Strictly business: Let’s go to the mall, you guys

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

Published:

 

Brooks Johnson

I used to know everyone at the mall — the girls at Orange Julius and the Mrs. Fields cookie shop, the arcade attendants, the Moxie Java baristas. Like many American teenagers in a middle-size city in the middle of the country, I considered the mall a second home for a while, and those people were family.

So when I visited Vancouver Mall on Thursday to see how Gold’s Gym and H&M were coming along, that uncanny sense of belonging crept up again. Of course, I’m 1,500 miles and more than a decade removed from my mall rat days in Fargo, N.D., but malls come in pretty reliable shapes and colors. My shopping habits changed but the feelings never did.

In those days I spent very little but found an appreciation for the normative aesthetic I still find solace in today. I’ve spent countless hours under the high ceilings that reflect the glow of a half-mile of storefronts off the clean tile floors. I watched as a local department store made way for a Macy’s, as coffee shops became coffee chains, as the food court became a place to be more than a place to eat.

Today I have a more nuanced view about the mall. It’s more than a place to hang out — though it still is, as well it should be. It’s an all-American economic engine. A climate-controlled flag over our mastery of nature. A place to go when there’s no place else to go.

The mall is one of the last elements of our fractionated culture that is multigenerational, since malls have been around for so long and try to appeal so broadly. We all know what a mall is. We all know what to find there. It’s important because it just is.

Malls are a perfect complement to the car-driven suburban planning model but perfectly at odds with efforts to shop local and revitalize downtowns. A mall is the epitome of American consumerism — choice, convenience and culture — and a mall’s ability to withstand economic and technological disruption is all the more testament to that.

In Joan Didion’s 1975 essay “On the Mall,” she found herself wanting to build a mall, that “perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal.” Would her mall still be standing in the face of online shopping and a crumbling facade of inclusivity today? Even 40 years on, the business model has adapted but remains fundamentally the same.

“One thing you will note about shopping-center theory is that you could have thought of it yourself, and a course in it will go a long way toward dispelling the notion that business proceeds from mysteries too recondite for you and me,” Didion wrote.

I take that to mean the customer is always right: We vote with our money, and the front-runner is usually something with plenty of parking and maybe a fountain or two. Up go the malls.

I tend to be more urban-minded, so I’ll pay for parking, walk an extra block and brave the rain to help grow the city from the inside.

But sometimes you just have to go to the mall, man.

On the drive from Vancouver Mall back to the newsroom on Thursday I decided I’m part of that club too, like it or not. So I blasted some Taylor Swift and sang along: “We never go out of style.”