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Mall Not-Quite-Nostalgia - Laura Wise

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April 12th, 2014


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09:07 am - Mall Not-Quite-Nostalgia
During a brain-dead cruise around the internet -- you know, following links idly, getting lost in the deepest lair of the interwebs -- I saw a story that Sbarro has filed for bankruptcy again, the second time in a few years. The reason generally accepted is that posited by this March 2014 story in the New Yorker: "Are Malls Over?"

Amy Merrick's story briefly covers the history of the American suburban mall and its transition in the past decade or so into what's called in the piece a "greybox" (this clearly a derogatory term, linked to death). A telling paragraph about the possible reinvention of the mall:
[Anthony] Caruso isn’t the first to pursue a vision of the mall as one facet of a thriving, if somewhat artificial-feeling, neighborhood rather than a distant fortress with an asphalt moat. That honor probably belongs to Victor Gruen, the father of the enclosed mall in America, and the subject of a 2004 Profile by Malcolm Gladwell. Sixty years ago, construction began on Gruen’s most famous project: the Southdale Center, in Edina, Minnesota, which ended up serving as the prototype for what has become the traditional mall. As Gladwell explains, Gruen envisioned Southdale at the center of a four-hundred-and-sixty-three-acre development that would include apartment buildings, schools, and a medical center. “Southdale was not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis,” Gladwell wrote. “It was the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around.” But the rest of the development never materialized. Years later, Gruen said that he was in “severe emotional shock” to see malls stranded in their acres of parking lots.

When I read that, I was struck by the idea of the "neighborhood" taking over from the idea of the "distant fortress" -- because my own experience mirrors that.

Back in the day -- certainly the 80s, when I was in school, and the 90s, when I wasn't -- "going to the mall" was an activity done with friends, a perfectly calibrated way to hang out. Indeed, in the 90s my Grad School Best Friend and I regularly met at a mall halfway between our houses (a 25-minute drive for each of us) in order to stroll, maybe shop, have a Diet Coke at the food court, but most of all, talk. That stopped when her kids came along, and when we started doing it again, we began meeting at the Nearby Cool Town's Park Avenue shopping street. We have lunch. We stroll in the outside air. Yes, maybe we shop. But it feels like a "neighborhood."

Much of my shopping -- which isn't that much these days -- is either online or at local shops in my little town's "Downtown", where I find much more curated, much less mass-produced merchandise. When I travel, I look for shopping streets (Sloane Street! er, in my dreams). These tend to be urban spaces or small-town-squares, not suburban.

The only times I've been to a huge indoor mall in the recent past have been to meet chase820 at the Unbelievably Upscale Mall in the nearby city. That's more social than shopping-oriented, although I do dash into Needless Markup almost every time.

For USians -- do you find that you don't go to malls any more, if you ever did? For UK folk, what about you? I know there are a few huge malls around suburban London....

I feel a little sad for all the 80s and 90s films where malls are set. But then, I think of the video for that New Radicals song I always loved, "You Get What You Give," in which anarchy breaks out in a old-school greybox. Maybe the malls were always dying.

May you get what you need today, however it comes and wherever it is. :)

(21 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:chase820
Date:April 12th, 2014 02:03 pm (UTC)
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The mall we go to is the only mall I go to these days, and it's certainly enough! I know they say the whole concept is dying, but there are still plenty of them thriving in our parts.

I think in hot climates like Florida, malls will always be there to some extent. Shopping centers are fine, but when it's 100 degrees out, one large air-conditioned environment is awfully appealing.
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:15 pm (UTC)
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The big-box mall where my Grad School Bestie and I used to meet is actually dying. Fifteen years ago, it had 5 anchor department stores (Dillards, Burdines, and whatever Macy's later bought, plus Sears and Penneys); now Dillards and Macy's are barely hanging on, and a Dick's Sporting Goods store finally went into the Burdines slot. There are fewer and fewer cars in the giant parking lots whenever I drive by on I-4.

