I recently found a pocket of solace and peace in “Dead Mall” videos on Youtube. A guy drives around the country(or maybe just the Midwest) and tours malls showing their architecture, getting into the history of the malls, and the current state of said mall. As you’d guess, the state of most of these malls isn’t very good.
If you’ve been paying attention to the state of commerce and capitalism in general things aren’t booming like they were 20-30 years ago. The mall is one place that’s getting hit pretty hard in-particular. Stores go out of business, then that’s rent and lease money the mall isn’t getting. Pretty soon that once thriving mall is home to a Hobby Lobby, a Spanish church, and an Enzo’s Pizzaria. The rest are empty holes in the walls where commerce used to be.
One mall he hit up caught my eye, the Concord Mall in Elkhart, Indiana. Why? Because that was MY mall. That’s where my mom would take me as a kid for school clothes, tennis shoes, and maybe even an occasional cassette tape from Musicland. The Concord Mall was the place to just escape from the normalcy of our living room. It was a self-contained world where you could buy a winter coat, a Far Side collection, Reebok tennis shoes, the new Dokken album, and X-Rated birthday cards at Spencer Gifts. And hey, when you were done you could hit up the MCL cafeteria for fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Or maybe just some hot pretzels from Hot Sam. Either way, you were leaving with new duds, a birthday card with a cock on the front of it, and a Cherry Coke to go.
The Concord Mall was my first experience with an indoor mall. I can remember going over there on a Friday night with my parents and older brother for winter coats. My brother and I got matching Chicago Bears jackets, and my mom bought me some Shazam slippers. They were actually glorified thick socks with rubber soles on the bottoms of them, but I didn’t care. JC Penney carried them for awhile. I had a Batman pair, a Spiderman pair, and the last ones I ever got were the Shazam ones. I also remember getting a Star Wars lightsaber from Kay-Bee-Toys, too. It was just a black handle with a long plastic blade. The cool thing about it was that you could hold the blade under a light and it would glow for like 10 minutes. My brother and I held it in front of the bathroom lights then headed into his room. He turned off the light and hid and I had to find him. It didn’t take long as his room was small and that lightsaber was pretty damn bright. I hit him with the Jedi’s weapon upside the head and the game was over.
When I got older we started going to the Glennbrook Mall in Fort Wayne. It was a much larger mall with two levels. The center of the mall had an ice-skating rink. This was also where the food court was located, so you could grab some Subway or Burger Chef and watch people fall on their asses on the ice. It was fun.
There were a lot more places to choose from as far as clothes went, and they also had an arcade at Glennbrook Mall where Concord didn’t(though they did have a picture booth-like thing that you could put .25 in it and it would play Tex Avery cartoons.)
Glennbrook was just a big city mall. It had it all, and it was just more tantalizing to a teenager. I remember going on my first date with my wife there when we were juniors in high school. I bought her the sheet music to Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner” and I bought myself The Police’s Outlandos d’Amour. I can remember my mom taking me to buy school clothes right before I went into 7th grade and was convinced a guy at Sears was going to try and kidnap me. I had the front seat in the lying position the whole 45 minute ride home in case he was looking for me(yeah, I was a paranoid kid.) I can also remember taking our oldest to the Glennbrook Mall to ride the giant carousel that sat in the spot that used to be the ice rink. And also taking my own teenagers there to buy them school clothes.
The mall was just this fascinating, self-contained world of commerce and community. It was a lot like high school, too. There were groups you avoided as they looked like kids that would beat you up in the halls of academia. You saw girls walking around giggling and sipping on their sodas and you’d try to impress by acting much cooler than you really were.
It was the first place where you tasted independence, too.
Your mom takes you and a friend shopping and tells you to meet her back at the fountain at 6pm. So for three hours you and your pal are on your own. You’ve got a $20 bill burning a hole in your Levis and you feel like a real man about town. Hit up National Record Mart for some tunes, hit up the food court for some grub, and you hit up Aladdin’s Castle for some serious Konami action. Then you realize you have 2 minutes to get to the fountain that’s at least 6 minutes away. You and your pal sprint through crowds of shoppers and weirdos only to find your mom isn’t at the fountain. You suddenly have a moment of absolute panic and think you’ve been abandoned. Your world starts collapsing around you in a wave of devastation and overwhelming feelings of abandonment. Is there a room with cots where abandoned kids can sleep until a new shopping family decides to adopt you? You know, like the pet shop in the mall? But then you hear a familiar voice. “Where the hell were you two? I’ve been here for ten goddamn minutes!”
You should’ve stayed to finish out that quarter in Castlevania.
The indoor mall is a dying behemoth from a prehistoric period in America: The 80s. The mall was this shining light of America at its glowing best. Stores flourished, people got out, and money kept us all afloat in products and garments. The mall was a place of fiscal wet dreams and economic orgasms. It was the gathering place of teens and bored housewives. Old people got their exercise walking the tiled floors and had coffee in the atrium.
But the dreams went dry and the economic orgasms left because the economy went flaccid and cold. Montgomery Ward, Sears, Carson’s, and Hudsons all went belly up, taking the indoor malls flagship stores with them. What once was shopping meccas turned into mausoleums for the American dream.
Despite the death of the mall, I’ll always have great memories of them. I grew up in malls. I got lost in malls. I bought some great music in malls. And it’s a generational thing, as what I experienced as a kid with my parents my own kids experienced it as well with me. Though, not to the degree of nostalgia that I have. I imagine my kids will never wax ecstatic about arcades, Hot Sam, and Chess King. My son’s best memories of the mall were made watching George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead with me every year. And honestly, I’m pretty okay with that.