I read a headline today announcing the decline
of the American mall. An institution long past its prime,
it meets its natural death in an era of online instant gratification,
growing consumer sophistication, and cost-effective big box options.
No one seems to grieve the mall’s demise. In fact
most of the online comments I read hailed it as a fitting
end to a corrosive consumer culture of stale middle-class homogeny.
They pointed to the American mall as the epitome of the evils of suburban
sprawl: the decimation of biodiversity, the king-
sized parking lots that encourage fossil fuel dependency,
the glorification of chain store faux-authenticity. Other commenters
decried the mall as a crumbling edifice of oppressive beauty standards designed
to trick women into believing that they are never
enough so that they will spend money that they do not have.
And I can’t say that they’re wrong. But at the risk of my reputation,
this is one grave I won’t be dancing on. While some might find it perverse,
I must profess my love for the American mall.
I will be sorry to see it go, not because I was ever able
to buy happiness there, but because at one time it allowed my friends
and I to use our babysitting money to purchase freedom in small, manageable units:
a bus ride, a slice of food court pizza, and a movie
that our parents might not approve of. It was the perfect
marketplace for pre-Internet adolescent investors who craved
both risk and safety in equal measures. We tested products of adult identity at the bookstore,
the record store, the makeup aisle at CVS, and
the sale racks at May Company. Our decisions yielded
small but shiny dividends: sparkly eye shadow, frosted lipstick, shoulder-
padded day-glo t-shirts. And when we examined our purchases on the bus ride home at the end
of the day, we felt decidedly different. Now, I know
that those online commenters might scoff at this as proof
that we were conditioned to consume at a far too early age, and I
can’t say that they’re wrong. But I can’t help but love the American mall
for giving us a sense of our own own purchasing power,
for helping us navigate the treacherous waters of our adolescent
economies, and showing us that no matter what the boys at school or our
parents might say, our currency was just as good as anyone else’s, and spent just the same.