What was once Americans' favorite pastime is on its way to becoming a historic relic.
I was 20 years old the first time I visited America, braced for what, among this country’s many wonders, strikes the newcomer as the strangest and most wonderful of all: the cheapness of the jeans, the size of the portions, and the gargantuan scale of the shopping malls. A friend’s relatives took us to a mall in New Jersey where we did what foreigners do when they first come here: take photos of themselves standing outside a branch of K-Mart as if it were the Taj Mahal. I’m not being sarcastic. After a lifetime of watching teen movies set in these places, it was completely and utterly thrilling.
Now at least part of that landscapeis about to change. The death of the shopping mall has been predicted for years, ever since people started shopping on the internet, but the decline only recently became serious, retail sales be damned. In the next 10 years, according to one analytics firm, 15% of the 1,000 or so malls in the US will fail. Within 20, make that 50% of American malls. A rather alarming post over at the New Yorker this week quoted the CEO of one of the country’s largest private real estate companies making a dire prediction:
Within 10 to 15 years, the typical US mall, unless it is completely reinvented, will be a historical anachronism – a 60-year aberration that no longer meets the public’s needs, the retailers’ needs, or the community’s needs.
Most of the casualties will be in the mid-market range, those malls arranged around a huge branch of Sears or JC Penney, which announced the closure of 33 of its stores in January, with the loss of 2,000 jobs. Last month, Loehmann’s went into receivership, the last of several discount stores to to do so, leaving only Marshalls and TJ Maxx at the end of that spectrum.
The pleasures of the shopping mall are supposed to disparage us, encouraging our worst appetites and feeding on a dim, atavistic desire to shuffle around overlit spaces buying things we don’t need. There is the muzak, and the marble and the zombie-like pace of it all. There are the fake bargains. Nothing advertises the cynicism of the mall experience so much as the discount outlets, those complexes where Fifth Avenue stores sell cheap lines with posh labels to encourage the delusion you’re getting something exclusive for less.
And yet. There is a reason the mall occupies such a central role in the American idea – and it isn’t just one of grim-faced consumerism. Most of my mall experiences recently haven’t resulted in much impulse spending. (With the exception of the large, pink exercise ball gathering dust in the corner of my living room. And the thing that takes the head of your egg like a guillotine. And the gourmet jelly beans.)
True to those movies of the 1980s, when you go to a mall, even at this age, it’s not to shop, it’s to hang out. Okay, you’re not wandering around the Sistine Chapel. The scenery is aggressively uninteresting. But what does it matter? For the space of an afternoon you are strolling and talking with someone uninterrupted. You are not half-listening while staring at a screen. You are not trying to get anywhere in a hurry, except, perhaps, the food hall, where you can eat as grossly as you want because that’s all there is. If that’s not quality time these days I don’t know what is.
When I was a child, the biggest and most exciting shopping experience was to go to Milton Keynes, the nearest thing Britain had at that point to American-style malls, and we never bought much. We looked at the palm trees and went to McDonald’s and marvelled at how you could walk so far and still be indoors.
In my teens, we went to Hale Leys, the entirely rubbish shopping centre in Aylesbury that had about 12 shops in it. It didn’t matter. We went to the travel agent and swiped free brochures to plan holidays we were never going to take. We chatted to Mark the security guard, who was gormless in civvies but in his Hale Leys uniform was almost impressive. We tried things on and put them back and then we went home with a sense of having done something with the day. The point wasn’t the shops. The point was us.
Those final scenes at the Chelsea branch of Loehmann’s were like something out of a horror movie, people moving simultaneously slowly and fiercely, brandishing coat hangers, mourning the loss of not just the store but the experience. I know it’s vacuous. I know it doesn’t elevate you like schlepping round the Met does, but come on. There are times in life when malls offer a thing I’ll be sad to see go, an activity with no redeeming feature, no take-away, no element of self-improvement.
Sometimes it’s nice just to shamble about, unfolding cashmere sweaters and talking about nothing with the people you love.