Remember the Mall?

Empty Mall

It's surprisingly difficult to explain to people born after the 1980s just how central the local shopping mall was to a community's social and economic life. I remember when social conservatives would lament that nobody went to church anymore, and that malls were the new, secular temples.

Now people still don't go to church, and the malls are just as empty.

As of this writing, the local street gangs are engaged in a turf war to decide who will control the new bowling alley that's going into mall retail space once occupied by a major name brand anchor store. This is serious business. There have been shootings over it.

My hometown mall was one of the largest in the Midwest outside of Chicago when it opened in the 1970s. As kids growing up in the 80s, that meant my friends and I were kind of spoiled. We got two bookstores, two record stores, a two-story pizza place, and an arcade that remained a major social hub until the early 2000s.

That's all gone now. Anything that didn't cater to bored housewives, vapid teenage girls, or stoners disappeared ten years ago. Borders bought out the last bookstore, closed it down, and then went out of business themselves. Best Buy did the same to the video store. They're not dead yet, but online retailers are steadily driving them to the same fate that the big box stores inflicted on the mom & pop outfits.

It might surprise you that young men used to go to malls. They've since been driven out, just like they've been driven from pretty much every public establishment and institution. As is the case with churches, men's clubs, and universities, young men have strategically redeployed to their homes and the internet. Predictably, World of Warcraft and XBox Live finally did for the arcade.

I used to make solo outings to the mall on Saturday afternoons starting in junior high. The odds of running into not just one, but several, friends were good. This trend increased through high school and beyond. The mall wasn't just a place to blow money on SNES carts and comic books. It's where many of us got our first jobs and even worked our way through college, back when you could still do that short of cooking meth. One friend had jobs at so many mall establishments that we took to calling him "Visa".

In the economic as in the social sphere, mall activity revolved around the arcade. Nearly everyone I knew did a tour of duty there. Almost getting electrocuted while working on the World Heroes machine was a local rite of passage.

I never worked there. Instead I manned a large kiosk that sold Christian-themed figurines. The cordless phone's signal was strong enough to receive calls at the arcade, so on occasion I'd head down there with the handset and assure the owners that I was at my post when one of the snitches at the stores near the kiosk informed on me. I'd often be scheduled from open to close on weekends and would connect one of my vintage game consoles to the 13" CRT TV behind the counter to help pass the time.

Was the shopping mall a vulgar monument to crass consumerism? Sure. But it carried on something of the community socialization that goes back to the Roman forum. Now shopping is a solitary affair conducted via smartphone. Video games are likewise played alone or with Korean strangers. As Americans become ever more atomized and isolated, we drift further not just from contact with the transcendent, but from contact with the community as well.

The book reminded me something that I could see Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle writing.


  1. I've been mall walking lately. Of the two malls in the area, one is all fashion aimed at the 18-35 year old demographic. With perhaps 8 stores out of nearly one hundred I'd shop at. The other is much smaller, but I might be interested in about half of the stores there. Both have approximately the same percentage of empty spaces.

    1. Thanks for the report. We've got pretty much the same situation here.

  2. One thing I've noticed is that the last several times I've been to malls, that they're almost completely empty of Americans... but they're not empty. It's just that everyone who goes there is foreign. And it makes the Americans instinctively uncomfortable, making them LESS likely to go there than they otherwise would be.

    It's also frustrating to see that every mall everywhere in America is exactly the same.

    There's really some major renewal needed, but the breakdown of the social aspect of the mall (or even moreso the church) is a serious symptom of what's wrong with America.

  3. The nearest mall to me has the same problems. Used to have books stores, movie and music stores, pet stores, and a nearby arcade. Now it only has clothes stores for women (which shut down every other week and are replaced with the same thing) and empty spaces all over.

    Now the mall wasn't a shining beacon of community or anything, but it at least was something. You could go there and meet others, interact.

    Where is the center for community interaction now? Will there even be one left in a decade? As trust decays and we all go to our little corners, I can't imagine anything good will come from it.

    Alienation and lack of trust is already a problem now in many places. It will become an epidemic at this rate.

    1. My question to you: is low trust a symptom of community disintegration, or is community disintegration a result of low trust?

    2. That is a good question.

      I would have to say that low trust came first. Much of it spearheaded by those in power, the media, and schools. Hippie Boomers and their "Don't trust anyone over thirty" rhetoric along with their hatred of traditional values contributed immensely. They deliberately destroyed what was built up, and everything else crumbled with it.

      I'd like to believe this will turn around, but not with the way things are now. Not without any shared trust or values to build on.

  4. They literally just tore down the largest mall in town - what was once probably the largest mall in Alabama north of Birmingham.

    A large portion of the problem is the merger, acquisition, and bankruptcy spree that's happened since the 80s. For instance, there aren't two record store chains left to have two record stores in the mall anymore.

    1. Exactly. The same thing happened here. Our two music stores merged. Than Best Buy bought them out and shut them down.

  5. I had just been thinking about this topic. My daughter and her friends do occasionally go to the local mall to shop...but it is not thw wonderland it was to us.

    I get that boys may be home playing video games,but where do all the young girls go now?

  6. I've also noticed that, as restaurants in malls were replaced by food courts, the malls began to decline. Growing up in El Paso, TX, I recall spending weekday evenings (after school or after work) just browsing the stores, particularly B. Dalton Bookseller and Waldenbooks, then going for drinks and snacks, or even dinner, at Chelsea Street Pub, Putney's, or El Bandido. I can't stand food courts! I avoid malls as much as possible!

    1. Yep. We had the same two bookstores. Our mall didn't have an actual food court until a few years ago. You may be onto something.

  7. Brian

    I live in a country that's suffering similarly. First,the govt (which owns about 80% of the land) and is also the largest landlord overbuilt too many shopping centres. To compete with dubai ( I kid you not)

    Second as a result the stores are the same I mean the exact same stores in just about every mall.
    Third, the result is a bland sameness of products with barely any sales or discounts because the rent is horrendous.

    What I see is a reversion to the past but with pop up stores and pickup points for online purchases throughout neighborhoods. But no mom and pop stores because the rent is prohibitive


  8. Huh, the mall near where I live is frequently crowded. Hard to find parking at times during the after work hours.

  9. That mall image... is that rolling acres in akron OH?

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