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Pay respects to Tampa’s Dillard’s Clearance Center
As the store closes in the former University Mall, a dying retail ritual plays out.
A rack at the Dillard's Clearance Center in Tampa on April 20, 2022.
A rack at the Dillard's Clearance Center in Tampa on April 20, 2022. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published Apr. 22|Updated Apr. 22

TAMPA — The mall emanated a midweek Dawn of the Dead glow. Dillard’s Clearance Center faced a phalanx of sleepy gold jewelry stores and an attraction of vacant trampolines.

At 11:56 a.m. on Wednesday, in this dim corner of University Mall, an employee slid open glass doors and a gaggle of waiting customers flooded inside. Stale smell. Stained ceiling. Hulking signs.

STORE CLOSING SALE. NOTHING HELD BACK.

It had been one day since news of the closing broke, news that wasn’t wholly surprising. So much in the not-very-walkable area is changing as the University of South Florida climbs the academic ladder and an on-campus football stadium appears less theoretical.

Related: Dillard’s clearance store closing at former University Mall in Tampa

Plus, malls, right? They’re no longer the cool Friday night spot, the arbiter of middle-class taste, the see-and-be-seen town center they used to be. They are low-rise jean memories, crumbs of a late-capitalist feast.

So goes the Dillard’s Clearance Center. It will close on April 28. Developers are turning the former University Mall into something sidewalky and sippy and mixed use-y (as if buying a decorative platter and a pair of clogs at the same time wasn’t mixed use). The husk of the mall already contains a digital video company embellished with faux grass and murals. Apartments are coming, a Sprouts Farmers Market, a hotel.

What’s one less department store?

The Dillard's clearance center, one of the few remaining retail anchors at the former University Mall in Tampa, will close April 28.
The Dillard's clearance center, one of the few remaining retail anchors at the former University Mall in Tampa, will close April 28. [ Jay Cridlin ]

Oh, but those who know, know. We didn’t grow up ordering and hoping. Money was not disposable, and we tried things on. Shopping was a pastime that took time. Our parents had a single store credit card reserved for Easter dresses, wedding shoes, birthday wristwatches. We put it on the Dillard’s charge.

When University Mall’s Dillard’s turned into a clearance center in 2008, it meant more savings lopped off of those holy pink sale tags. It meant twice-yearly hauls designed to last. It meant time theft from business and school concerns, a sneaky midday treasure hunt.

The store Wednesday was a sensible jumble, in that way you know where things are in a messy room. Sheets, dog treat jars, throw blankets, sweaters, blazers, sleep shirts, bras, bathing suits, towels, everything an extra 60 percent off.

Shoppers began the ritual. Flip, flip, flip. Stop, extract. Check price. Examine color, sleeves, snags, zipper integrity, length. Visualize. Hold to waist. Shake head, replace.

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Oh, all these sizes are mixed together.

Shoes for sale at the Dillard's Clearance Center on April 20, 2022.
Shoes for sale at the Dillard's Clearance Center on April 20, 2022. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

Customers were Black, white, brown, young, not so young, not young at all, walking, in wheelchairs. They spoke in English and Spanish and Arabic, loaded carts and counted out 20 items for the dressing room limit.

You could just wear capris to her graduation…

They strategized in pairs, splitting up skirts and pants to trade over the dressing room door. Blue polished toes moved beneath the stalls, posing, pausing.

It’s cute! It’s a nice color!

White paper signs hung around the store. THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES. DON’T SAY GOODBYE. COME SAY HELLO. There are other Dillard’s Clearance Centers in Port Richey, Ocoee and Orlando. They’re still standing.

Should I get the black one?

In line at the register, they eyed last-minute necklaces, purses, scarves, Christmas stocking hooks, tubes of hand cream. They shuffled forward, all sales final.

I’ll take the next customer.

Next.

Next.

They left with armloads and left with nothing. They hung go-backs and sighed, leaning against the dressing room counter as the stock of shorts and slacks and jackets shrunk in real, ticking time.

I don’t know. I just thought I might find something I want.

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