A Treatise on the Decline of the American Mall

 “Let’s go to the mall, today!”
—Robin Sparkles, fake Canadian pop star

Epoch 1—Variety!
There weren’t that many phrases that could bring about extreme happiness in my younger self than when my parents would say, “We’re going to the mall tonight.” The mall! Just the excitement of thinking about the mall was enough to get me to smile from ear to ear. Arguably, shopping malls were in their heyday in the 1980s. To me, though, malls didn’t resemble the ridiculous visages one would see in movies: filled with teenagers in bright, “radical” clothes hanging at the arcade and drinking Orange Juliuses. No, malls were all about their intended purpose in the Reagan Eighties: unforgiving, unadulterated capitalism at its finest.

The mall was where we went to shop! Our mall at the time was Ocean County Mall, a one-level conglomeration of dozens of stores anchored by the big names in retail. We didn’t go to the mall to see a movie (in fact, I wouldn’t see a movie at that mall until I turned 14; we’d pass at least three much better theaters on the way there). We didn’t go to have dinner (our mall didn’t even have a food court at the time). The mall didn’t even have the best stores (there was a Toys “R” Us right across the highway). For us, the mall was where you’d go to spend the evening, with the added bonus of coming back with a few things you needed and some other things you really didn’t need.

After a half-hour ride, we’d arrive and park outside one of the big box stores (never the actual mall entrance for some reason). Walking in, we’d be greeted by that smell: a combination of leather and new clothes. If I was lucky, we’d head right through the store and into the heart of the mall. Oftentimes, though, my mom would browse. And browse. And browse. Meanwhile, my dad would find a chair to wait in and I’d be climbing inside circular racks of clothes and finding all those ball-tipped pins stuck in the carpet. It would be years until I found out they came from people unpinning dress shirts.

Eventually, we would make our way to the mall entrance. There, the world was our oyster. Maybe there’d be a new He-Man figure at Kay-Bee’s. Possibly, my parents would buy me a cassette at the record store (it would be a few more years until it was feasible to get one of those expensive CDs in the long cardboard boxes). Near the end of the night, I’d spend a good hour in the bookstore trying to decide which volume of Garfield comics I wanted. With my new treasure in hand, we’d head toward the middle of the mall where we’d stand in line to get a Hot Sam’s pretzel (a place, I maintain, that made the best soft pretzel I will ever eat: perfect crunch on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside).

Really, those were the halcyon days—simple times where you’d simply shop.

Epoch 2—Oversaturation

Brodie: That kid is back on the escalator again!
Mallrats, 1995 Kevin Smith movie

Malls became a part of my extended family as I got older. My sister had various high retail jobs from the late Eighties through the Nineties. So, our beloved Ocean County Mall, with its one floor of delight, fell by the wayside. Soon, we were making a slightly longer trip north to Monmouth Mall. Three floors of retail! Higher-end department stores! What really got me were the electronics stores. When Nintendo was a large part of my life, where else should I spend my time but Babbage’s and Electronics Boutique? Those stores didn’t cater to my parents or to my older siblings; they catered to me and me exclusively. From there, it was a short walk to the other stores a preteen/teenager like me would be interested in: CD stores, a comic book store, Suncoast Video, and yes, two (2!) bookstores. At one point, that mall even had a kiosk in the middle—three times as large as a regular kiosk—that sold video games. Its draw, though, was that there were video game consoles set up along the outside so you could play the games before you bought them. AND it was in front of a pizza place! Nirvana? Hell yes!

It didn’t stop there. Soon, we were visiting other malls: Bridgewater Commons, Woodbridge Center, and Freehold Raceway. But Monmouth was where I would spend my teen years. A short drive away from Red Bank, another Nineties New Jersey Mecca, Monmouth Mall was a great place to spend a day. As soon as I was seventeen, the mall was a place of freedom. Going out to eat without my parents at Garcia’s Mexican restaurant. Browsing in the stores where I wanted to shop without being ushered out by my parents because I was taking too long to decide what I wanted (a role that I would never outgrow, replaced soon by girlfriends and then my wife). Wasting time before going to the new movie theater. That was the mall where I would buy Christmas presents for my friends and family during my teens. I bet everyone loved getting some kind of candle or other tchotchke from me during those years.

