Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Hall Mall: History of a Counterculture Institution

 I just ran across this article while searching through my archives-  I wrote it five years ago while we still had our shop, "Feral" in the Hall Mall in Iowa City. Since then,  the Hall Mall occupancy has once again dwindled. Still, it remains "The Upstairs Underground", and hopefully will serve as testing grounds for alternative entrepreneurs for years to come.

Like many people who grew up in the area, I first encountered much of what is referred to as "Counterculture” in Iowa City. Since the 1960's, Iowa City has had the dubious distinction of being the center of Counterculture in Iowa and it has been home to countless bars, galleries, bookshops, record stores, boutiques and music venues catering to tastes outside of the mainstream. Those of us who have spent some time in this town occasionally grow nostalgic for favorite spots long gone.

I was imprinted early - I spent a lot of time as a child playing between the aisles of Epstein's Bookstore while my parents attended poetry readings. Even at the age of nine, I felt very much at home among the beats and the hippies. In my teens and early 20's, hardcore punk was my thing, and the Unitarian Church basement was the center of our DIY scene.  Still, as times changed and scenes have come and gone, certain institutions have survived.

Gabe'n'Walkers/Gabe's Oasis/Gabe's/The Picador is one such institution - despite its recent change in ownership and the removal of the G-word, The bar at 330 Washington remains the most consistent venue for local and up-and-coming bands.

The New Pioneer Coop is another – although many of their original hippy base have turned in their VW beetles for Volvo station wagons and now shop for aged balsamic vinegar rather than mung bean sprouts, it is still the town’s only retail food coop, and has employed countless artists, musicians and slackers since its inception in the early seventies.

Along with these institutions and a handful of others, another, less illustrious cornerstone of Iowa City’s alternative scene has survived since the early seventies. Less of a cornerstone, perhaps, than a cinderblock rammed under the axle of a rusting 69 microbus, The Hall Mall has remained the reliable source for all things counterculture since the days when Jim Morrison walked the earth.  Dubbed "The Upstairs Underground" by tattoo artist and Hall Mall veteran Stingray, it has been home to countless vintage shops, record stores, smoke shops and tattoo parlors, providing Iowa City with its own microscopic version of London's Kensington Market or New York's St. Mark's Place.

Like the universe, the Hall Mall is in a constant state of chaos.  Businesses come and go, but the vibe remains the same. The merchants maintain an "anything goes" feel and a cooperative attitude that warms the hearts of libertarians and anarcho-socialists alike. "The rent is cheap and the attitude is loose," according to Bil at Focus Body Piercing. "It's the kind of place that, if you are thinking about starting a business, you can go for it. We have built-in foot traffic and the people up here support each other."

Over the years it has been home to businesses with names like The Wicca Shop, Underground Stereo, The Plainswoman Bookstore, Hemp Cat, Good Times, Ruby Tuesday, and Electric Head. The current residents include Exile Tattoo, Focus Body Piercing, The Konnexion, Antiques and Oddities, Rusty Records, FERAL!,  the recently opened Convenience Store and Velocipede InfoShop, and the soon to open White Rabbit.

Located above the ped mall at 114 1/2 East College Street, the entrance to the Hall Mall is an inconspicuous doorway sandwiched between College Street Billiards and Vito's. The narrow, poorly lit stairwell leads upstairs to a long, open vestibule, flanked by a series of identically transomed doorways, framed in dark wood popular at the time of the building’s construction at the turn of the last century. Reminiscent of a seedy office building where Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe might have hung out their shingles, one can imagine these offices once housing green-visored bookkeepers or dark-eyed palmists. Something about the location and the modest size has made it the lair of independent small businesses for over a century. 

The building which houses the Hall Mall was known in days past as the Schneider Building, originally the home of Schneider Brothers Furniture, Carpet and Rugs. City records show that in 1916, the Schneider Brothers empire had grown to encompass three buildings on the block, and in addition to the furniture business, the building at 114 was listed as "furniture and undertaker."

During the 1920's, the upstairs began to be listed as a separate address, 114 1/2, "The Schneider Building Offices." In the following decades, the offices housed a beauty shop, a number of lawyers, real estate brokers, lenders, "Morford the Chain Man", a publisher, and by the sixties, it was home to the Johnson County Democrats, Alcoholics Anonymous, and L.L. Pelling, now one of the biggest paving companies in the Midwest.

In the early seventies, when downtown business districts across the nation began their decline, many of the spaces at 114 1/2 went empty. It was not long before a new breed of hippie entrepreneurs, including Gregory J. Stokesberry, discovered them.  Also known as "The Wizzard" (a moniker bestowed upon him by the late great artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth), Stokesberry moved in to four adjoining spaces formerly occupied by L.L. Pelling in 1975. Along with Red Rose Old Clothes and Emerald City, "Gregory J. Stokesberry - Organic Merchant" was one of the original pioneers of the counterculture business revolution that would become the Hall Mall.

