Mall Culture

A classic post from the archives reprinted for new and long-time readers alike.


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. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but the last few times I've made my way into a mall for any reason, I was shocked at how thoroughly they've been taken over by foreigners. Americans don't go to the mall anymore. I don't know if this is a cause or an effect of what you're describing, but for whatever reason, they've become hostile territory to Heritage America.

    1. I noticed that visiting a mall in a nearby major city myself a while back. Recorded a video on the subject: We live as a conquered people.

    2. Not just major cities, even small cities. My city is around 100,000 people and my wife refuses to go to the mall because of the hoodlums, metizos and muzzies.

  2. I covered this topic, too.


    It's funny how controversial the mall was considered. Sure it was just the modernized version of the town square, but without a functioning church community it was the only thing most kids ever got. Now that it leaving with nothing to replace it communities will just splinter and fracture more and more.

    The malls closest to me are all shells of their former selves. All the book, music, and game stores are gone. The loss of arcades was a true disappointment.

    Now it just looks like the 21st century feels: broken, dirty, and empty.

    1. There's a whole lot of little town squares and main streets just as woebegone and forsaken as the malls, and some of those that are still alive are kept alive by the fact that they're county seats. Without those courthouse squares, established decades ago when travel and communication both were slower and more complicated, little places like that might dry up and blow away, too.

  3. I was trying to relate to my kids the other day just how busy our local mall used to be.

    It's hanging on by a thread now. The Dick's Sporting Goods, Planet Fitness and target keep it afloat. But the mall between those stores can seem like a wasteland. Empty stores and endless low quality gift stores.

    The gift stores remind my of the growth pattern of a forest. When the big stores die like trees, smaller stores of lesser quality grow up in their place.

    Back in the day, malls were hubs of teeny bopper 'Relationships'. Get dropped off or ride the bike. "Dinner" and a movie, dinner being a food court movie, or if you had real cash to spend, go to the actual sit down restaurant, which in ours was a Ground Round. I don't even know if they exist anymore.

    Do kids even date anymore? I don't know. Mine are too young for that scene. I shudder at what is to come.

    But man, the crowds at a mall on the weekends...nuts. And at Christmas time? Holy crap. My kids can't even picture it on the occasions we go to the mall for haircuts.

    1. Urban exploring became a fad on YouTube a while back. It consisted of videos wherein a couple of kids with cameras would poke around abandoned old hotels, schools, and the like.

      There's a whole subgenre of dying mall exploration.

  4. Emmett,

    Your observation that lesser quality stores take over from the dead anchors is confirmed where my parents live in Canada.
    The shopping centre was the regional hub. So in the 80s up until the demise of Eatons it was the go to place. It was vibrant. So much so, they created another extension on the other side.
    When Eaton's disappeared, the shopping centre took awhile to recover but the decline was becoming apparent.
    It got worse when Zeller's and then Target went down.
    I haven't been there since the demise of Sears but it must be catastrophic because it occupied the west side of the shopping centre.
    I have noticed that driving schools, skateboarders and radio controlled car drivers will use the empty spaces.

    Finally, there are several smaller niche shopping centres within a 1 km radius from my parents' house. They offer an alternative selection of stuff. Most store are also online purchase pick up places


  5. A few years back I was reading... perhaps in The Economist... about China "exporting low inflation to the world". Consider this sketch of a formulation: globalization has been turned into a very fixed and effective scheme for taking money off the lower working class and lower middle class and giving it to the financial and multinational corporate class.
    This demands that people move more and more of their consumption to the cheapest possible imports.
    The cheapest POSSIBLE imports now, as opposed to the 90's, are direct import. The Mall was supported for as long as those stores were a necessary middleman. Now it's an inefficient and unwanted middleman.

    Also, there was a lot of fat to metabolize (via these import and sell stores, which they ALL were) off the original corpse of the Western economies. A flurry of apparent wealth and a vibrant, abundant bazaar as a result. But that's over.

    1. I hadn't heard that theory of the macroeconomics behind the mall's collapse. Intriguing.