It was Freehold, though, where I began to see the cracks. I didn’t really like Freehold Raceway Mall. Although it was huge, it was huge for the wrong reasons. That mall suffered from what I considered “repeat stores.” Why was there a Victoria’s Secret upstairs and downstairs? Maybe it was because I started to grow out of my huge video games phase, but why were there two of the same video game stores? Freehold reeked of redundancy. Did the leaseholders decide to have multiple store locations under the same roof because they knew about the sheer laziness on the part of mallgoers? It wasn’t like Bridgewater, with its three ridiculous levels of shopping mall bliss, where repeat stores may have been needed since you could spend an entire day at that mall and not see it all. Bridgewater was more high-brow for that. Hell, it even had a walk-in humidor at one time. Freehold, though, was only two levels and not as upscale. Man, did it get crowded during the holidays, though. I remember walking into that place once a few weeks before Christmas, everyone running around in a panic, and saying to my friends, “Why are we here? Why are we doing this?”

But much like the record industry, the malls weren’t thinking about the future. They were simply enjoying having too much of a good thing.

Epoch 3—Apathy

Francine: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.
Dawn of the Dead, 1978 George Romero movie about zombies invading a mall

Last year, I went to a mall in Princeton with a friend of mine. While she was shopping in a department store, I fell back on my old mall habit and decided to explore a new-to-me mall—because, obviously, clothes=boring. What I found really disappointed and saddened me. Instead of the happy shoppers I used to see when I was younger, all I found now were people who were on a mission and really needed one or two things. I walked around that entire mall and nothing really caught my eye. Of course, with the few things I did see, I had the same thought:

“It’s probably cheaper online.”

Yup, the Internet. Killer of such things as the record industry and, now, shopping malls. I’m being facetious, of course, but the sentiment is pretty close to reality. Malls will never be the same unless they can provide something that shopping online can’t provide.

As the Internet grew in popularity, I started going to Freehold Mall more often. I can’t really explain why, though. In the past few years, I guess it was because it was the closer mall, but we’d just go there mainly for the bookstore or because we needed clothes, had a coupon, and needed to try something on. Malls have turned into living shopping catalogs, a showroom where you can check out the merchandise before you go home and find a cheaper price online. Yes, every once in a while, you’ll take advantage of the instant gratification angle, even if it means paying more. More often, though, some site like Amazon will be the go-to place, since it has seemingly endless levels of shopping with your food court kitchen only steps away.

What I find really strange is how packed the parking lots seem to be. It used to be that mall parking lots would be full every weekend. Holidays? Forget about finding a spot anytime soon after arriving. I remember many pre-holiday weekends driving around a mall parking lot looking for that perfect space. Now, the lots still seem full, but once you go inside the mall, it’s empty. People mill around like the undead, searching for the one reason why they came in the first place, the thing that will make them human.

I can’t remember the last time I did holiday shopping at a mall. It has less to do with the fact that I’m lazy and more with the fact that there’s nothing there I want to buy for anyone. See, it’s much more personal to buy something you can’t find anywhere facelessly from some stranger on the Internet than to go to a mall and buy some mass-produced item from a faceless corporation while hating all the crazy shoppers all around you during a happy time of the season.

As I sit here and write this, it’s a gray, rainy day in New Jersey with the holiday season right around the corner. Today would be a perfect day to head to the mall…if it were 1995. Instead, I’m on my computer. If I want to browse and buy something impulsively, I’ll go to Amazon. I still have my memories, though.

This guest post was written by Dennis. He may just try the recipe that he found online—where else—for a Hot Sam’s-type pretzel.

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 7, 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

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