I’m not sure what makes me feel older… the fact that I watch the stories on PBS News Hour and CBS Sunday morning, or the fact that the nostalgia they tell occurred in my lifetime. Getting old sure is weird, isn’t it? In any case, this afternoon I watched a story about a woman who travels the rust belt, capturing the history of dead and dying malls. (RustBeltMallWalker) Her photographs are beautiful and haunting, paying homage to what once was the symbol of the American teenage dream. Sitting there, watching the story, I retreated in my old lady mind to the good old days and thought…”Why can’t kids today appreciate the coolness of the mall?”
I grew up outside Columbus, Ohio in the early 80’s. As kid, I spent countless hours following my mom and my aunt around Eastland Mall with my siblings and cousins in tow. We patiently endured the grown ups scouring the racks at Lazarus and Causal Corner, lured with the promise that we could have a pretzel and an Icee or a bag of whatever candy we wanted from Mr. Bulky if we behaved ourselves. In my mind’s eye, I can still smell the scent of the mall fountain and the food court. I can see the neon store fronts and the windows whispering of unknown treasures inside. The mall was a place of magic!
As I approached middle school, mall trips improved significantly. Instead of being a spectator sport, the mall became a place of avid participation. I took every ounce of fashion advice that my aunt doled out to heart. We’d visit Afterthoughts for the perfect accessories, Deb for the trendiest clothes, and perhaps swing by B. Dalton for a new book before heading to Sbarro for a slice of pizza and a Coke. I dreamt of someday working at the mall and looked forward to shopping days with great enthusiasm.
It wasn’t long before the 90’s arrived, and with it, time to hang at the mall with my friends. In the beginning, we still came with our parents, given a meetup time, and quickly walked away from them for a little bit of freedom. What a time to be alive! We felt so grown up, spending our hard-earned babysitting money on trinkets and junk we didn’t need, then commemorating the moment with photo strips from the booth in the food court, just to say we were at the mall and we meant business.
The best days though, were when we were in high school and could transport ourselves to the magical land of commerce. I have so many fond memories of spending Black Friday at the City Center Mall with my best friend, Lisa. We would arrive early and head straight to Cheryl’s Cookies, were I would enjoy a chocolate chip muffin and a Dr. Pepper for breakfast. Then we would head out into the stores and take advantage of every sale and giveaway we could get our hands on. (I remember getting super excited about receiving a free calculator one year… it’s the little things.) There were group outings to the mall, where we watched movies and wandered aimlessly. There were dates at the mall, strolling hand in hand with my boyfriend, dreaming of a possible future of pushing our kids in a stroller. There was vacation planning, prom dress shopping, and college preparation all done in the stores of the mall.
Even early in my adulthood, the mall was a significant and special place. I remember going to the mall in college not long after my future husband and I started dating. The first gift he bought me was a purple bra and some lotion from Victoria’s Secret. (DON’T tell my mom. Ha!) In the 25 years we have been together, we’ve spent countless hours wandering the mall, building our home and our love of fashion through wandering the halls for exercise and free air conditioning. And I spent 10 wonderful years of fashion education, friendship, and fun working at the Gap in Mid-Rivers Mall, until its untimely demise in 2010.
To this day, I still enjoy wandering the corridors of the mall. I know that trends have shifted and no one wants to go out anymore. I know it is easier to shop from the couch, but I still crave the tangible, immediate gratification of a brick and mortar wonderland. Sadly, most of the time the mall is a ghost town, filled with a handful of middle aged and senior adults who are giving the bored employees something to do for a few minutes. Every other storefront is dark and lonely, hinting at what once happened inside… carpet with Hidden Mickeys of Disney stores past, faux marble from Fredericks of Hollywood, bright colors of KB Toys. A trip to the mall feels a bit like wandering through a zombie film where some gurgling creature waits hidden in the shadows of the abandoned PacSun waiting for his lunch to walk by.
One of these days, there won’t be a mall to wander through at all. I will be stuck home alone on the couch, mindlessly clicking through the screen to find something that catches my eye. I will wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive and hope it fits, or else I will pay to ship it back and start all over again. No social interaction. No pretzels from Auntie Anne’s. No festive music. No Black Friday giveaways.
Is the world better without three floors of commerce, complete with a carousel, escalators, and a fountain that is drained every fall to hold Santa’s Village? This old lady certainly doesn’t think so.