You're right that air-conditioning matters. ;) But the New Yorker article notes that shopping center strips, the kind where the Kohl's s next to Bed Bath and Beyond is next to Marshall's etc, are doing well because people can park near the one store they want to patronize.

It's going to be interesting, I think.
[User Picture]
From:paratti
Date:April 12th, 2014 02:19 pm (UTC)
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Westfield over at Shepherds Bush is not helping the shopping streets of High St Ken or the Kings Road, but I've never been a big Mall goer.

Sloane Street sends its love:)
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:16 pm (UTC)
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I'll walk Sloane Street in December! (But, er, I probably won't buy anything except possibly at Thomas Pink. ;))

Hugs!
[User Picture]
From:paratti
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:33 pm (UTC)
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:)
[User Picture]
From:kathyh
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:09 pm (UTC)
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Funnily enough I made my annual trip to Westfield in Shepherd's Bush yesterday. I really only went because the Jo Malone shop is there and I was in need of some pampering but I had a very good time shopping though once a year is enough.

In the suburb I live in our situation is a bit complex as the two medium sized shopping malls are actually in the town centre, so it's a combination of mall shopping and high street shopping. If I want to shop more locally I'll walk in the other direction to the small suburb within a suburb high street which still has a butcher, a baker (sadly, no candlestick maker) and a greengrocer.

All of this will change when/if the larger of our shopping centres becomes, as promised/threatened another Westfield. I suspect I will walk in the other direction much more often then.
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:19 pm (UTC)
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I meet Chase at the Upscale Mall maybe three times a year, so I do understand the pampering of shopping at a mall. And yay Jo Malone! :)

I'm actually fond of that town-centre high street shopping -- many years ago I liked the Oxford High Street for that. But yes, the butcher, baker, etc are not part of the Mall Experience, sad to say.

Hugs, K!
[User Picture]
From:anne_d
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:09 pm (UTC)
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I only go to the local mall if I need to go to Sears, Hot Topic, or Tokyo Mart, a little Japanese sundries store (which is something new in local malls). That mall is an assortment of the usual chain stores, plus a lot of empty storefronts.

Periodically we mount an expedition to the mall in Santa Ana, because it boasts a family-run store that specialises in anime, manga and other Asian media-related items. There's also a variant on Tokyo Mart (different name, same sort of stock), but the rest is bog-standard mall stores. There's also a huge Barnes & Noble across the street, so the Younger Daughter can spend what's left of her savings.

Then there's Mitsuwa marketplace in Costa Mesa; big Japanese grocery store, assortment of smaller shops and Kinokuniya bookstore. We go down there every few months.

We are also within walking distance of the *assumes snooty voice* Birch Street Promenade. It had some interesting small shops when it opened, but they apparently weren't "upmarket" enough for the city, so it's all expensive chain boutiques now. No bookstores. We do not have a bookstore in Brea, unless you count the little Friends of the Library shop. There's the big empty shell of Tower Books and Records, but that closed some years ago, sniffle.

Oh well, I'm only depressing myself. Yes, I agree, the malls are dying, but it's a slow and ugly death.

[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:23 pm (UTC)
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Southern California is the perfect spot for the kind of open-plan malls discussed in the New Yorker article. (Last time I was in LA, I went to the Grove which had newly opened.) But yes, then comes the problem of what kind of shops are there.

The Mitsuwa marketplace you describe sounds cool, though.

Alas for no bookstores! That IS a problem, and one my town has too. :(

Hugs and better thoughts, A!
[User Picture]
From:anne_d
Date:April 12th, 2014 10:33 pm (UTC)
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Actually, open-plan malls haven't worked out here much either - it depends on how far inland the mall is, as summers can get into triple digits in the valleys. They do go in for big skylights, though.
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From:cindergal
Date:April 12th, 2014 03:40 pm (UTC)
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Our local mall is thriving, recently remodeled and adding new stores. We are in a unique location geographically and get a lot of Canadian business. And I mean A LOT. On most days there will be more Canadian than US license plates in the parking lot. Thank you, Canada, for supporting our local economy (they love Costco too, speaking of grey boxes).
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 10:31 pm (UTC)
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Oh that's interesting! The Upscale Mall here is also thriving because of foreign visitors. Hmm...

