.The Almaden Plaza

The tunes of Blossom Hill and Almaden Expressway

What once was: the Almaden Plaza.

When migrants flee their land of origin, they might carry mementos that serve as items of material memory, items that become charged with stories.

I was not forcibly displaced from the congested car-culture nightmare of Blossom Hill and Almaden Expressway, so I do occasionally return. Just last week, a recent visit to the empty brick walkways of Almaden Plaza triggered sounds from an old organ songbook, “The Mini-Magic Sounds of Bill Irwin,” which I used at Reik’s Music 40 years ago. 

Almaden Plaza, as it’s now called, occupies the northwestern quadrant of the aforementioned intersection, where hordes of TJ Maxx and Costco shoppers dominate the landscape. The impossibly bland website even mentions the “attractive walkway with inlaid bricks to ensure a cozy environment for your shopping at leisure.”

Those bricks, along with their complementary beige pillars and benches, have been there for 50 years. This is why, as I recently sauntered through the plaza, the mini-magic sounds were impossible to ignore. 

Before I was even born, Almaden Fashion Plaza, as it was then called, opened to star-studded fanfare on August 1, 1968, when the Emporium department store chain was expanding and wanted to anchor a brand new mall at Blossom Hill and Almaden, then surrounded by orchards. The architectural firm Welton Beckett & Associates designed the whole complex. Beckett had already given us the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles, the Nile Hilton in Cairo and the Havana Hilton in Cuba, plus dozens of sturdy west-coast civic buildings, sports complexes, airports and hotels that still stand today.

The Emporium was not the only anchor at Almaden Fashion Plaza. The Roos-Atkins clothing store raised just as many suburban eyebrows. An old Mercury-News story gushed over the black granite, split-face travertine marble, oiled walnut panels and gold carpeting. People from San Francisco even came to visit.

Unfortunately, The Emporium chain was bought out in the mid-’90s, right as Highway 85 opened. A brand-new Costco then appeared across the parking lot, practically saving the whole complex from desolation.

Today, much of the shopping center still packs ‘em in, but the internal open-air walkways, where one still finds bricks and the curvy beige stone benches, are totally devoid of any activity. At Costco, people are mobbing pallets of chili and at T.J. Maxx they’re rifling through aisles of faux plants, mattress pads, kitchenware and towel racks, but nobody hangs around these walkways. I felt like the only one present.

Which is why, as always, I could not separate the spatial landscape from the temporal memories. I grew up on these exact walkways, or to be more precise, inside Waldenbooks and also Reik’s Music, a locally owned instrument retailer, where I took organ and piano lessons for several years. Reik’s was a huge place with all sorts of pianos, organs, guitars and band instruments, plus racks of sheet music and many rooms for lessons. Both Reik’s and Waldenbooks disappeared decades ago.

As I skulked along the empty walkway, I could hear “Embraceable You” and “What is This Thing Called Love” playing in my head—the cheesy organ versions I was assigned as a kid at that store. I still have the songbooks.

So after the desolation of the empty walkways, I returned to my current digs and found the songbooks in a storage box. There was still a $3.95 Reik Music price tag on my copy of “Method Play, Level Five,” by David Carr Glover and Mary Elizabeth Clark, part of the Baldwin Organ Library. The inside cover of Bill Irwin’s “Easier to Play” series—the all organ edition—still had markings in Lee Reik’s handwriting, noting my weekly progress after each lesson.

Suburban malls were different back then. Nobody stabbed each other on Black Friday while rioting for $3,000 TVs. 

Yet I am not pining for the past. Luckily, there is indeed a different music school tucked inside a different corner on the other side of Almaden Plaza. The Barnes & Noble is visibly better than it was even just a few years ago, with a more diverse selection and curated displays. I remain forever grateful that I was not forcibly displaced, so I can once again return to revisit the wastelands of my youth. Happy New Year.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this and you brought me right back to my memories of holding my parent’s hand and balancing along the cement flower beds which were so colorful and well manicured. Spent many hours at that Emporium! Funny you mention Bill Irwin. My great Aunt, who was a Catholic sister in Chicago, was also an accomplished organist and took lessons from Bill. I guess Bill was single at the time and she introduced him to my mom. They traveled together on cruises and she followed him for awhile. Apparently he was quite the catch in the ladies minds. I thought he was very full of himself, but now I wonder if he was a big deal? Anyway, thanks for bringing me back to the wonder years! We, too, were driven out of San Jose for all the same reasons.

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  2. Gary, I so appreciate this great piece. I grew up near the shopping center and remember so many great things including the music spot. Also, there was a Joseph Magnin my mom would shop at when we were very young , which was very swanky and fancy, and there was a course of Hickory Farms, a great Hallmark store and more.

    The Emporium was a place we go visit Santa and it’s also where I got my ears pierced by nurse when I turned 10 in 1975!

    I just took my dad for lunch today, who still lives nearby and was sad to see the middle corridor, which is so beautiful and still in amazing shape, completely devoid of any tenants! I was googling who owned this, your great article came up.

    It’s just amazing to me that the center of the shopping center is still peaceful and beautiful and the infrastructure was built so well there’s not a crumbling bench ! It’s like it was built to last like a Roman ruin.

    I’d like the see this peaceful space used ! We have so few sanctuaries in a busy city. There’s at least space for multiple restaurants and all that interior area could be beautiful, outdoor eating and gathering spots. I don’t know why it’s not being used!

    Anyhow, thanks for highlighting this little gem! Enjoyed your writing.

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