A walk to remember Former mall still draws morning exercise group

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 11, 2014

They sit at a table in the empty food court and talk about scars: knee injuries, surgeries, the passing of friends. It’s early morning in the former Salisbury mall, now West End Plaza, and the store gates are still down, the windows dark. Many of them will stay that way, long after the Plaza officially opens for the day. But there are still people here.
Every morning, a dedicated group comes out to roam the quiet halls. Most people call them mall walkers. They range in age from about mid-40s to 92, and they’ve all gathered here for different reasons, but each day, they all walk the same path, treading grooves into the tile.
The mall doors open at 8 a.m. for the walkers, Site Supervisor Steven Keels says, but walker Mary Austin says that sometimes the staff will let them in at 7:30. Austin started exercising at the mall in 1989. Newly moved from New York, she says she left everything behind, including friends and family here.
“But I met new friends, here,” she said.
The group may look like they have little in common, but over the years they’ve created a unique and caring community that is fiercely loyal to the building that brought them together. And in return, the walkers look out for the mall. Keels says they’re great at spotting problems so that staff can make repairs.
“They’re good eyes and ears for us,” Keels said.
Many of the walkers started coming for health reasons. Margaret Ketchie, 89, had bypass surgery several years ago, and Harvey Rice, a jurisdictional bishop with Mt. Calvary Holy Church and a chaplain with the Sheriff’s Office, needed to maintain his health.
“Doctor said I needed to start walking, so I did,” Rice said.
Others, like Peggy Hooper and Kyle Huffman, one of the younger walkers, come because they prefer the controlled climate of the building or are worried about allergies.
And while some may turn up their noses at doing laps in a mall, this group is on to something. There’s no gym membership, no crowded treadmills or jostling masses. There’s air-conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, and it can be quite a workout — five laps around the interior equals two miles.
And then there’s the company. The early morning group is warm and welcoming, waiting to sweep new visitors into the fold for a few rounds of pleasant conversation.
“That’s what we do, we walk and talk,” Ketchie says.
The walkers may choose to be by themselves or they can go in groups of two or three, but each person sets his or her own pace.
“Some people walk for one hour, half an hour — whatever they feel like,” Austin said.
Huffman says that while many come for the health benefits, he thinks they also come for the company.
After they walk, a small group gathers at the tables in the food court to chat. And while their subject matter can be grim, there’s a lot of laughter there, too. Every now and then Austin will call over across the court for someone walking the circuit to come over and share a story or a piece of their life. She knows them all by name.
“We’re sort of like family,” Huffman said.
Once a month they have a single, large party for everyone who had a birthday. When “members” are sick, Ketchie sends cards them a card, and when someone is absent for a few days the group worries. In general, Huffman said, they look out for each other.
Keels says the walkers have always been a part of the heartbeat of the former mall — they were there when it opened, and will probably be there until the day it closes.
“At one time we had, you know, about 100 people a day,” Keel said.
Now the number of walkers has dwindled to about 35, Keels says, and some of those do their walking in the evening. But Austin says when she started walking at the Plaza it was packed.
“Every inch of the mall was full,” she said, “But then the Y opened.”
Some, like Ketchie and Ernie Hornbarger, 92, have been walking at the mall since it opened in 1986, and have seen every coat the building has worn. The floor they used to walk on has been re-tiled, and the tables and chairs they rest at have become old, then new, then old again more than once. About 10 years ago, they would have been drinking coffee from Chick-fil-A as they traded jokes and read the morning paper.
The mall reached full vendor capacity in 2006, Keels says, but then the brunt of the recession hit Salisbury, and tenants began leaving, one by one — something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the people who pass by the closed storefronts, every morning.
“It breaks our hearts every time a store closes,” Austin said.
The walkers have grown fewer, as well — and not just because of the YMCA; many have passed away.
“Every now and then, the Lord takes one of them home,” Rice said.
At home, Austin has a photo album a friend made her, filled with portraits of all the people who used to walk at the mall. Many are gone — some moved, and some moved on. And while Austin says it saddens her to look through it and see the people who have died, she adds to it every time a new person joins the circuit, and there has been a lot of good, over the years.
Austin explained that she not only gained a supportive community during her time walking the halls, but she also met her best friend there, one morning. Ketchie added that several years ago a couple met while walking and got married. Austin threw the pair a bridal shower and called everyone out walking to come celebrate.
While the future of West End Plaza is still fuzzy, as long as it’s open, the walkers will come. And if the Plaza is renovated into county offices as planned, well, “We just hope they’ll still let us walk here,” Austin said.