The Hall Mall is dead, long live the Hall Mall!

The ground-level entrance to the Hall Mall, Iowa City’s strangest upstairs shopping district. — Chad Rhym/Little Village

“I came up with the Hall Mall name,” Kirk Stephan said through chuckles as he recalled opening what would become Iowa City’s original incubator of small businesses in the early 1970s. “I wanted to have a longer one, but it turned out that advertisers charged more money the more letters you had!”

More than a century ago, the Schneider Building in downtown Iowa City was home to Schneider Brothers Furniture, Carpet and Rugs. By the ’60s, its second floor office space (114 ½ E College St) housed lawyers, lenders, a stenography business, the Johnson County Democrats and offices for the now-enormous asphalt company L.L. Pelling.

Meanwhile, Iowa City was crawling with folks who lived and breathed the arts and sought spaces to sell their wares, ink clients, make music with friends and shop. Stephan opened a jewelry shop, Emerald City, in the space he dubbed the Hall Mall, followed by other countercultural vendors.

“The hippies started moving in and all those other guys started moving out!” Stephan said.

From the sounds, smells and sights to the creative people who gathered there, the Hall Mall became a decades-old homage to local weirdness and art. Some Hall Mall occupants (Daydreams Comics, White Rabbit) went on to become downtown institutions in their own right.

The Hall Mall in 2005, including Ebony Hair and the LowBrow Cafe. — courtesy of Rich Dana

“It’s very much a living, breathing building,” former manager Joe Murphy said.

But the COVID-19 loop we’re still living in hasn’t been kind to brick-and-mortar retail, including the Hall Mall. In December 2020, amid the woes of a pandemic economy, Murphy relinquished leasing and management of the Schneider Building — including the Hall Mall and TCB Pool Hall on the ground floor — to Iowa City-based Barker Companies.

Asked about their plans for the space, Barker said only that they’re in a transition period and uncertain about its future.

“I’m glad to say that I was there for part of it,” Murphy said, remembering “a lot of giggles” in the Schneider Building over the years.

Stephan certainly laughed many times while he talked of his Hall Mall days.

“Red Rose was the second shop to open up, with used clothing,” Stephan recalled. “There was a sandwich and soup place, and a man named Bear opened a zoo! One day he disappeared and, well, the monkeys went monki-fied!”

A few years after opening Emerald City, Stephan left to live in Belize, where he stayed for over a decade. But when he returned to Iowa City, he opened his next store right back in the same place.

“I never expected to see the Hall Mall go so long,” he admitted. “It’s the end of an era. So many great people. I would love to hear from any of them.”

“I loved meeting [previous] tenants that would come back and talk about their shops and what was in each unit when they were here,” Murphy reminisced. “And where else are you going to hear opera lessons while someone gets a tattoo now?”

Dawn’s Beads in the 1990s. — courtesy of Dawn Harbor

Opera singer Megan O’Brien launched a business teaching voice lessons called O’Brien Studios in the Hall Mall in May 2012.

“I walked across the UNI graduation stage and the following Monday I was open!” she said.

She was able to attract a group of students quickly, she said, transitioning almost immediately from student to small business owner. She felt more at home in the Iowa City scene than she did during her time in New York City.

Murphy and O’Brien connected right away, bonding over their shared Irish heritage.

“Joe helped you embrace the Hall Mall, and I felt embraced,” O’Brien said. “I loved hearing people try to sing while Javier would be doing tattoos next door!”

O’Brien experienced a wake-up call last year when Javier Silva suddenly moved his business, Silver Rooster Tattoo, out of the Hall Mall, relocating to North Liberty. She’d just purchased a condo and her business was flourishing, but she decided to leave the Hall Mall as well when her lease expired in 2020.

“The studio is more than a success story. It was where I became the singer I am today. I really want to see Javier succeed, too.”

Now working from a room she remodeled in her condo, O’Brien teaches singers from all over the country from her computer (although she always gives priority to local students).

“I’m feeling very nostalgic … I’m still succeeding,” she said, but acknowledged, “I did feel freer when I would sing at my studio in the Hall Mall.”

