The Mall of America

The warm oblivion and eternal present tense of the country's largest mall

I used to fly in and out of Minneapolis-St. Paul all the time. When you come in to land there, or soon after you take off, usually you can see just to the south of the airport a huge shape battened to the earth like a Garfield doll stuck to the inside of a car window. The shape is the Mall of America, the largest mall in the United States. It's basically a rectangle with four smaller rectangles at its corners, like Garfield's suction-cup paws. The four rectangles house Sears, Macy's, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale's, the "anchor stores" of the Mall. As it clings, the spraddled shape seems to curve slightly with the earth's roundness.

Sometimes when I came to the airport the Mall of America was among my local destinations. I am an author, and like many in my profession, I am also a traveling salesman, going all over in an attempt to persuade people to spend twenty-five dollars on a hardcover book by me. On two or three book tours I have visited bookstores in the Mall of America and signed copies of my books and introduced myself to store employees who I hope will sell them. Signing books at the Mall of America (or places like it) has become a characteristic experience of the writing life.

Once I was on a book tour and the singer John Denver happened to be following the same bookstore route as I, just a day ahead. He had a book out, but I forget what it was. When I went to a store called Readwell's in the Mall of America, the store manager, a young woman, told me that the day before, John Denver had sat at the same signing table where I was sitting. She added that, true to his hippie persona, John Denver often used the exclamation "Oh, wow!" She said that he had used it so much while at Readwell's that she had gotten a piece of paper and begun to count the times. She showed me the paper, which was a series of lines like | | | | . She had counted them up, and found that during his visit John Denver said "Oh, wow!" at least forty-seven times. John Denver died in a crash while piloting his own plane a few years afterward.

That Readwell's has since closed. At the Mall of America, stores come and go with regularity; when a new one opens, sometimes it's hard to remember what was there before. In that respect the Mall is like television—you know what you're watching when you're watching it, but it slips from your mind when new images appear. At malls, as on TV, history becomes feeble. If I were alone in the Mall, I might drift in an endless present tense, as I do in front of the TV in my hotel room at night, watching whatever's on. As it happens, however, I am not alone on book tours at the Mall. Going from one sales appointment to the next, authors nowadays are usually in the company of author escorts—people who know the local bookstores and media and who drive the authors where they're supposed to go and see that all proceeds smoothly. In the Twin Cities my escort is always a young man named Tim Hedges. Of the dozens of escorts I've had, I rate Tim at the very top.

Tim is tall, with hazel eyes and a wholesome midwestern face. A generous sprinkling of freckles would not be out of place on it if he had them, but somehow he doesn't. They would clash, anyway, with his short hair moussed into spikes, and the shades around his neck on a cord, and the cool Euro grays, blacks, and tans he dresses in. Tim grew up a few miles from the Mall of America, and his memory of the area goes back a ways. When I walk through the Mall with Tim, history revives. "I once took Marianne Faithfull to a movie in that movie theater," Tim will say, as we pass the Mall's multiplex (Faithfull was an author-client he escorted years ago; she had to keep leaving the theater, and the Mall, to smoke). Or he'll recall, at a boarded-up window, "This used to be a store that sold only hot sauce." Or he'll note, "I once spent three hours at a table in front of this store helping Mankind, the professional wrestler, sign copies of his autobiography."

Or, "Once I and a lot of other people worked on an event here on the stage in the Mall rotunda for a celebrity author, who was supposed to read from a book of her poetry. There were hundreds of people in the audience, and a guy got up to introduce her, and meanwhile she was sitting on a chair behind him on the stage talking on her cell phone. So the guy finishes his introduction, and the poet walks up to the podium, and she's still talking on her cell phone, and she holds up her hand like that, and the audience waits for a few minutes while she finishes her conversation. Then she puts the phone away and starts to read."

The Mall and its parking lots cover seventy-eight acres in the city of Bloomington, a suburb just south of the Twin Cities. The Mall structure itself encloses about forty-five of those acres. It is as tall as an eight-story building. Its more than 500 retail stores, plus restaurants, food courts, movie theaters, a bank, a clinic, a wedding chapel, and a business school called National American University, occupy the outer part of the enclosed space, extending down long corridors on four levels. The center of the Mall, a space of about seven acres, is open to the skylights in the ceiling far above. There are trees growing from the floor in this central space, and an amusement park, Camp Snoopy, with a roller coaster, a seventy-four-foot-high Ferris wheel, and a log flume ride whose chlorinated water gives the conditioned air the scent of an indoor swimming pool. Here the Mall floor rolls in small rises and dips, perhaps to encourage the illusion that it is earth and not cement painted gray.

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