location was simply known as “Highway 6 Flea Market” and had no specific target. With a waning economy it was renamed “Mercado 6” in the mid 2000s to better fit the areas growing Hispanic population. The Food Court (former K-Cafe) began to sell Mexican treats in addition to the Kmart Fare, and signage was updated to be bilingual. This rebranding continues successfully to this day, with Mercado 6 being one of the larger flea markets in this area of Houston.

In 2003, one year after the old Kmart had been converted to a flea market, the new location would close with another liquidation occuring in the former Venture building. This time taking place under the Big Kmart label. The chain claimed it was essentially going through what Venture had done only 5 years prior. The reality of it being that Kmart was going through a scandal of hiding debt somewhat similar to what Enron had undertaken. The end of the Venture based Kmarts in Houston was the beginning of the end for Kmart as a whole. The final Kmart to be built had opened just a year prior with some newer stores even left unfinished at this point the few stores that are left likely won’t be able to hold on past a few years. The former Venture building would sit vacant for a few years, with the Builder’s Square (another Kmart property) taking the same fate as well. Burlington Coat Factory would eventually move in, performing a full gutting of the building. In 2018 the property was vacated again as Burlington moved up Westheimer to a newer building. The old Venture now sits vacant after Alief ISD purchased it with plans to convert it to a training facility.

Looking at some Costume Conversions

Greetings loyal reader, with Halloween approaching I feel it’s time to provide an update. As my sporadic posting schedule continues I don’t want you to think I have abandoned my site. Prior to this the most recent update was the publishing of my Del Taco and Steak N Shake pages. I’ll provide some more information as to what’s coming up at the end of this post.

One of the oldest trends in retail photography are photos of abandoned places. Originally retail photography seemed to be somewhat of a subgenre of abandoned photography. I remember my first connection with retail photography being a blog post about an abandoned McDonald’s in Indiana. As retail grew into its own fandom, the phraseology began to change to differentiate us. An example would be the term “dead mall”. The characteristics of a dead mall vary from person to person. However, broad strokes would include something along the lines of having most or all anchors closed, few to no major brand stores left in the mall, low tenancy, but not completely vacant either. It’s a mall which is basically on its last legs.

This Halloween Express occupies the recently closed Palais Royal at the former Westchase “Mall”.

Today we start by looking at a Halloween Pop-Up, in a former Palais Royal. Opened in 1998, it was a late addition to the shopping center and as far as I can tell was the replacement for long defunct Craig’s Clothing. Usually pop-up shops, Halloween or otherwise, do a poor job covering up what store used to host them. For the most part they come in put up their racks, merchandise, and do the best they can to cover at least copyrighted decor or anything which confuse the customer. This also happens to be the way in which vacated chain shops in dead malls are usually converted. However, there is a key difference between the two examples.

This photo was taken in the center of the store looking forward. All the fixtures were brought in, very little was left from Palais Royal.

As seen in this photo fixtures, shelving, and all merchandise are all generally pulled. Although, much is left behind showing this store’s history. Examples from this photo include the well kept tile floor, and the difficult to see built-in shelving towards the front of the store. What sets conversions apart from pop-ups is conversions are far more permanent. This shoddy work is usually a requirement of the lease which prohibits any changes to the structure.

The Fitting Room sign was removed from the wall, but was nearby. This may have happened during liquidation.

If appropriate for the situation, conversions will generally utilize built-in features such as Fitting Rooms. However conversions will usually install their own temporary fitting rooms, to better suite their needs. The Halloween Express folks were still in the process of building out the store when I visited in late September. The Fitting Rooms were still accessible, but the removal of the sign, and layout of merchandise as seen above indicated that they would probably not continue to utilize this space.

The use of the plastic black tarp helps to better hide the back end of the store.

“Crowd Control” is generally limited to strategically placing shelving material along whatever sections the temporary tenants wishes to close off. Unfortunately I was unable to capture an image of the vacated sales space, as it was being used as a backroom. This seems to be somewhat common for conversions. My guess would be that back rooms are often much hotter, and less desirable places to work in. As conversions generally don’t utilize all of the floor space their hosts once needed, this makes sense. However, not all conversions have this advantage.

You can tell this building has sat unmaintained for quite sometime by the amount of grime building up, and trash around the edges.

One pop-up which has no trouble using up floor space, is this Spirit Halloween in the former Walgreens on Highway 6 and Westheimer. The smaller size of this location compared to big-box pop-ups means that floor space and back room layouts are still somewhat preserved. After Walgreens closed in early 2017, this building has sat vacant for nearly 3 years. Mostly being used as a garbage dump, and occasionally a stop for outdoor “vendors” (Not unlike the rug vendors who squatted at the vacant Exxon across Westheimer for years). Before we take a look inside, I wanted to demonstrate how horrific the exterior conditions had become.