Daniel Davis, the Hall Mall’s final tenant, in front of his practice space in 2021. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

O’Brien and the renters of the “upstairs underground” ultimately conceded defeat, including Daniel Davis, owner of a practice space in unit #10.

“I’m going to keep doing this until I’m too old, but June 1 [2021] is the last day of the Hall Mall,” Davis said.

Murphy called Davis’ space “one of the bright spots” of the Hall Mall. “He really embraced it and made it special,” he said. “I’ll miss being up there cleaning at night and hearing a cover of a song I know coming from Dan’s place.”

Jim Mondanaro, owner of the Schneider Building since 1991, said he has fond memories of seeing shops outgrow their space in the Hall Mall over the years.

“It truly was Iowa City’s incubator,” Mondanaro said. “I remember places like Daydreams, the Peaceful Fool and Dawn’s Beads being up there. Everyone had their niche. I’ve always been for people growing and success. The Hall Mall was how you passed the baton when it came to growing some of Iowa City’s businesses.”

Currently, the historic building’s second level is empty, and its future is up in the air. However, some of the greatness that was hatched there lives on in the hearts of former tenants and patrons.

“Electric Head was just one little room in 1995 when it opened,” said Scott Warren, once an artist there and now owner of Rubber Monkey Tattoo in Wilton, Iowa. “At one point the Hall Mall seemed to be halfway full of tattooing and piercing.”

“It was a bizarre mishmash of individuals up there,” Warren remembers fondly of the Hall Mall scene in the 1990s. “A family from Africa owned a shop, there was an occult bookstore, [an] old hippie lady named Ginger with funky clothes, cartoonists … It was like-minded people when it came to business and passionate about doing it their way. I wanted to dive in headfirst.”

That’s Rentertainment, a beloved video rental store in the Hall Mall with a plentiful adult section. — courtesy of Ross Meyer

Scott now lives and operates in small-town Muscatine County in a far different atmosphere from where he cut his teeth.

“I do frequently miss the good old days. I was young and very lucky to be there. … It makes me sad, but it’s not surprising,” he said of the last few tenants moving out this year. “I like all the dank, grit and grunge that came through that place. I feel like Iowa City has lost a lot of that character and its characters.”

Mike Ryan, a.k.a. Boston Mike, owned Serpentine Motion pet shop in that same era and became the local authority on all things that slithered and molted.

“The Hall Mall was THEE most genuine part of Iowa City,” Ryan wrote in an email. “I think of all that peace and love in those days I spent there. Almost a sexual feeling and tension in the air to be honest. Just a community of people, man. We all hung out together — customers and owners.”

Ryan wanted badly to own a business when he finally took his own plunge in the early ’90s.

“All my friends had their own business, so I wanted one too! So, I opened a pet store in the Hall Mall,” he said. Lifelong allergies to “anything with hair” determined his wares. “Iguanas, snakes and then the birds would just fly up to customers, which they loved. We even started the practice of having customers wash their hands before handling the animals. Now all the pet stores have those signs hanging up around here.”

Ryan was also not shocked to hear what the current vacant spaces are like at the former Hall Mall.

“It’s like King Tut’s tomb. It was really golden at one point, and people picked at it over the years and now it won’t ever be the same.”

Now, Iowa City’s upstairs underground incubator has spawned another Hall Mall-esque concept about 100 miles south.

Pete Joy, owner of Puck-E-She-Tuck Emporium, Keokuk’s take on the Hall Mall, standing in front of Joystix Rockade. — courtesy of Pete Joy

Pete Joy, known as PJ, is from Keokuk, a city in the extreme southeast corner of Iowa. But he made several trips to Iowa City over the course of his life, and that included many stops to the Hall Mall.

“I’d frequent Iowa City about every week with friends to skateboard, catch a show at Gabe’s, visit the Hall Mall and just hang out,” PJ said. He felt welcomed like a local, he said, by the crowd he was seeing week after week. “My favorite part was the eccentric people associated with [the Hall Mall]. True geniuses in their own right.”

Today, PJ is the proud owner of Joystix Rockade and the Puck-E-She-Tuck Emporium above it on Main Street in Keokuk.

“Upon purchasing the Emporium, I had a strong feeling and intuition to recreate the Hall Mall and felt that it would serve a need and purpose for those eccentric shoppers and shop owners to come together like the Hall Mall did for IC folk,” PJ said.

