To Maly Xiong, the Maplewood Mall is home.
On any given day, hungry patrons can get soft pretzels from Xiong at Pretzelmaker, a shop she has run for more than 20 years, a Hmong pepper burger from one of her sons who owns Blueprint Burgers, and papaya salad made fresh at her family's recently reopened restaurant Quench.
"My heart is inside Maplewood Mall," Xiong said. "It's not too big. It's not too small. It's the perfect mall."
More than a year ago, the future of the east metro mall was in question after its owner filed for bankruptcy. But new owner Brookwood Capital Advisors revived the nearly 50-year-old mall by leasing out space to dozens of local business owners like Xiong.
It also welcomed nontraditional tenants like a medical academy and discount retailers, including a Bin Mayhem store set to open this month.
"I really like how [the mall's] focus is on not just only big box stores but unique boutiques and small places to shop," said Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams. "It feels almost like an incubator."
The Maplewood Mall was built in 1974 and until recently was owned by the Washington Prime Group, a spinoff of mall behemoth Simon Property Group. The pandemic downturn pushed Washington Prime into a bankruptcy filing, leading it to sell some properties. In June, Brookwood purchased the mall from Washington Prime for $27.5 million.
"This one was priced really well for what it is was worth," said Ben-Wadih Hamd, founder of Brookwood Capital. "There's that. And two, it's in a market with good income, good growing demographics and I don't think it's going anywhere."
Nashville-based Brookwood is a small company of seven people who Hamd says "eat, sleep and breathe the stuff that we buy." The company handles leasing of its properties directly.
"One of our goals was to help diversify the retail experience for our customers, and bring in unique businesses that will draw different crowds and their attention," said Lydia Chernitsky-Hamd, director of leasing.
When the group purchased the mall it was about 70% occupied, Ben Hamd said. Now it is around 90% to 95% occupied with a large number of the tenants yet to open. Brookwood has brought in nearly 30 new businesses, many of them led by entrepreneurs of color and people in the early stages of their businesses.
But like many other Twin Cities malls, the Maplewood Mall's foot traffic is also still well below what it was pre-pandemic. According to data firm Placer.ai, foot traffic at the Maplewood Mall was down 12% in September compared with the same time in 2019. Many of the malls that have better foot traffic have been recently updated, but Brookwood doesn't have any plans for major renovations at the Maplewood Mall.
Terasha Winston, head of the Phlebotomy Academy of Training, is one of Maplewood Mall's newest tenants. Winston teaches students how to become phlebotomy technicians, people who collect blood from patients, so they can get nationally certified.
"What's the most common blood type?" Winston asked her class one weekday afternoon.
Along the back wall of the former retail space were fake arms, face shields, blood collection tubes and more. A student would think they were in a regular classroom if it weren't for the occasional shopper who would pass by the big glass windows with bags in hand.
Winston said she likes being at the mall because there is free parking and a host of food options for her students. The visibility of being in the mall also provides her free advertising, she said.
"I get so many thumbs-up even from the elderly people in the morning [when] they walk by. ... The community at Maplewood Mall is so supportive," Winston said.
Xiong is also happy she has a new business at the mall. In early October, she reopened her Southeast Asian quick service restaurant Quench after she said she was forced to close it twice during recent years by the former mall management so her spot could be given to other tenants.
When Xiong heard this summer that the mall had new owners, she wrote letters to Brookwood Capital to show her interest in reopening Quench.
"We are very happy that the new owners welcomed us with open arms," Xiong said.
Anthony Abousweid recently opened his Shadow Games trading cards store at the mall.
Before opening the store, Abousweid had built an online following playing a digital card dueling game. He continued to reinvest in his collection until he eventually started to resell cards he no longer needed. Abousweid realized with a store, he could save money and buy directly from distributors.
Abousweid thinks he is the first Black-owned official tournament store in the state licensed to hold Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game tournaments.
"This is a safe space. ... Most of my customers are uncomfortable at other places," he said. "It's important that people feel included."
Despite the revitalization, the mall still has issues to overcome. The southern anchor spot for Sears, which closed in 2018, remains empty. Seritage Growth Properties owns the shuttered Sears and its sprawling parking lots. Late last month, Seritage shareholders approved a plan to sell off all of its properties, but it's still unclear what will happen to the Maplewood space. There have not been any official plans submitted to the city for the site, according to Maplewood city staff.
Though the mall's Facebook posts about its new local businesses regularly generate hundreds of likes, that doesn't mean there aren't critics who would rather see more national chains.
"This use to be my daughter and my favorite place to spend time on the weekends," wrote one commenter. "I loved shopping there for her and I. I really miss the great clothing stores that use to be there like Vanity, DEB was good too, love Maurices. Just seems to have gone down hill."
Ben Hamd said his company has provided a mix of local and national retailers and will continue to do so.
"We just want to keep it full by being open to local and national and regional tenants that make sense for the existing businesses," Hamd said.