Finaldi: Express, Candy Barrel leaving Sarasota Square mall

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A visit to the shopping center finds a sense of levity, even as stores continue to peel off.

On Wednesday morning around opening time, Westfield Sarasota Square was the liveliest I’ve probably ever seen it.

When I walked into the mall from the entrance near JCPenney, I could instantly hear the sound of kids playing at Knockerball N’ Ninjas, which was open for the first time in my memory and full of kids playing games. Is school out for the summer? I could Google it, but let’s not pretend like I know the answer to that off the top of my head.

In the newest store space at the mall, BaoAce, there were about half a dozen people, probably learning a new language, maybe a programming language, or doing an art project. The music playing in the halls had an optimistic feel. It might have been Taylor Swift, but who can remember.

I saw parents with their kids and adults browsing around in JCPenney. The line at Chick-fil-A wasn’t that long — yet — but then again it was only 11 a.m.

The mall wasn’t crowded by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a sense of levity, despite the empty storefronts that can be spotted from basically everywhere on premises.

Still, stores continue to peel off at Sarasota Square, which is at U.S. 41 and Beneva Road. It looks like Express, the clothing store that caters to men and women around my age, is closing. There’s a sign outside that says the store will close on June 22, but you wouldn’t know that from taking a quick peek inside.

Usually, when stores are days away from closing, there’s a weird smattering of random merchandise, like shoes, hair accessories, purses and the fixtures they’re sold on. But there was still plenty of merchandise at the Sarasota Square Express on June 19.

Another closing is the Candy Barrel. Last week, we discovered that the Candy Barrel will be joining the Mall at University Town Center July 1. Now it appears that means they have left Sarasota Square. They’re also joining the Ellenton Premium Outlets, according to a sign.

“We are sad to leave after 11 years at Sarasota Square. Thanks to all our loyal customers,” the sign reads. “But, please visit us in one of our new locations later this month.”

The Mall at University Town Center doesn’t really have a candy store right now. They have Kurtos Chimney Cake for delectable desserts, Icesmile for rolled ice cream and bubble tea, Godiva for chocolates and Great American Cookies for, well, I don’t have to tell you what you can get there. And the list goes on.

But the mall doesn’t really have an old school candy store, like the kind I used to go to in Cape Cod during the summers as a kid, where you can stock up on gumballs, fudge and gummies shaped like Krabby Patties.

That’s essentially what you can do at Candy Barrel. It’s a delightfully nostalgic store, and it’s great that it’s coming to the dominant mall in the area, but this is another big loss for Sarasota Square.

The mall lost two major anchors — Macy’s and Sears — in 2017, and in recent months Champs Sports, the South Trail Performance CrossFit gym, Forever 21 Red, Yankee Candle, Hibachi-San, Panda Express and Prime Serious Steak have all closed at the mall. I could list all of the tenants that have left over the past few years, but that would take up a lot more space than I have.

At least the mall still has a movie theater, Costco, Chick-fil-A, new entertainment-focused tenants like Armageddon Laser Tag and several other smaller stores with great service — Claire’s and the Sephora Inside JCPenney in particular come to mind.

I know that some Sarasota Square workers feel like they’re able to offer better service to their customers because the mall isn’t as busy as University Town Center, and I’m sure there’s something to that.

We will see what’s in store for the mall’s future, a situation covered almost exhaustively in these pages and complicated by multiple property owners. But on Wednesday, I know those kids playing at Knockerball N’ Ninjas weren’t focusing on the dire status of Sarasota Square, and for a second, I forgot about it too.

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