In Columbia, robins aren't the only signs of spring.
At the Mall in Columbia, the new season is also greeted by brightly painted paneling emanating the sounds of hammering and sawing, signaling an annualreshuffling of stores.
"In January, February and March is when you want to change your lineup," said William R. Nunn, the mall's manager. "It's an ongoing process that reaches a peak at this time of year."
This year plans call for 20 changes, including new arrivals, expansions and renovations at the 20-year-old mall.
The former spaces for Jordan Kitt's Music, which sold programmable keyboards long before they showed up in electronics stores, and Hickory Farms, the cheese-and-sausage gift retailer, are now shells being readied for new tenants.
Kitt's and the Rouse Co., which owns and manages the mall, were unable to agree ona long-term lease with the mall and will be missed, Nunn said.
The mall refused to renew leases for Hickory Farms and Hit Or Miss clothing because of poor sales performance, he said.
Deciding which stores to keep, he said, is no problem.
"It's fairly easy because the community tells us what they like and what they don't like here."
The community votes with its dollars, and the low vote-getters losetheir leases, he said.
In contrast to the abundance of planned changes, Nunn said he was pleased to report there have been no unanticipated vacancies.
Those vacancies are almost always for financial reasons, and last year there were three, down from nine in 1990.
"We're very pleased about that," Nunn said. "There's a lot of activity and it's positive activity."
During the holiday season last year, the mall lost G. Briggs and Susie's Casuals to corporate downsizing. Last March, the Benetton clothing store was also closed by its parentcompany.
Now the mall is preparing to welcome a string of new stores.
The newest store is Pearle Vision Express optical store, which opened about three weeks ago across from the Vie De France eatery on the first level. It replaces the existing Pearle Vision Center on the upper level near Sears.
Construction also is under way on Mr. Bulky's candy and gifts, expected to open this week. It will be followed by Champs Sporting Goods, which is slated for an early May opening.
Gymboree, a children's gymnastics center, will start construction in late April, with an opening about 45 days later, Nunn said.
Women's fashion retailer Talbots is expected to open Aug. 1.
In addition to the new stores, Custom Tailor of Columbia is expanding and moving from its 600-square-foot second-level location facing the Columbia Association service center to a 1,010-square-foot space next to the Carousel.
Merle Norman Cosmetics will also be moving, probably during the next two weeks.
The other changes that this spring willbring must remain a secret for now, said Danielle Morgenthaler, sales and marketing manager for the mall.
"There are certain merchantsthat don't know that they're not going to be here," she said.