When electricity was restored to the building the sign automatically reverted to what was last programmed in. Leading me to believe that this location closed shortly after February.

 

After sitting completely abandoned, with no security around many holes had developed in the glass. No doubt, someone was throwing rocks or other large items into the store for amusement.

 

All the junk that had built up around the store was “hidden” by the Spirit folks and by hidden, I mean pushed under the Drive-Thru Pharmacy canopy. This picture doesn’t not capture all of the junk.

Less apparent but still noticeable in the signage photo, is the lack of attention to the plants growing around the edge of the building. The trees and bushes were so thick they felt like a curtain which was protecting the store from the highway. As well, the grass was high enough that you would want to look at the ground before walking. I personally would not have felt the building was in ready to open condition. However, pop-up shops seem to open quite early, due to their limited time frame.

The interior of this former Walgreens wasn’t in terribly bad shape. Despite the holes in the window and exterior decay.

Getting into the Walgreens we see some obvious pop-up compromises. Walgreens used those huge mirrors up above to assist their employees and cameras in loss prevention. However, Spirit is far less concerned and covered up about half of the mirror space with their banner. Some other remnants would be the huge security camera domes. Although the iconic blue “Security Camera” placards had been removed. Most of the rest of the store had been covered up.

This would have been where the Refrigerator and Freezer would have been during the Walgreens phase of life. As it was all removed, Spirit was using this as a box storage area.
This was the former pharmacy waiting area. The pharmacy walls and counters are still present. I wanted to get a better photo of this, but I also visited this store while it was being built and full of staff.
Looking towards the front of this store, the iconic front architecture would be something that a conversion would have a difficult time covering up. As Walgreens divested many stores in Houston around this time period, there are some good conversion examples to compare to.
The reused of the original checkout location is likely not a coincidence. It was the location of power, and internet drops. It’s likely that Spirit develops a plan for commonly used stores.

Overall this wasn’t a bad setup, although the exterior conditions were lacking, a nicely detailed interior helped to make up for it. One thing you may notice is the number of boxes everywhere. Boxes are kept at stores like these as when they shut down everything is shipped back, and warehoused until next Halloween. It’s not like a liquidation where everything is sold off.

The exterior of this store is much cleaner, and neater than the previous.

Speaking of Liquidations, our next stop is Babies ‘R Us a chain of stores which recently went through liquidations. As such Spirit is also the first store to open up in the former space. However the wait is not quite as extreme as the Walgreens. Notice the exterior theming is much different that the last location. No inflatable displays, banner signs, or anything really other than a very plain sign. I would guess this is either signage permit requirements in Sugar Land, or a requirement by the shopping center.

Much of the themed flooring was purposely covered up by displays. The orange tape on the floor was meant to show where the aisles were.
Spirit only used about 1/3 of the store space. this is a shot of what was behind the wall. Unused space, tons of boxes, and a single leftover Babies R Us shelf!
One thing the larger stores seem to be adding is an interactive experience. This location had a mini haunted house you could walk through. I visited this location shortly before Halloween and was not able to get a chance to go through the haunted house.
Coming up to the front end, I found they were using original Babies ‘R Us fixtures for their checkout stands. Most of the returns counter, along with the first checkout stand remained.
On the way out, I got a pic of the back end of the hanging decor above the checkouts. I assume the logos were once part of a decor package.

Well I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a look at some Costumed Conversions for Halloween. Be sure to stick around, I have multiple updates planned between now and Christmas (lets see if I stick to that!). Anyhow, if the slow update pace bugs you, I do update my Facebook somewhat more regularly.

 

See you next time, loyal reader -Mike

Portofino Shopping Center

The idea of being a “fan of retail” has gained a good deal of traction in the last couple of years. With the prevalence of Facebook groups, YouTube Channels, Discord Servers interest in retail is growing. My interest in retail began with the discovery of some of the earliest retail blogs. As retail has become more mainstream it has started to develop an “aesthetic”, based mostly around nostalgia. This aesthetic extends to an interest in abandoned things and Vaporwave. Fun stuff, but it’s not what really got me started with retail. What really got me started, all the way back in the days of dial-up, was an interest in unique design.

The Sam’s Club is the only original tenant to receive any major updates while keeping the original theming. The updates includes the new paint, added pickup canopy, and additional/updated signage.

Today we’ll be talking about The Portofino Shopping Center. Located off of I-45 in Shenandoah, Texas, Portofino is closer to The Woodlands, than Houston City limits. Although it does fall inside of the Houston Metro Area. My first encounter with this shopping center must have been around the about 2000. It would have been with my grandfather on to his home town of Groesbeck, a tiny berg East of Waco. The drive required us to take I-45, which was at the time a small two lane highway. Driving through what was mostly pine forest, I noticed something in the distance a massive shopping center. The trees mostly obstructed the view, but you could tell that this was a MAJOR project for what was at the time a mostly rural area.

