Books June 2004


Like the Valley Girls who made it famous, the suburban mall is now on the wrong side of forty

"Increasingly, cities are becoming the province of the rich, the childless, or the poor. I love cities. But America hasn't lived there for a long time ... If you really want to observe entire middle-class multigenerational American families, you have to go to the mall."

But, we might ask the self-described Envirosell "research wonk" Paco Underhill, whose above contention appears in Call of the Mall, do we really want to? Underhill's most recent foray into the rich, potpourri-and-candle-scented field of retail anthropology (his first was Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, published in 1999) addresses such tough questions as Are we really interested in spending an entire book inside the mall? Why is mall architecture so ugly? and Exactly what is an Aqua Massage? Underhill's answers turn out to be fascinating (mostly), and when they aren't, they're boring in a sort of exquisitely bleak, existential way, just like the mall.

For those who argue that sometimes a Cinnabon is just a Cinnabon, Underhill opens his mall jaunt by invoking the spirit of the French historian Daniel Roche, author of A History of Everyday Things (2000). "It's not as though studying people as they congregate to buy and sell things is a totally frivolous or small-minded endeavor," he writes.

Consider the history of our species, a fair swath of which has been propelled by merchants or their emissaries traveling to the far reaches of the planet, sometimes at great risk, in order to bring back stuff to peddle to the rest of us. As any schoolchild can testify, the romance of the ancient world teems with spice routes and trade winds and trafficking in silks and precious metals, frankincense and myrrh, gunpowder and fur.

For Underhill, the history of retail is a grand adventure that entered a new phase in the glittering emporiums of America's burgeoning cities.

The merchant princes were nineteenth century men, driven by ambition and muscle and determination to succeed in the brick-and-mortar vocabulary of the era. Their stores were their alter egos, and these titans of retailing all had serious edifice complexes. The great department stores of the day bore their owners' names—Gimbel, Macy, Wanamaker, Neiman Marcus, Marshall Field.

At first blush it would appear that the suburban car culture's rise triggered just another exciting phase in the journey. After all, since its inception, in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, the mall has in many ways proved a wonderfully successful retail invention. In the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s a new mall opened somewhere in the United States every three or four days. Studies suggest that 30 percent of adults living in a county with the kind of mall that Underhill describes in his book will have visited it at least once in a given three months. Malls currently account for 14 percent of all U.S. retailing (excluding cars and gasoline): about $308 billion in annual sales.

More telling than those mere facts and numbers is how the mall has gotten into the very gut, the very psyche, of the American family. What is a family, after all, but a collection of not quite independent, somewhat less than completely ambulatory people? And what safer harbor for families than a big, beige, temperature-controlled box? It's not just the mall-rat teens, marooned at the octoplex on Friday nights because they cannot drive. It's the packs of seniors who began exercise programs of "mall walking" on the advice of doctors who didn't want them to slip in snow and ice. It's the mothers looking to kill time with very small children (because mall customers literally shop slower than their urban counterparts, and are more patient in line, pushing a couple of tots in a stroller to get a new spatula at Lechter's can fill an entire cloud-free afternoon).

The problem, Underhill argues, is that there's rot in the mall's very DNA. Mall owners, far from being merchants who want to creatively engage our acquisitive urges, are simply real-estate developers trying to maximize every rental dollar, mostly by minimizing their overhead. Which is not a good thing. To begin with, the resulting architecture is a horror ("A big wall with a little mouse hole" is the way one top mall designer describes it). And now these blank, lifeless exteriors are gradually decaying, with an almost Michael Jackson-like weirdness. For instance,

Mall of America, the biggest in the United States and the most potent tourist attraction in all of Minnesota, may have looked good on the drawing board. But it has aged badly since it opened in August 1992. You can see stains on the outside of the building, and grass has begun to poke through the asphalt of the parking lots. It is huge and unsightly. You can't imagine Disney World or the Statue of Liberty being allowed to decay this way. Yet this mall has more visitors than Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon combined.

And further,

Next time you're at a mall, instead of going directly inside, stroll around the perimeter of the place. It will be one of the more joyless promenades you'll ever make. You'll be very alone out there, on a narrow strip of sidewalk, assuming it has a sidewalk—many malls don't—with maybe a security guard or two to keep you company ... There will almost certainly be shrubbery, neatly clipped, but it's greenery of the most generic kind. Nobody thought you'd ever look too closely at it. Its only job is to be green.

And that disorientation, that disconnect in form and space, reaches to the inside of the mall—which Underhill describes as being, like television, a "totally fake environment that attempts to pass itself off as a true reflection of who we are and what we want." There's a video arcade, a rock-climbing wall, a food court, and "a Cinnabon stand, four cookie stands, three pretzel stands, three ice-cream stands, and no place wheresoever to buy an apple." It's a pastel-hued town—or, at least, "town-like"—square that actually resists true civic discourse. (Many states have had to legislate out certain kinds of retail-unfriendly free-speech activity: irritants over the years have included political candidates, Klansmen, and anti-war activists distributing leaflets.) Underhill labors to suggest a connection between malls and racism, because so few of them are near public transportation.

But for this reader, Call of the Mall's unique contribution to the field—if not exactly its pleasure—is less the sociological analysis than the shock of personal recognition Underhill provokes as he lasers in on some unexamined moments in modern life. Only a retail specialist could be so attuned to the human condition in all its shabby, formless boredom. Underhill, again in the spirit of Roche, relentlessly tracks the violent shifts in our emotional landscape as we look for parking and find somewhat better (nearer to the Sears end) or somewhat worse (nearer to the Bloomingdale's) than we had expected. Once inside, he rails,

Do all mall maps stink? In our studies of people in shopping centers, we've timed how long they spend staring at those big, lighted board mall directories. In one study the average was twenty-two seconds. That's a very long time to study a map ... The directories in most malls look like they were designed for electricians—like wiring guides.

Only Underhill would take time to observe,

To the extent that muggings do occur in malls, they may take place in rest rooms, which are usually hidden down some lonesome corridor away from the main thoroughfare. In fact, that's the best way to find the bathroom in an unfamiliar mall—look around for the least inviting hallway, the narrow one where the lighting is dimmest.
See? Here's just such a passage radiating off the promenade. It's gloomy and unwelcoming—if the mall were an urban setting, this would be an alley. Come on, let's go inside.

And finally,

There's something Fellini-esque about a department store cosmetics section. You stand here on a Saturday morning, dressed in the standard mall-casual suburban wardrobe, gazing at a chamber glittering with chandeliers, populated by saleswomen wearing makeup and hair dramatic enough for opening night at La Scala. Their faces are like masks of pale, poreless skin, ruby-red lips, smoldering eye treatments—positively kabuki-like ... The purchase of cosmetics is as public as a private art form gets. It isn't quite a massage, but it is an intimate act between two consenting adults.

It's here that perhaps the most telling bit of retail absurdity lies. Up above the cosmetics counter, Underhill points out, you'll typically find a gigantic image of Elizabeth Hurley, from an ad you saw in Vanity Fair, now blown up and ringed with glowing spotlights. Down below, the rest of the female species shuffles around, barely able to find a decent mirror in decent light to try out the lipstick.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In