Ghosts of Smith Haven: Sears’ closure sparks nostalgia for Suffolk's mallrats

Posted: Feb 29, 2020 11:15 PM -05:00 Updated:

By Bob Doda, News 12 Digital

The announcement of Sears closing at the Smith Haven Mall sparked a conversation in our newsroom – mostly because for many of us, that was and still is our mall.

Growing up in the 1980s-90s, I always thought of the Lake Grove landmark as a “big X” – Macy’s and A&S (written out as italicized Abraham & Straus) sat on opposite sides of the mall, while Sears and the food court have been having the same staring match for decades. 

The Sears parking lot has been my horse for years, even though taking Middle Country Road to the food court entrance may be the smarter and quicker play. I never thought twice about cutting through St. James and parking in the trusty Sears lot.

You could find anything and everything in Sears. From power tools and a workout bench, to pantyhose and leggings. At some point, my managing editor swears, it sold candy and soft pretzels – but I have no recollection of that.

Many of the early memories of the mall have fallen to the wayside. But some items do stand out.

  • Time-Out Arcade – There was Time-Out, then Spaceplex, then Sports Plus in the Smithtown area in the 80s and 90s. They are all gone now. You would be hardpressed to find a working vintage arcade cabinet these days outside of the Grand Republic Port Jefferson Ferry boat. 
  • United Artists Movie Theater – For one, they always had a working sign outside the mall informing the public about what was playing on their four screens. Take notes, AMC Stony Brook. Also, I know some people that saw “Titanic” there about 16 times.
  • Herman’s World of Sporting Goods – I was never sure who Herman was, but he had the sneakers I wanted year in and year out. See kids, in the 90s…people would have to “pump up” their sneakers to make them fit.
  • Need some public help with this one: There was a rounded-out crawl space in what I believe was outside the Stride-Rite or Foot Locker. It served no purpose other than for kids to climb into.
  • Drinking Fribbles at Friendly’s.

Editor's Note: Some photos used in this article are courtesy of Michael Galinsky, author of "Malls Across America." Follow him on Instagram.

A Brief History of the Smith Haven Mall 

The Smith Haven Mall was originally to be called the Nesconset Shopping Center when it was first announced in 1965 by David L. Yunich, the president of Macy's New York.

According to a New York Times article published on Oct. 20, 1965, the 94-acre site, a former potato patch, “will be situated between Jericho Turnpike and Moriches Road, and will serve the shopping needs of eastern Suffolk County, which was described as the 'most rapidly growing part of the New York metropolitan area.'"

The plan put the mall on the border of Smithtown and Brookhaven (hence, Smith Haven). When it opened in 1969, it was anchored by Macy’s and A&S. It was soon after joined by Martin’s (a specialty fashion chain) and Sears, Roebuck and Company. There were also 100 smaller retailers.

It was expected to attract 50,000 daily shoppers and bring in $70 million a year.

On March 10, 1969, Robert Moses, the metropolitan region's celebrated master builder, predicted that the retail complex would "greatly accelerate the rate of growth in the area," according to a Times article

In 1987, former News 12 anchor Drew Scott did a broadcast from the center of the Smith Haven Mall for TV-55. He interviewed the mall’s marketing director, who said the mall was attracting 500,000 people each week and had 160 stores. At the time, the mall was anchored by Macy’s A&S, Sears, Steinbach’s and the Calder Food Court, which was added in 1986.

"There are 2.8 million people living on Long Island, does that mean 1 out of every 5 Long Islanders visits the Smith Haven Mall at least once a week?” Scott asked.

The marketing director confirmed the stat and added that they were not only visiting, but spending their money. 

By the time the new millennium came around, the mall had changed significantly. Stern’s had occupied the old A&S location and was empty until plans were announced at the end of 2005 for an open-air “Lifestyle Center.” The area became home to Dick’s Sporting Goods, Barnes & Noble, The Cheesecake Factory and other stores. The $75 million project also brought a fresh look to the Smith Haven Mall brand.

Present

Today, there are 140+ stores at Smith Haven, and it still gets packed around the holidays. It’s got everything shoppers want, and it’s impossible to get lost in. It’s still, at its heart, a big X.

I asked Simon Property Group for any archival footage or pictures they might have had, but a spokesperson “politely declined.”

The Sears will close May 6, leaving Macy’s as the only remaining original anchor at the former potato patch. There are only two more Sears locations left on Long Island, at the Westfield Sunrise Mall in Massapequa and Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream.

It’s not yet clear what will occupy the space at Smith Haven.

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