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Hi! First of all, thanks so much for becoming a Milwaukee Record patron! Your support means the world to us! Second of all, apologies for not having any old photos to go along with this piece. I used to have some doozies in a photo album at home, but I’m pretty sure I threw everything into a bonfire along with a bunch of other junk in one of those dramatic “I’M BURNING MY PAST AND STARTING OVER” episodes you inevitably go through when you turn 25. I’ll save that sad story for another day. Only on Patreon!
ANYWAY. Let’s talk about the Prospect Mall!
For folks who don’t (or choose not to) remember this once-glorious Milwaukee institution, here’s a little history. The building that would one day blossom/mutate into the Prospect Mall—located on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Ivanhoe Place on the city’s east side—was constructed in 1912. It initially played host to a revolving cast of auto dealerships: Lake Park Motors, East Side Chevrolet, Schlesinger Chevrolet, etc. It wasn’t until 1976 that the site was converted into the mall in question. And there it stood, triumphant and wholesome, a beacon of commerce and good taste, for decades to come. Until 2006, when greedy developers kicked out all the tenants, turned the whole thing into luxury apartments and yoga studios, and ruined the East Side forever. The End.
Okay, those last sentences aren’t entirely accurate. When I arrived in Milwaukee in 1996, the Prospect Mall was a seedy den of sin and used books, a crumbling pleasure palace of Thai food and VHS porn. It was kind of creepy and gross. Maybe it had a heyday back in the ’80s, but I doubt it. It was a dump in 1996 and I suspect it was a dump in 1976. It smelled…weird. I loved it and I spent a ton of time there.
Greedy developers still ruined the East Side forever, BUT I DIGRESS.
So what did the Prospect Mall have in 1996? And why did I spend so much time there? A few weeks ago, feeling nostalgic and drunk on one of those Old Fashioned kits you can buy from The Jazz Estate, I randomly tweeted some random mall memories. The tweet got a bunch of likes and retweets, which almost never happens to me. (True story: While I can post a random picture of The Monkees on Facebook and instantly get 200 likes, I remain weirdly bad at Twitter. Should I feel bad about this? Good? I don’t know!)
My tweet read thusly:
“Oh my god I miss the Prospect Mall, the seedy East Side mini-mall with a seedy two-screen movie theater, a seedy video store (with porn), a seedy used record/book store (with porn), a wood paneled Chocolate Factory, and Thai Joe’s”
So yeah, that about sums it up. The two-screen movie theater was a beat-up but first-run kind of deal. The seedy video store (with porn) was Video Visions. The seedy used record/book store (with porn) was Recycled Books & Records. The Chocolate Factory was awesome. Thai Joe’s was Thai Joe’s. There was more, too: Bangkok Orchid (Thai food), Kosta’s White Manor (Greek food), Gothic Body (tattoos/piercings), and something called Drama Crow (no idea). Calling the whole thing a “mall” was a bit much—it was more like a long, dimly lit hallway with some shops on either side and some occasional half-dead plants in the middle. Maybe a bench or two.
Did I mention it smelled…weird? Would I be giving too much of myself away if I said it smelled like one of those porn stores on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere? Am I just as surprised as you that this piece has so many references to porn? (There’ll be more!)
Okay, let’s start with the movie theater. It was pretty junky, sure, but I love junky movie theaters. Seriously, when did everyone start demanding luxury treatment and oversized recliners and four-course meals and reserved seating at movie theaters? Is it that difficult to simply sit down and watch a movie for two hours? Sure, the picture and sound should be good, but save that recliner bullshit for the ‘burbs. Anyway, I remember seeing The Phantom Menace and The Sixth Sense at the Prospect Mall Cinema. The prequels still suck and if anyone tells you they saw the twist of The Sixth Sense coming they’re dirty liars.
Video Visions was incredible, full stop. Weird films, cult films, foreign films, hip horror, cheesy horror, you name it. My time spent there was during those kinda-great “VHS transitioning to DVD” years, and I remember renting everything from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. There was a dude who worked there who had a crush on me, and one time he cornered me in the back of the store and asked if we could make out. I politely declined, he politely shrugged, and he let me rent that old Tom Hanks Dungeons & Dragons rip-off movie, Mazes And Monsters, for free. No harm, no foul!
Oh yeah, about the porn: You better believe there was a curtained-off corner “for adults only.” Hell, my future wife and I even bought porn at Video Visions. It was one of those “Control A Pornstar” DVDs starring Jenna Jameson. (Lame, I know, but novel at the time.) Remember Jenna Jameson? Speaking of my wife and Jenna Jameson, I’m pretty sure my wife and one of her friends dog-sat for Jameson once. Is it weird that this happened? Would it be even weirder if it didn’t happen, and it was just some crazy unfounded story I was carrying around in my brain for 15 years? Like I said before, I don’t know!
Recycled Books & Records was everything a used record/book store should be: odorous (is there anything better than the smell of used books?), cramped, and absolutely stuffed with…well, stuff. Records squirreled away in corners and behind massive wooden crates. Books piled sky-high and threatening to collapse at any second. Binders where you could order bootleg CDs and VHS concert tapes and god knows what else. Did I begin my record collection by buying a bunch of old Kenny Rogers albums at Recycled Books & Records? Yes I did. Did I guarantee myself a few more years of getting beat up every other week by buying a first edition of The Complete Poems Of Ray Bradbury at Recycled Books & Records? Yes I did.
Oh yeah, about the porn: There were some old Playboys stashed in the way way back, I believe. So, okay, it wasn’t exactly porn, but it was close. (Shout-out to that issue with Drew Barrymore.)
Ah, The Chocolate Factory. Oh god, I miss The Chocolate Factory. Those subs. Those spices. That warm bread. I know The Chocolate Factory still exists in the Milwaukee area, but I haven’t been in one ever since the company pulled out of the Shops of Grand Avenue (R.I.P.) The Prospect Mall Chocolate Factory was a thing of beauty, all dark wooden booths and stained glass. I’m not sure if I’m misremembering, but, yeah, I’m pretty sure there was stained glass. It was like a church, if a church served turkey breast subs instead of the body of Christ and was located across the street from a shady print shop called Smithkin the Printer (later a Qdoba, now luxury apartments of whatever). Remember Smithkin the Printer? Anyone?
Strangely, the one place that most folks associate with the Prospect Mall—Thai Joe’s—is the one place I never went to. It was a club, I think, and it hosted jam bands and dance stuff, I think. I dunno, it was never my thing. Why wasn’t I hanging out with cool ’90s Eastsiders and doing drugs and getting laid? Did I mention that I was into Ray Bradbury poetry?
So that about does it for my seedy memories of the gloriously seedy Prospect Mall. The place closed in 2006 and it sat vacant for years. They eventually gutted the whole thing, added some apartments on top, and are currently charging folks $1,500 a month for the privilege of living next to a Colectivo and across from a bank. The former mall itself is now a Potbelly sandwich shop (subs forever!), a yoga studio, and some other stuff I never go to. It’s fine.
Still, I miss it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for change. It’s inevitable, healthy, and (for the most part) good. It’s just that I miss living in a time when something as weird and disreputable as the Prospect Mall could exist on the East Side. Not thrive, mind you, but simply exist. Its musty hallways and faded glory practically defined Milwaukee for me during my early years here. I’m glad I got to enjoy it while it lasted, though. I hope folks living here for the first time can find their own favorite dumps, too.
Barring any pictures of the Prospect Mall (again, sorry about that), here’s a picture of the empty-but-still-open Forest Mall in Fond du Lac. Oh, the stories I have about that place.