I’ve been mulling, leaving and returning to this post for some time now. And things change, or stay the same, it is hard to tell. Early on in all this I found it hard to settle to read anything until I began Matthew Newton’s Shopping Mall. The book is part of the Object Lessons series, where various authors explore “the hidden lives of ordinary things”. At the time I wanted to read of ordinary things. “Ordinary” seemed, and seems, an extraordinary concept now. Something to cherish, something to hope for – the ordinary.
“Of the places that I knew and where I felt safe, the mall, for better or worse, remained a constant.”
Newton covers the history of malls in America, of how Victor Gruen, a Viennese emigre and socialist, was inspired by the European piazzas he had moved away from to create “mixed use” spaces where visitors were free to shop, socialise and play.
There was clearly a symbiotic relationship between malls and suburbs – one could not have truly thrived without the other – the mall offering a simulacrum of the village street, the suburb providing the cast. More than just shopping, the mall offered a place to escape, to dream, to be someone else, or to be nobody at all. The mall could be a refuge from the anonymity of the suburb, yet did this by offering a different kind of anonymity.
“The mall allowed me the space to step away from my obsessions, rituals, and the troubling thoughts that increasingly dogged me. And it let me feel like a normal teenager for a few short hours”
More than a history or analysis of malls this is a memoir of how malls, and Monroeville Mall in particular, has played a significant role in the life of the author. Life changes, but the mall is a constant. A place designed to be nostalgic, as all malls are, is bound to harness memories.
“Once inside the scent hit me first, followed by the familiar aroma of French fries and pizza drifting from the food court. Reentry to the mall triggers a kaleidoscopic rush of memories – from your first visits as a child or the countless times you rode the Easter train at center court, to that afternoon as a teenager spent suit shopping for your high school dance or as an adult pleading with the clerk at customer service to issue a refund. Entering the mall is like tuning into an unbroken neural frequency, a signal at once individually unique yet universally relatable.”
Malls are more than cathedrals to retail, they are places where many essentially grew up. Newton’s own story is one where “the mall” played a central role, and where “the mall” is perhaps little more than a memory now.
As I read these pages I thought of how I have often been drawn to the mall myself. I would hang around there after school, as a teenager it was the one of the few places to go on weekends, in adulthood I would go there when at a loose end, and still go there now, well, until all this.
I thought about the gentle melancholy of wandering around a mall, as a place of fond memories, of a place where often I’ve been able to see what I want but not afford it, but where I could get lost in myself, get lost in the crowd. The simple, vaguely guilty pleasure of buying something, anything. I thought about how a food court is a rare place where you can eat alone and nobody notices, it is normal. I thought about how people go there to socialise. Go there to be alone.
I recently heard about an older couple, friends of friends, who kept going to the mall each day, even after lockdown, even if only to walk about the manufactured lake. It sounded pretty absurd to be taking an unnecessary drive like that every day. But I almost understood. These places have their pull. Even when they are closed.
I thought of ghost malls, covered in Newton’s book too, the malls long closed down but now visited and documented by many a photographer or nostalgic former patron. Just us Victor Gruen had planned, these places are about much more than the shopping.
Maybe malls were already out of time, outside of time, nostalgic by design. Maybe these ghost malls are a natural conclusion for these elegiac, wistful places.
For a while there every mall was a ghost mall.
“Euphoria is not uncommon at the mall”
I know I am being tricked by consumerism when I’m drawn to a mall but sometimes I can’t be so principled, so aware. Sometimes I just need to wander around somewhere comforting.
All malls are the same, all are different. The former makes them places I am drawn to, to centre myself, re-calibrate, find comfort in familiarity. The latter makes me stay, to find the joy in the details, the wrinkles, the quirks within. Beyond the surface “blandness” there is always something worth exploring – a funny little concession you wouldn’t expect, an old sign from a previous incarnation, an unlikely group of patrons. The rhythms of a place. The sounds and smells.
Recently I have found myself listening more to mallsoft, the peculiar subgenre of music that, broadly speaking, attempts to replicate the feeling of being in a mall. It is generally a strange mix of the unsettling and the soothing. The echoes, muffled conversation and snatches of music are pretty close to the real thing, or at least a hazy recollection of the real thing, as it once was, as the replication is often of a mall at some point in the late eighties/early nineties – a pretty potent time for me.
This year has seen an especially good example of the genre, Omega Mall X by Limousine. The tracks drift in and out, as if we were wandering from floor to floor, court to court, store to store. From the barely there muzak of Ƶales Basement, to the 80/90s ubiquitous sax of D e e p D i s c o u n t it feels like you could be there, if there is the mall of your imagination, rather than the reality of those places today. Listening to the album takes me to an ideal of the “the mall”, of what it could have been, what it promised, what I like to think I experienced, what I saw on TV and movies and wished was what I had near me. Malls always sold a dream and in their absence, or obsolescence, albums such as Omega Mall X continue to do so.
It is important we take the time to understand places such as the “mall”, places that are often taken for granted, neglected, looked down upon, but places that have a great influence on peoples’ lives. These are the kinds of places that can make us feel, often despite themselves, and despite ourselves. Newton’s book and Omega Mall X shine a light on that feeling, on why place matters, and why we should take the time to contemplate the everyday.
Images from macwagan, Florida Memory, SALT Research, via Flickr