My Favorite New Jersey Strip Mall
One of the cliches about New Jersey people like to throw around is that the state is nothing but highways and strip malls. It certainly would be hard to argue with that – the Armpit of America is home to more than its fair share of both. But there is one strip mall in particular that stands above the rest – hell, I’d even say it’s magical.
I’m talking about the Strathmore Shopping Center, also known as the Aberdeen Townsquare Shopping Center, located off of Route 34 in Aberdeen. And I’m not playing favorites just because I grew up in that town – I have yet to see any strip mall anywhere that can match what this place can offer. What also makes it special is how The Strathmore Shopping Center (or just “the stores” as well called it in my youth) meant different things to me at different parts of my life. From running errands with my parents as a little kid, to gaining the freedom to ride my bike there when I got older, to hanging out there as a teen, to stopping there today pretty much whenever I’m in town, this seemingly generic strip mall has been a constant throughout my life.
What’s also amazing it how so many of the stores from my childhood are still there: the local bowling alley, the bagel shop, the candy store. Sure, there are some places that didn’t make it, like the kosher deli cleverly named Chubby Bubbe’s, the mom and pop video store that was run out of business when Blockbuster moved in across the street (which got its comeuppance 20 years later), or the shoe store for people with wide feet (unfortunate, since I now realize that I have wide feet). But for every store that closes down, a new one takes its place.
Anyway, let’s take a closer look at some of my favorite places in my favorite strip mall:
The Hobby Shop: Perhaps my favorite store. From the perennial favorites like baseball cards, model trains, and comic books, to whatever the latest fad is (like Pogs, circa 1995), The Hobby Shop pretty much has it all. My favorite memory of this place was buying their comic book grab bags, in which you would pay just $2 for a sealed brown paper bag containing anywhere from 6 – 10 random books. Sure, it’s a genius a way to get rid of overstocked titles no one wanted, but there was nothing like the thrill of opening that bag and finding an X-Men in the midst of a bunch of obscure, crappy comics.
Party Fair: While technically a party supply store, we considered Party Fair our candy shop. Based on the wall of candy in front of the register, it would be hard to argue that point. Whether Airheads, Big League Chew, Mega Warheads or whatever crazy flavors those geniuses at Bubble Yum or Bubblicious could concoct, you could find it at Party Fair. I also have fond memories of this place during the Halloween season, where we’d go to find our costumes and be traumatized by the slew of masks staring down at you from the wall.
Strathmore Lanes: There’s just something about a local small-town bowling alley that your trendier, upscale places like Lucky Strike can’t deliver. Offering the perfect match of family friendly yet a little seedy, Strathmore Lanes is complemented with a locals-only feel about it typically seen in sitcoms (the kind of place you’d expect to find Archie Bunker or Dan Connor). I can’t even imagine the number of hours I spent in this place, having been in a bowling league for many years in my childhood and having spent many nights in my late teens/twenties for “cosmic bowling” – where you bowl under crazy black lights and club music. Though I haven’t been there in a while, I can still smell the fragrant potpourri of fries from the snack bar, whatever it is they polish the lanes with, and stale cigarette smoke.
The Court Jester: Speaking of that local small-town feel, perhaps nothing personifies that more than the Court Jester bar and restaurant. Come here, and you are guaranteed to see someone you know. Now I don’t mind that so much, but when in high school there was nothing more embarrassing than coming here with my family and seeing some classmates. Anyway, the food is really good, which explains why everyone in town likes to visit and resulting in a wait to sit down no matter that time. What really makes the Court Jester stand out is its Grazing Station, which takes your regular salad bar to the next level with all kinds of sides and such.
Eli’s Bagels: Staying on the topic of food, there are bagels, and then there are bagels. A bagel is what you get at a Dunkin’ Donuts or in the freezer section of the grocery store. A bagel, however, is a whole other experience – slightly crisp on the outside, soft and airy but still chewy on the inside – a feat many places struggle to master. But Eli’s gets it just right and is a pillar of the community because of it.
Ice Cream Palace: Another place with a distinctly local flavor, and plenty of other flavors, Ice Cream Palace was where you’d go to celebrate all of life’s events – no matter how big or small – with an ice cream cone (again, no matter how big or small). Employing kids from the high school and with the walls covered with pictures of the sports teams Ice Cream Palace sponsored, Ice Cream Palace was another town staple. But unfortunately, it is no longer there – it’s now under new management with a new name, and it’s trademark bright blue roof painted red.
The Strathmore Shopping Center has a lot more too offer than these six establishments. There’s an Italian market, a barber shop owned by a former classmate, the liquor store, pizza place…all things that you would expect to find on Main Street, USA. But in Aberdeen, New Jersey, you can find them all in a humble strip mall.