The heart of Eastland mall: Party Palace keeps the beat

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Once, Eastland Center was a showplace. Now the beauty supply store is having a sale on wigs.

The edges of the parking lot are pitted and floor tile inside is cracked. Sears bailed out in 2012, leaving a big box of emptiness at the west end of the facility, and there are few sightlines within the mall that don't include an empty storefront.

One of those is next to Tom Zaytuna's convenience store, across from the food court. But if that's all you see, he says, you're looking in the wrong direction.

Zaytuna, 54, is behind the counter at the Party Palace, probably the closest thing to a small-town general store you'll ever find in a shopping center.

"Hey, Washington, D.C.," he says, and a dapper salesman from the 42nd Street clothing shop laughs. His first name is Washington, and the same modest joke draws the same reaction every day.

Zaytuna works pretty much 70 hours a week. Drinks, snacks, lottery tickets, Mylar balloons, a few school supplies, some gift wrap, a rack of socks: if it'll help you through the day, he probably stocks it.

He'll never see $37.4 million, the amount the New York-based owner of the Harper Woods mall reportedly still owes on a $39.5 million loan.

He worried when Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. missed a payment last month, and he took a financial hit along with everyone else when some idiot fired three aimless shots into the mall on Mother's Day and the police had to close the building.

But that's not the story of Eastland, he'll tell you. Lift your gaze from the faded flooring and you'll see people like him, hanging in there and doing their best to earn a living. You'll see customers who want what the stores are selling, even if the shops and shoppers aren't as high-end as they were a few decades ago.

It's sort of like Detroit: do you focus on the people who left, or the people who are still there? On the Sears that closed, or the Macy's, Burlington Coat Factory and Shoppers World whose doors are still wide open?

Zaytuna operates in the here, the now and the hello. He has customers to serve, and often as not, he knows their names.

"How much?" asks a girl in a denim jacket and furry boots, holding up a juice box. The answer is 59 cents or two for $1, but that's not what Zaytuna says.

Instead, he offers an accommodating smile: "How much you got?"

A renovation in the mid-1970s left the previously open-air Eastland Center with a roof, as well as rows of palm trees.

He knows the people

Eastland Center opened in 1957, three years after Northland Center in Southfield.

Northland, also owned by Ashkenazy, closed a month ago. Ashkenazy opted to not return a call about the future of Eastland, but Northland's contents are up for auction today at with minimum bids of $5.

At Party Palace, most items cost less than that.

A slender clerk from down the corridor stops in for a cellophane-wrapped cinnamon roll: $1. She exits past a retiree who lives nearby and is comfortable enough at the center to arrive without his bridgework. He's sipping an Arizona Sweet Tea.

"People like the mall," Zaytuna says. "This gentleman, he's here every day."

Zaytuna would know.

Serving a need

Raised in Iraq, Zaytuna moved to Detroit at 18. There's a wide Chaldean business network here, but he wasn't yet a part of it; all he had was energy, ambition and an English vocabulary that tapped out after "Hi, how are you?"

Now he has a wife, four teenage children and a house in Commerce Township, 45 miles from the mall.

At various points, he owned a phone store and a restaurant. Seven years ago, he bought the convenience store. It's been a relentless pace since he laid off his assistant, "but I enjoy working, to be honest with you."

He pauses as a mall custodian in a red golf shirt comes to the counter with a bottle of fruit juice. She's still wearing her latex gloves, and she doesn't have any cash.

Zaytuna logs the purchase in a spiral notebook. "She'll pay it back," he says.

As for the larger debt, the one you can't simply carry over until payday, he's determined to be optimistic.

Sure, he says, the mall owner missed a payment, but it's just one.

"I don't believe it'll close," he says confidently. "This area needs this kind of mall."

But then his voice drops: "What do you hear?"

In uncertain times, he would gladly pay for reassurance, if only it were for sale.