In my opinion, Sam’s did an excellent job of updating the gas station. Especially as the new colors are in line with their new pallet.

Speeding down the highway chauffeured by my grandfather in his ’88 Ramcharger. The height of the car helped to make up for the somewhat obstructed view. The further along we followed the shopping center the thinner the tree line became. With more and more of the brilliant architecture peeking through the green curtain. At this point most of the buildings had yet to be painted. Although a primer coat had been applied making all the unopened shops shine brilliantly white. The huge spires, and detailed plaster work burned an image of the unfinished leviathan into my brain. One that I would be sure to look for on our next trip to Groesbeck.

The TJ-Maxx was originally a Conn’s while Petsmart is one of the original tenants.

After my first glance at the Portofino Shopping Center, every trip North gave me a chance to check out at the developing complex. My grandfather who was also intrigued by the center kept me updated with the occasional newspaper articles he would encounter as an avid Chronicle reader. On one of our trips we took the exit and attempted to drive up to the view the shopping center. Unfortunately at the time I-45 was undergoing a huge expansion, which meant access to the store was quite difficult. We ended up getting back on the highway and I never again had occasion to actually stop and visit Portofino again until this summer.


I think this is Petsmart’s approximation of a Roman Priest.
Which would make this a Pur-iestess? I’m not sure…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


My fiancee and I were on my way to a get together, we made plans to buy shoes meaning I only had a short amount of time from the parking lot. Some eagle eyed readers may notice that I had to leave some stores out. Some like Old Navy, have been redesigned and no longer resemble their original Italian inspired design. Others like Stein Mart, I was just not able to get a good shot of due to the weather and time limits. After taking these photos I did some research into the background of the shopping center. I had remembered some of the story from my grandfather’s Chronicle Article updates, those memories had mostly faded.

This centerpiece of the shopping center, this section was the first to open. Unfortunately the trees seemed to cause an issue with my phone’s panorama mode. This portion of the architecture is inspired by Doge’s Palace.

What I found on the Portofino Shopping Center turned out to be quite an interesting story. The brainchild of Jim Fisher, a developer who was inspired to build this after a trip to Italy. Some of the special features included a bell tower, fountain, actual imported limestone; all of which are located in the central shopping center shown above. The shopping center also had 8 Gondolas imported from Italy soon after the grand opening. This is something I actually remembered from my grandfather’s updates. My grandfather was quite interested in trying out the Gondola ride, until seeing the price of $10/ticket.

Michaels and DSW both look much nicer than their normal counterparts.

The Portofino Shopping Center held its grand opening celebration on August 26, 2000. Some of the major opening day tenants included Bucca Di Beppo, Famous Footwear, Men’s Wearhouse, and Stein Mart. This first wave of stores would quickly be followed by a secondary set of stores. In the original section stores were divided into two generations. Those which took part in the grand opening and those that did not. All of these stores were designed to the original shopping center specifications in terms of decor and design. For the most part many spaces seemed to be leased prior to the grand opening.

PGA Tour Superstore was most recently a Sports Authority which was converted from an Oshman’s. This was likely one of the last Oshman’s built. This represents a “second generation” store.

Stores such as Michael’s were “first generation” stores. While, Oshaman’s (Now PGA Tour Superstore) is an example of a second generation store. It is difficult to tell first and second generation stores apart, generally the only difference being the opening date. According to newspaper articles the majority of the budget was spent constructing the original section. This is also apparent when visiting the shopping center. The smaller tenants, which were added on to the second generation stores, were not nearly as elaborate earlier designs.

Although slightly nicer compared to most shopping centers, the ends do not match the center.

With staggered openings, and a blown budget the developers began to tone down their designs. This is more apparent when you realize that the arches are not even finished on the right side of Buffalo Wild Wings in the photo above! Although built on a smaller budget, the unique aspect is still kept with this design. The arches and bell towers, all add to a unique beauty not really seen in modern shopping centers. Influenced by classic design and architecture, Portofino does not seem to simulate the Italian Shopping experience, but rather to create an experience.

These buildings are closer to I-45, they were part of the original opening of stores.

Overall my first visit to Portofino was a positive one. I enjoyed getting to see all of the stores up close. Although as far as I could tell the Gondolas had not been run in quite some time. The Portofino Shopping Center lives on as a monument to unique, high budget retail architecture. I should be back soon, with a Halloween Post (Time Permitting) in the meantime check out Houston Historic Retail’s Facebook for more occasional updates.