Joystix Rockade, on the bottom floor, boasts a large inventory of hard rock and metal music pumping on a constant loop. The sounds of vintage pinball games manage to penetrate through the guitars and drums, while several generations of classic arcade games get a workout from retro gaming aficionados. PJ gets visitors from all over the Midwest and the rest of the country just to see the Rockade, he said. His live bands and homemade pizza are also getting killer reviews.

He built his business in Keokuk due to “hometown pride and wanting to contribute to the community and youth,” he said, choosing the old Horn Building at 714 Main St, original home (in the late 1800s) of Keokuk’s YMCA. PJ employs Keokuk high schoolers, who seem to have found their niche in the space.

The Puck-E-She-Tuck Emporium, 714 1/2 Main St, Keokuk. — courtesy of Pete Joy

One of the Emporium’s largest features, Callie-Co Geodes & More, offers local geodes, crystals, jewelry, stones and general good vibes. There are amps and a selection of guitars at Muddy River Music down the hall, past a mural of Keokuk inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night. RKO Loco boasts vintage denim, wool hoodies, coats and hats. Geez Disc Golf & Skate Shop sells premium brands.

The Emporium catches on to the Hall Mall edge Iowa City townies know and love, and it’s operated by owners and employees with the same scrappy spirit.

“I long to empower those who love a dream and to offer services to the surrounding area but haven’t been provided the opportunity,” PJ said. “I believe the Keokuk area has a large untapped amount of those people and the Emporium is where the potential can be unlocked.”

• • •

“Cigarettes, incense, heat and reverberation.”

That’s what Luke Tweedy, who now runs Flat Black Studios in Lone Tree, remembers about his time in the Hall Mall. More than two decades ago, he ran the short-lived Uncle Melonhead’s Clear Spot “antiques and oddities shop” in the Hall Mall (“sold all my good stuff but had no place to find more … especially because of the specific aesthetic I was going for,” Tweedy said in an email). In 2006, he and partner Cortnie Widen launched the now-iconic White Rabbit up there.

“Although we were only there for around six months or so, without the Hall Mall, it would not exist today. It is a wonderful proving ground,” he said.

Looking back, Tweedy says, “I have mourned the death of the Hall Mall and Mill recently, and with every little weirdo spot that dies, Iowa City loses something that makes it special.”

If you ever frequented the Hall Mall, the memories are probably all around you: tattoos from the ’90s, the old hemp sandals tossed in the back of your closet, the VHS copy of Halloween II you forgot to return to Rentertainment — the lump of nostalgia that catches in your throat when you think of bygone days. But the entrepreneurial spirit cultivated by the Hall Mall is very much alive.

The Hall Mall’s late movie rental store, That’s Rentertainment, in its prime. — courtesy of Ross Meyer

“The reason the Hall Mall worked was anybody could afford it, and there were other people around trying,” Tweedy said. He compared the ethos to Cedar Rapids’ NewBo City Market: “Although very different, there are some core elements that are the same. For example, you need the draw of multiple businesses to make it work.”

That upstairs underground kingdom was a safe harbor for startups into which talented folk poured more hours than can be calculated. Their energy has endured and spread outward.

Take Davis’ practice space. In 2014, Davis saw a problem with how Iowa City was supporting local bands. So he went to work on it. A stream of musicians have been uplifted there, and Davis was the driving motor for those six and a half years.

Now, Davis estimates that there are well over 1,000 iPhone and Zoom recordings from his corner of Iowa City’s musical history. And he has promised to continue what he has built in the Hall Mall, to keep working for the benefit of Iowa City’s musicians.

The Hall Mall space will be less smoky, noisy and creaky moving forward. But thanks to Davis’ perseverance, we’ll be able to hear some of the sounds of the Hall Mall forever.

In that sense, it is still very much open.

The Hall Mall in 2021. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Jay’s a sexy husband, dad-joke dorkus, loyal buddy, shameless storyteller and all-around interesting dude that never got his application completed for ‘Jeopardy!’. He always tells folks that you can’t spell routine without rut so set your heading in a different direction whenever you can. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.