Lost in the Matrix Again:

A Journey Through the Shopping Mall and the Heart of Darkness

Lunch Laddy at the Dirt Track Races
I’m just a guy, tryin’ ta get along……

I know this is out of character for me, but for once I’m not trying to be a smarty pants, take a sardonic tone or criticize anything or anyone. I’m simply making observations based on my experience, trying to make some sense of it and and perhaps express an obnoxious opinion or two. This is about American culture, of which I am very much a part. It’s also about shopping malls and the culture of consumer madness. I am one of America’s great consumers and I’m just reflecting upon my observations. I worked in a shopping mall and so did my son. That almost makes it a family tradition. Please bear in mind that I’m not a trained journalist or sociologist. I’m just offering my “boots on the ground” opinions and observations, for whatever that’s worth. However, when I spot a boat foundering in the surf that appears to be sinking, or a house engulfed in flames, I can’t restrain myself from reacting in some way. Or at least make an observation for posterity’s sake. If this is offensive or demeaning to anybody in any way, it is unintended. I’m just trying to get a grip on what’s going down.

The other day I needed to go to a big box store at the regional shopping mall. I try to avoid going there because it’s an enervating environment and it seems to suck the life right out of me. I find it sad and depressing. It’s not all that far from becoming a humongous ghost town. This is a shopping mall that has fallen upon hard times in recent years as a number of competing strip malls were built in the near vicinity. There was a steady diaspora from the established mall as consumers did more and more of their shopping in the surrounding strip malls and left brick and mortar stores behind altogether to find what they are looking for online. Now the oldest of the competing strip malls are already on the decline as stores have folded or moved down the road to newer strip malls, leaving cavernous retail spaces that will stay unoccupied for years before they are finally repurposed or torn down. One of them has a whopping 146,522 square feet of retail space available and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Who’s going to be able to fill that kind of retail space as it is? The state of the mall and the surrounding strip malls says a lot about the changing landscape of retail stores and consumerism in America.

I never go to the regional mall anymore because there is almost nothing there that I can find to buy. However, on this particular day I did have some business to transact at the mall so I decided to walk around to get a feel for the current lay of the land. It was eye opening. There are still at least six major big box stores that anchor the mall and these retailers compete with each other, carrying many of the exact same lines while trying and be all things to all people. The result is a watered down “sameness” and lack of any truly unique “brand” or personality. Outside of these stores, few of the other old stalwarts remain and there are major swaths of unoccupied spaces, shuttered, dark and desolate. Conspicuous in its absence is one of the old stores with unique personality that was a news stand and tobacco store where you could buy newspapers and magazines, pipes and cigars and get a good cup of coffee. Changes in newspaper and magazine publishing and American smoking habits may have sounded the death knell for little shops of this kind. Add to that, the near extinction of book stores and what used to be known as record stores. One thing that really stands out is how many of the stores that were there for years have been replaced by something totally different or have been repurposed altogether and are occupied by ventures other than traditional retail stores. It seems there are a growing number of places that offer some kind of community based service as opposed to pure retail.

As I strolled through, I was surprised to see that one of the long time clothing stores is a mixed martial arts school and another is a cheerleading academy. You can buy a grand piano in what used to be a purveyor of leather goods and across from that you can buy a granite tombstone and have it custom engraved. The optometry store where I once bought glasses is now a full service body modification studio offering tattoos and body piercing. The calendar store that occupied a corner of the mall is now a pastoral counseling center and church that offers Sunday morning services in the movie theater complex. There are a number of other “community centers” of one kind or another, all with limited hours of operation. I don’t know if this is a nationwide trend or if this is a unique situation. It certainly does reflect a genuine effort to adapt and evolve. In any case, it’s one way to fill these spaces and offer something that people might actually want or need. I think the sheer monstrous size of the one-stop-shopping-big-box-stores is actually its own undoing. In this case, bigger is not better.

Pop up seasonal stores come and go and there are at least two Halloween stores for the time being. Needless to say, even though it’s late October, all the spaces I visited or peeked into were already headed full-on into the Christmas season complete with lights, decorations. and music. Christmas is nice during a couple of weeks in December. More than that and I start to get more nauseous and jaded than usual. I really started to get an overwhelming case of the heebie jeebies and quickened my pace toward the parking lot before I collapsed from sheer ennui and existential exhaustion.

Is this the death of the American shopping mall as we once knew it? I really have no idea. Maybe malls like this are going strong all over the country? Admittedly this is all based on my own limited observation. But generally speaking, what if malls offered goods and services that are more naturally integrated with the needs of daily life, in addition to retail stores that sell clothes,shoes, jewelry, electronics and hair&nail care? What would these places look like with grocery stores, medical arts services, auto repair, health clubs, veterinary services, small cafes, restaurants and a whole bunch of quirky, one of a kind places in subdivided cavernous retail spaces that feel more like warehouses than any kind of intimate space. There are many issues to contend with here, not the least of which is that malls may be located far and away from the day to day lives of the consumers they hope to attract.

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe it’s symptomatic of a need for a cultural paradigm shift. I don’t know. I’m just sayin’……