Thanks for providing a different data-point, C! Hugs. :)
[User Picture]
From:anne_d
Date:April 12th, 2014 10:38 pm (UTC)
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That reminds me that a couple of times when I've gone to Trader Joe's, it's been full of Asian tourists. They come by the tour bus-load, fill their carts and photograph each other in front of the displays. It's really kind of cute, and certainly good for business, except that they block the aisles while taking pictures.
[User Picture]
From:mamculuna
Date:April 12th, 2014 04:43 pm (UTC)
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Okay, this really reveals my age--I missed malls as hangouts! When I was in high school, downtown was the only place to shop, and we could get there by city bus, even in my little city. The malls came while I was in college, but by then we were hanging out in the part of town by campus. I finally started going to lunch in a mall the year I had my first "real" job, but then I went away to the Bay Area and downtown SF was a lot more interesting than the malls over the hills...

After I moved back south, a mom of little kids, I shopped occasionally at the mall stores, but something about driving a long way to be in a big department store overwhelmed me (emotionally, not just financially!) I really much prefer consignment shops and even thrift stores (the challenge of the search!) and our little city has developed little gatherings of shops and restaurants in the older neighborhoods that are where I usually go. Once in a while the only place to see a movie I long for will be in a mall, and that's the extent of it for me. Oh, and Best Buy---they all seem to hover on the edges of the too-big malls that that have surrounded my formerly little city. There appear to be big-box malls at the centers of these, surrounded by lots of smaller strip-malls and huge big-bog stores around them. I've seen some of the newer, town-like malls, and they look more inviting, although all are way out of town.

But I'd love it if I could still take a city bus to the dime store for bobby pins and tangee lipstick, and eat a grilled cheese at the drugstore.

Edited at 2014-04-12 04:47 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 10:33 pm (UTC)
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It makes sense to me that smaller shops (consignment and/or thrift) seemed less daunting than did a big department store. And yes,Best Buy and other fringe big-box stores do seem to be doing better than the 'greybox' malls themselves.

I so love your last sentence. :)
[User Picture]
From:gwynnega
Date:April 12th, 2014 08:17 pm (UTC)
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I pretty much stopped going to malls a year or two ago, unless absolutely necessary. I used to go frequently, especially before online shopping became so ubiquitous.
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 10:34 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, Gwynne. Online shopping does seem like a mall replacement (often), doesn't it....

Hugs! Happy Saturday night!
[User Picture]
From:claudia_yvr
Date:April 12th, 2014 09:05 pm (UTC)
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In my teens and 20s, I used to love going to the malls. Back then, I considered shopping a fun activity, almost like a hobby. It meant an outing on my own or, more often than not, with friends since there was a definite social aspect to hanging out in a mall. Nowadays I rarely go shopping, mostly buying everything except groceries (and even sometimes those, too) online.

That said, it would be sad to see malls disappear completely. I'd miss the convenience of one-stop shopping, especially on days the weather isn't the greatest.

Happy weekend :-)
[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 12th, 2014 10:41 pm (UTC)
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I was exactly the same way about shopping when I was in my 20s and 30s. But now, I am not so much a shopper. ;)

Hugs and cheers, C! Happy weekend.
[User Picture]
From:stateless82
Date:April 13th, 2014 04:28 am (UTC)
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I have vivid memories of going to the mall back in high school- it was the best thing ever. After spending a decade working in them, they didn't have quite the same golden glow.

[User Picture]
From:laurawise
Date:April 13th, 2014 12:36 pm (UTC)
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I can well imagine that the glow would have worn off! Goodness.

[hugs and a great Sunday]

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