Books June 2004

Shopworn

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

Underhill quotes a fellow retail expert:

"The companies don't design these departments to make the shopper the star. To them, the star of this counter is the supermodel or the celebrity who's in the ad campaign. After all, they paid her a ton of money—she must be the star. After her, the secondary star is the lady who is selling the product. Then, in last place, comes the customer. It's totally wrong."

Ah, the eternal gap between Madison Avenue and, if not Minnesota exactly, the Minnesota that lurks within our souls. Speaking of the Gap, I myself remain haunted by that television commercial several years ago of Gap swing dancers. That was the Gap promise, in thirty seconds: just pull on these magic khaki pants and you'll know freedom from all life's cares—your spirit will be buoyant, gravity-defying, fairy-light! Consider the actual Gap experience: wrestling with too-tight pants in a too-tight dressing room in the middle of a three-hour trip to a stained, aging mall with bleak, gloomy bathrooms and horrible parking.

To say that Underhill is our bard of the suburbs is not to say that The City—or, at least, its image—is absent from Call of the Mall. Indeed, mall landscapes obliquely reflect and refract what seem to be fleeting, romantic, impossibly distant group memories of The City. Witness the pet store, a little area set aside for the rude life forms—and their droppings—that are only too familiar to urban shoppers but otherwise completely absent from the mall. And while teens toss a Frisbee in a lifelike play environment way up on the top floor, one girl yearningly muses: "I don't know if you've ever been to Washington Square in New York ... but it's this park, and they have these tables with like built-in checkerboards on top?"

Then there's the Tiffany store window, tiny and boxlike, which displays just one thing: a beautiful black-and-white photo of a rainy Central Park-like landscape, a miniature diorama capturing part of our—or at least someone's —past life. Underhill says, "It sells the romance of Central Park in the rain, and being very near to Tiffany, to people who are walking around a mall." ("Hey," his shopping companion adds, "there's a smudge on the window.")

And of the mall's future?

Today, when most American malls are over twenty years old, the question of what to do about aging centers will soon be upon us. If the buildings themselves had any intrinsic value, we'd be more likely to restore or salvage ones that need it. We restore and repurpose many public structures, such as former post offices, hotels, libraries, even churches. But most malls are too ugly and banal to warrant such effort. They've been designed to be serviceable, nothing more, and once they no longer can serve they'll have to be razed, and replaced with ... I don't know. Maybe something even worse.

I think of ghosts of retail past and retail future in my own Los Angeles. I think of how our Sherman Oaks Galleria—that's right, the very Galleria made famous in "Valley Girl"—is no more. This makes me remember my own teen life, in the 1970s, in southern California. I can still feel the exciting pulse of nascent adulthood as I and my best friend, Mary Robertson, whizzed along the freeways in her tiny new Chevy Chevette. I can still envision each green-and-white exit sign, each raggedy palm tree, the malls sprawling just beyond like big pink hatboxes of promise. As with Barbie play makeup, the mall offered a vision of glamorous, cosmopolitan adulthood, an adulthood that now lay much nearer at hand. Instead of a real Sin City, Mary and I had impulsive and daring visits to the Cheesecake Factory, where the whole sensual world lay before us in over-twenty-one flavors: Amaretto, Grand Marnier, piña colada.

Today my southern-California retail world is a grid of Target (the standard), Tarjhay (uptown, lattes), and, of course, Targhetto (of the tattered parking lot, where you find yourself thinking, So this is where gang members buy their Tupperware, the better to neatly organize their important gang items). It's a colorful mélange of strip malls that advertise dry-cleaning in five different languages, and almost always feature a "USA #1 DONUTS." I think of my sixty-two-year-old Manchurian stepmother's first trip to the Van Nuys Costco—how her eyes widened in alarm, and excitement, at the sight of a fifty-foot tower of Bounty paper towels, how her white tennies flashed and pattered as she ran. Never mind Christopher Columbus and his precious spices; when it comes to retail excitement, Alice truly was beholding a brave new world.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on Public Radio International's Marketplace. This month she also joins KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.
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