Raul Lopez stands in his shop, Video Guzman, in the Discount Mall in Little Village. Vendors in the mall have an uncertain future with their lease ending next month.
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times
For decades, Marta Torres has worked at the immigrant-run Discount Mall in Little Village, helping manage it as it became one of the area’s busiest shopping centers, but now preparing for what appears to be its last Christmas in business.
The mall “gave life to the community,” said Torres, who co-managed the mall for 31 years. “… We wish to stay, but only they know what will happen,” she said, referring to the owners of the mall.
Since opening in 1991, the Discount Mall at the intersection of 26th and Albany streets, near the iconic “Bienvenidos a Little Village” arch, has become a destination for Mexican and Latino shoppers around Chicago.
But the 100 or so vendors are bracing for the worst with the mall’s lease set to expire next month. The property’s owner, John Novak, has revealed few concrete details about the future of the mall or the larger six-acre Little Village Plaza where it is located, which he bought in 2019.
Novak, who is president of Novak Construction, has promised to honor the tenants’ lease but in the past cast doubt on keeping the mall open and said he planned to eventually bring in national retail chains.
He did not respond to requests for comment.
Rows of traditional apparel and formal attire line the walkways at the Discount Mall, in the Little Village neighborhood, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Vendor Iraís Miranda said the mall is an ecosystem that attracts shoppers from out of town, usually from Midwestern states that lack Mexican businesses, and those shoppers then venture onto the 26th Street commercial corridor.
Closing the mall “would be like disrupting the nucleus of the community,” he said. “And some of us can’t go out and afford a commercial rent on 26th.”
Longtime mall vendor Kocoy Malagón said they were able to negotiate a lease extension — it had been slated to close Aug. 31 — after they formed a group, Juntos por La Villita, to pressure the landlord and with help from Ald. Byron Sigcho-López. But their hopes for another one are dwindling.
Luz Adame and daughter Odalis shop for nativity scene decorations at the Little Village Discount Mall Thursday.
Holiday shopping destination
The variety of offerings has made the mall a popular destination for holiday shoppers over the years. It’s open seven days a week, and many stands are offering Christmas discounts.
For Luz Adame and her family, shopping at the mall is a Christmas tradition. On a recent Thursday, she went to pick out Nativity scene decorations with her three sons and daughter.
“Most of it we have already, but that’s how it is, adding to it every year,” said the native of Mexico.
Daughter Odalis, 4, selected an item new to the shop this year — a model hen house. “I don’t know if they had chicken coops like that in those times, but oh well,” Adame said.
For the past eight years years, Adame has done her holiday shopping at the mall, but with the mall’s future uncertain, she isn’t sure where she’ll go next year.
A Nativity scene for sale at the Little Village Discount Mall.
Many of the vendors, who shop at the mall themselves, expressed similar sentiments.
María Hernández came to the mall to shop for a centerpiece for her daughter’s quinceñera, and ended up finding a job at a stall that makes items for special occasions by hand.
“I like making things for people’s homes that will go on their tables,” said the Little Village resident.
Among the items popular at her stall around the holidays are baby Jesus figurines and Nativity scenes complete with Mexican cacti.
After 14 holiday seasons at the mall, she wants to keep making decorations for people’s homes and special occasions. But she’s unsure where that will be next Christmas if the mall closes. She said her neighbors will have a hard time finding the specialty dresses, suits and other products offered at the malll.
“Whatever I can’t find anywhere else, I come here to look for it,” she said.
Every December, many visitors drop off flowers and take photos by the altars of La Virgen de Guadalupe set up in different corners of the mall.
This year, the vendors have been visiting the altars as well.
“We pray to her to help us keep our business open,” said vendor Verónica Gutierrez. “And God-willing, we will make it to another Christmas season and we will have a big celebration in her honor.”
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side. Jackie Serrato is the editor of La Voz Chicago, the Sun-Times’ Spanish-language section.
Vendor Maria Hernandez sells a variety of religious, holiday and other products at the Discount Mall.