Marta Torres has worked at the immigrant-owned mall in Little Village for decades, helping to manage it as it has become one of the area’s busiest shopping centers, but now she is preparing for what appears to be the last Christmas for business.
The mall “has given life to the community,” said Torres, who has co-managed the mall for 31 years. “… We wish to stay, but only they know what will happen,” he said, referring to the owners of the mall.
Since opening in 1991, the Discount Mall at the intersection of 26th and Albany streets, near the iconic “Bienvenidos a Little Village”, has become a destination for Mexican and Latino shoppers around Chicago.
But the 100-plus retailers are bracing for the worst as the mall’s lease expires next month. The owner of the property, John Novak, revealed few concrete details about the future of the shopping center or the large six-acre Little Village Plaza where it is located, which he purchased in 2019.
Novak, who is the president of Novak Construction, promised to honor the leases of the tenants but previously expressed doubts about keeping the shopping center open and said that he plans to eventually bring retail chains to the country.
He did not respond to requests for comment.
Retailer Iraís Miranda said the mall is an ecosystem that attracts shoppers from out of town, often from Midwestern states that don’t have Mexican businesses, and those shoppers then enter the commercial corridor on 26th Street.
Closing the shopping center “will be like disrupting the core of the community,” he said. “And some of us can’t go out and buy rent on the 26th.”
Longtime mall vendor Kocoy Malagón said they were able to negotiate a lease extension — it was expected to close on August 31 — after they formed a group, Juntos por La Villita, to pressure the landlord and with help from Ald. Byron Sigcho-López. But their hopes for one dwindle.
A holiday shopping destination
The variety of offerings has made this mall a popular destination for holiday shoppers over the years. It is open seven days a week, and many stands offer Christmas discounts.
For Luz Adame and her family, shopping is a Christmas tradition. On a recent Thursday, she went to pick out decorations for the Nativity scene with her three sons and daughter.
“We already have most of it, but of course, we add to it every year,” said the young man from Mexico.
Daughter Odalis, 4, chose something new in the store this year – a hen model. “I don’t know if they had chicken coops like that back then, but oh well,” Adame said.
For the past eight years, Adame has been holiday shopping at the mall, but with the future of the mall uncertain, he is not sure where he will go next year.
Many of the vendors, who shop themselves at the mall, expressed similar sentiments.
María Hernández came to the mall to buy the perfect quinceñera for her daughter, and ended up getting a job at a boutique that makes special-occasion items by hand.
“I like to make things for people’s homes that will fit on their tables,” said the Little Village resident.
Among the popular items he sells during the holidays are pictures of baby Jesus and Nativity scenes filled with Mexican cacti.
After 14 holidays at the mall, she wants to continue making decorations for people’s homes and special events. But he’s not sure where that will be next Christmas when the mall closes. He said his neighbors will have trouble finding special clothes, suits and other products available at the mall.
“Anything I can’t find anywhere else, I come here to look for,” he said.
Every December, many visitors drop flowers and take pictures at the altars of La Virgen de Guadalupe that are set up in different corners of the mall.
This year, vendors have been visiting the altars as well.
“We are praying that they will help us keep our business open,” said seller Verónica Gutierrez. “And God willing, we will come another Christmas time and we will have a big celebration in his honor.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times with American report, a nonprofit journalism program that aims to strengthen the paper’s reporting on South Side and West Side communities. Jackie Serrato is the editor of La Voz Chicago, the Sun-Times’ Spanish section.