Defying Isabel: Megamall opens as planned

The valuable D batteries went first.

Before it could open for the first time, Virginia's newest Sharper Image– the only one outside the Washington, D.C., area– began taking calls from battery hunters thwarted by empty shelves at the usual places.

By noon on Thursday, September 18, the store at Richmond's brand-new Stony Point Fashion Park had sold 60 alkaline twin-packs, 10 flashlights, and all six of its "11-in-1 Survivor Lanterns,'' which combine a radio, television, and two kinds of lights with a siren, a thermometer, and a "sonic mosquito repeller.''

Despite scaled-back hours and wind blowing Isabel's heavy rain in sideways gusts, the outdoor shopping mall drew an estimated 7,500 people on its opening day, some seeking raincoats and batteries, some fleeing southeast Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and others taking advantage of an unexpected day off.

"I needed a raincoat, and I ended up buying rain pants too,'' said Chris Bennett, 29, of Richmond. He and his wife, Jill, also cashed in on a two-for-one deal on camping chairs at one of the mall's anchors, Galyan's sporting goods store.

"There's something kind of adventuresome about going out in a hurricane,'' Bennett said.

At Galyan's and The Sharper Image, revenues Thursday beat the stores' sales goals, with the sports store shedding 150 raincoats in the first hour and selling out of lanterns and propane-related items.

Though much of the rest of the upscale shopping plaza closed at 2pm, Galyan's manager Walter Barker said the store would stay open as long as there were enough customers. As he spoke, the lights in the 84,000 square-foot store flickered.

As of that afternoon, nearly a million Dominion Power customers in Virginia and part of North Carolina had lost power thanks to the hurricane barreling northwest through the two states. More than 190,000 customers in the Richmond area were without power.

At the Build-A-Bear Workshop, the most common homemade bear's name was Isabel, and many of the personalized stuffed critters left the store in bear rain gear, said Karen McDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc., of Bloomfield, Michigan, which owns the new mall and 30 others in 13 states.

The storm dampened the mall's ceremonial opening, with the cancellation of a morning tailgate party and ribbon-cutting. Still, living statues– including one woman posing as a vine, and a man painted to look like a white ceramic knight– dotted stores and areas of the courtyard that were covered with awnings.

McDonald said about 65 percent of the parking lot was full at 11am.

The 690,000-foot dog-friendly plaza has been highly anticipated as one of two upscale malls to open in the Richmond area this fall.

Sheri Collins, 39, of Richmond, brought her 15-year-old daughter to take a look Thursday when she realized that, as a state employee, she had the day off.

"I wouldn't have taken a day off to do this, but it's nice,'' Davis said. "A little rain's not going to kill you.''

Stationery supplier Papyrus kept its double doors open throughout the morning, and saleswoman Veronica Davis said most people who ducked in to escape the rain were remarkably chipper.

"This really is pretty fun,'' Davis said. "Children have been playing in the fountain, because, I guess, their parents figure they're wet anyway, and it's a warm rain, so they won't catch a cold,'' Davis said. "It's like that Gene Kelly song, 'Singing in the Rain.'''

Adrienne Schwisow used to write for the Daily Progress.

Shoppers make their way through Stony Point Fashion Park on Isabel day: Thursday, September 18.