Could it be that such movie fare as “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (and countless other movies that take place in malls) will eventually show examples of a lost American relic in another ten years? The mall has certainly been an idea that’s seen an era of magic and prosperity eventually reduced to depressed retailers trying to survive, while corporate stores wipe out the smaller ma and pa stores. Making a trek into my local mall last year for the first time in a while, gave me a rude awakening: The old locally-run stores that used to be there were gone; all of them. Instead, I saw a sea of corporate stores and a drab interior redesign that belied the more inviting décor you once saw ten to twenty years earlier.
I also saw the beginnings of what’s happening to malls now. Yes, I mean growing empty spaces that once held big name stores. At least a year ago, some other stores were taking over those empty spaces to make a go of business, despite the business climate looking tepid through 2008. Now when you go into any mall in America, chances are you’ll see the haunting sight of half a mall containing empty stores and no one willing to lease them out anytime soon.
It goes without saying that when you’re a business who can’t get any customers because of a worsening economy, trying to pay the rent in a mall is undoubtedly one of the worst hells on earth. Some small, specialized businesses have already moved out of malls for that very reason. But most businesses consistently thrived in malls during their golden era. When malls first started in America back in the late 1950’s, the idea of banking on foot traffic to garner business was an attractive idea that eventually led to the supersize mall by the 70’s. In those environments, it was akin to going into a major metropolis for the day without worrying about being out in inclement weather.
Since I’m a kid of the 70’s and 80’s, those decades were the most exciting to be in a mall, even with a temporary slipshod economy during the mid 1970’s. Yes, I remember even then having some great experiences in my local, average-sized mall. Before they went robotically corporate, many local malls around the United States had enough character to bring in talent to perform there–both of the local variety as well as national.
While perhaps cheesy to think of it today, seeing some legendary movie stars of yore appear at my local mall was a big deal. I remember everybody from Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. to Zsa Zsa Gabor appearing in select malls around the country back then, apparently plugging a product they were endorsing. You’d also see local talent dressed up as a particular character from a Saturday morning TV show handing out fliers to us excited kids for some promotional effort.
Having all that plus the heaven of having junk food courts all around the immediate area (plus the 100% chance you’d run into your schoolmates or other relatives within the crowds) was a true definition of what fun shopping used to be.
No, I never thought I’d hear myself say that being in a place where hundreds of people all around me once gave me a sense of fun. Never being a fan of crowds, it explains why I stayed away from malls for a long while–only to go back a long time later and see changes that appalled me. When you walk a mall today and see only a smattering of customers walking the walkways and big-name stores now vacant, you have to wonder if the mall will survive into the next decade…
Well, perhaps the mall as we know it now will have to join what’s being coined “Dead Malls” that are starting to permeate this great land. Mind you, these dead malls are older structures that were built decades ago. However, you’ll also find remnants of dead malls in parts of old and new malls. Those are called dead wings where you’ll find a floor or isolated area of a functioning mall that have nothing but empty stores. That’s the most typical scenario you’ll see in the average mall today as the economy slowly eats away at retail stores to the point of oblivion.
As an interesting examination of pop culture, a website has been categorizing all these dead malls and dead mall wings on a website called www.deadmalls.com. As an examination of how our culture has slowly changed, it’s fascinating. On the other end are the existing, struggling malls that don’t like the idea their malls are shown on this website with the fear it’ll create stigmas and hence hurt business.
This isn’t stopping the creators of the site from continuing to document this very American concept that might just end up being equivalent to excavating the pyramids of Egypt within a few decades. But when you actually lived through an era when it was thriving and then see it empty–it’s the worst possible feeling you can have, at least to me personally. I can only wager to guess that those of my generation or slightly older who remember the heyday of the mall find it disturbing seeing the state of where the mall is heading of late. One part of me wants to see the corporate structure of the mall go away. Yet the other side says I don’t want to see the mall go completely away either.
When even single store mega malls in the vein of Walmart start to have economic problems, though, you know that the mall is heading toward a real crisis point. Sure, many of the older malls are sometimes refurbished into something useful–usually as office space. But that’s a dreadful turn when seeing those large buildings and vast parking lots being used for people sitting in nightmarish cubicles rather than providing some joy for the American populace.
Once the office starts to devolve as the economy keeps cutting jobs, those mall structures could turn into a lonely cavern select people may have to journey through to be reminded of what used to be during a time when the economy thrived. How many people would willingly walk through those empty corridors when they were actually alive when the mall still thrived would be a bizarre collision of the past and the future.
Only those who aren’t fazed by depressing change would have to be the makeshift archaeologists. Never mind that giant monopolistic behemoth store across the street that carries everything we need…and isn’t necessarily WalMart…