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Who Still Hangs Out at the Mall?

America's once vibrant shopping centers are in decline, but people still come for the cinnamon pretzels and weird massage gadgets.

by Erin Meisenzahl-Peace
Dec 22 2014, 1:30pm

Malls have been symbols of a certain kind of surreal suburban America for so long that they seem like permanent features of the landscape. But the truth is they're dying out, and it's not hard to imagine that in a couple generations malls will be just another IRL institution killed by the internet.

Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen ushered in the era of the mall in 1956 with the opening of the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota. His idea was to enclose all the places we like to shop into one convenient building at the heart of town, with a confusing layout intended to distract shoppers from their original goals and get them to hang out and socialize with each other. Thanks to changes in the depreciation tax enacted by Congress in 1954, investing in massive shopping centers became potentially more lucrative than playing the stock market, and between 1950 and 2005, more than 1,500 malls opened up in the US.

American malls have hit hard times in the past decade, however. This is likely due to the rise of the online shopping and the fact that teenagers are spending more time in virtual spaces, where they can sext and play video games, and less time loitering around food courts. A new mall hasn't been built in the US since 2006 and only 1,000 malls are still standing today. Many of these old symbols of commercialism are being converted into bowling alleys and storage facilities, others are just left to rot in disarray. It's gotten so bad, there's even a website dedicated to writing the obituaries of malls.

But is the age of the shopping mall really over? I wanted to find out. So I went to Oaks Mall in Gainesville, Florida. Oaks Mall was built in 1978, and in 1984, the Ocala Star Banner called it the "major retail center for North Central Florida," estimating it had brought in more than $50 million in sales and was employing more than 800 Floridians. Today, the lines aren't as long as they were back then, the parking lots aren't as full, and the shops aren't as bountiful. Recently the mall has seen the closing of major stores that have been struggling nationwide, like Abercrombie & Fitch, Cold Water Creek, and Ann Taylor.

To figure who still shops at American malls and why, I approached some customers at Oak Mills and asked them a few questions.

I found University of Florida dining hall cook Timmie Perry sifting through a mass of mini fuchsia shirts and sequined skirts with his wife, Takoma Ross, at Sears. The recently married couple was shopping for a dress for their daughter's second birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's—which, yes, also still exists.

I caught "40-something" Sabrina Jones and her camera-shy teenage daughter on their way out of the mall. "I haven't been to the mall in a long time," she told me. "I only come to Sears to buy Craftsman.

"I love Craftsman," she added. "You know what I love about Craftsman? They let me return my Craftsman rake three times."

She said "Craftsman" about five more times before I was able to ask her why she didn't just order from the tool company online. "Shipping," she said.

"When we come to the mall, we come to get something to eat," Marchieta Lyons, 18, told me. Lyons and her sister regularly ride the bus for at least 20 minutes for the sole purpose of getting either a Cinnabon cinnamon roll or a pretzel. "They have a cinnamon pretzel with caramel," she said. "The pretzels here are so good."

"We're just here to charge our phones," said Caleb Smith, 19, as he people-watched next to Marchieta's little sister at a charging station in the food court. The Ohio native said he's been "everywhere," but prefers Gainesville because of "the people"—like the Lyons sisters, who he became fast friends with.

"I was in the Army," Caleb told me, "but I didn't make it through basic [training]." So now he just hangs out at the mall, chatting up girls like Marchieta and then taking the bus back home.

I met Delray Beach native Jessica Torres as she rode a large, rechargeable rhinoceros named Roxx around her kiosk, Carter's Zooland. "He's super metal," she said as she straddled the toy. Torres's main job is to attract kids to take the electric animals, like the pink mouse or blue cat, out for a spin around the mall. Lack of business, however, means she spends most of her shift riding them herself.

And then I met James Williams, a former community college basketball player and Palatka, Florida, native, who was resting on a couch. "I was looking for shoes... But then I got tired of walking around," he said.

He told me never comes to the mall. But if he has to, it's for Jordan 1s or Foamposites. "House of Hoops is the best thing to happen to this mall," he said.

This is Justin "J-Money" Harris, who runs one of those annoying kiosks in the center of the mall. He peddles weird little electrical massagers. He's got a kiosk in nearly every mall in Florida

I asked him why he was swooping into the malls of suburbia just as they seemed to be taking their last breath. He admitted things were slow, but "[besides shopping,] there's no other activity for people."

Since he doesn't get much business, he often passes the time testing out his "palm massagers" on himself.

Ironically, if Gruen were around to see the fading American shopping centers like Oaks Mall, he would be happy that they have started to fall out of fashion. The socialist architect saw the rapid proliferation of malls and their massive size as fundamentally divergent to his lofty dreams of saving urban civilization. Gruen's original concept of the mall involved setting land aside for community functions and facilitating social interaction. Instead, the mall became an embodiment of the sprawl and our unending desire to consume. Towards the end of his life, Gruen described them as "gigantic shopping machines" and "land-wasting seas of parking."

Compared to the horror stories I've heard about other malls across the county, Oaks Mall doesn't seem like it has it the worst. There were a few people actually roaming around and browsing stores. However, considering all the employees I met complained of not having customers and the only thing that got the younger customers excited about the mall was its Cinnabons, it's safe to say that Oak Mills is on a slow and quiet decline. Someday in the not-too-distant future, it will become another of the country's numerous "ghostboxes" that are too expensive to tear down but not lucrative enough to actually use. For now, though, it's here in case anyone wants to buy a rake or a palm massager.

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Oak Mills
Victor Gruen