I recently visited "Wizzard World Headquarters" in Cedar Rapids Czech Village, where Stokesberry runs his current business, marketing original artwork and t-shirts and publishing a magazine, all targeted at the "Kustom Kulture" audience.

"The Hall Mall was the only place in town where a start up could find some cheap space," says Stokesberry. "I got married and had to make a living.  I was into antiques, I was in to green plants, all the hippie decor stuff, ya know, and I was in to the birds and monkeys (editors note: exotic animals, not the bands) so that's what I did. I was a hail and hearty lad with a pickup truck - I used to move jukeboxes up and down those stairs."

"The first were Rose (Red Rose Old Clothes) and Kirk at Emerald City - I moved in after them. We all tried to make it nice ... I used to go out and get a bottle of sherry and cookies from Barbara's Bakery. Every afternoon we would have cookies and sherry ... it was always real cool. Eventually the bums started coming up and grabbing handfuls of cookies...the unemployed bums, I mean, as opposed to us employed bums."

The Wizzard was kind enough to take me to his storage space where we discovered a drowsy raccoon sleeping in front of the original sign that once hung outside his store. It is a hand-carved piece by Bill Schnute, the master woodcarver whose work was a hallmark of Iowa City hippie style.

Several of those original businesses survived and thrived, becoming essential parts of the downtown scene, catering to the tastes of those who couldn't find what they wanted in the sterility of the growing mall culture. Throughout the 80's and 90's, the Hall Mall housed a continuous flow of alternative businesses.  "This was the place to be - I had heard of this place in Chicago. I moved out here when my girlfriend came to go to college, and I started tattooing up here in '95. At the height of the grunge era, it was always full of people," says Stingray at Exile Tattoo. 

It was the 90's - the economy was strong and business was good, and a second generation of Hall Mall regulars was coming of age with their own taste for the bizarre...but times were about to change. Corporate America was waking up to the potential for profit in the underground scene, and set out to create a safe, mall friendly version to sell to the masses.  By the end of the 90's, the political climate in America was changing as well. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 heralded the beginning of an era of new conservatism and intolerance, and places like the Hall Mall were bound to experience the fallout. 

Hemp Cat, a hemp clothing store and one of the Hall Mall's most popular businesses, was raided in 2001 by the “The Man” and although no charges were filed, their computers were confiscated and they were forced out of business. Several other long-time mainstays left. Stingray and several others left, and Electric Head went into decline. There was a fire. The Hall Mall hit hard times. People began asking "is there anybody up there anymore?" It was down, but not out.

A new generation began to take up residence. The Konnexion, Davey Jones Tattoo, the Lowbrow Cafe and Rusty Records opened, and they were working hard to bring the Hall Mall back to life.

In 2004, with the independent spirit, youthful zeal and naiveté which is a hallmark of Hall Mall tenants, Kelly Stucker bought an existing Hall Mall smoke shop, “Shasta Mountain,” reopening under the name "The Konnexion." “I just kinda jumped in with both feet and hoped to hell it would work out.”

“I used to hang out at the Hall Mall when I was about fifteen – I remember flirting with the cute guy at Moon Mystique. Twelve years later, I have my shop in that same spot…it felt really freakin’ awesome when I got my key to the front door and the old Moon Mystique. It was just fate…”

In October of 2004, my wife Ericka and I were pedaling my paintings and custom bikes and her jewelry at the "Inktober" Tattoo Expo when we met Kelly and Davey. They convinced us that the Hall Mall was coming back, and we should consider renting a space.  We opened FERAL! on a shoestring, just before Christmas, selling vintage oddities, lowrider bikes and outsider art and homemade organic catnip toys.  It seemed, somehow, like a good fit.

"The Hall Mall revival is underway," according to Brad Allison of Antiques and Oddities, one of the most recent residents. "Back in the day, there was a waiting list to get a space here. 20 years later, there is space available, and I jumped at the chance."

As with all things, the cycle is coming back around, and the "Schneider Building Offices" are being reinvented once again. The Hall Mall has become a music venue, featuring some of the best young acts in the area and offering the only space in town available to the experimental and unabashedly weird.  Plans are underway to give the hallway a new look, and to do a mural project in the stairwell. Before long, we hope to have a film festival. Free wireless and comfy sofas provide one of the few smoker-friendly places to study and hang out. As it has always been, the potential of the space is limited only by the resourcefulness of its occupants.

As I grow older and more cynical, I remain optimistic about the Hall Mall. As I watch the increasing corporatization of our society, it seems more and more essential to maintain an outpost whose only mission is to buck the system. If counterculture can truly have a tradition, it is ours to uphold. Like Marlon Brando in "The Young Ones," when asked, "Hey Johnny, What are you rebelling against?" the Hall Mall answers, "What have you got?"

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