Chapter 1: America Shops
We're driving toward the mall.
I spend a lot of time in malls. Too much, I think. I daydream of life on a ranch out west where I'd go to Wal-Mart every two weeks for groceries, and that would be it for me and shopping.
It will never happen.
You are riding with a tall, bald, stuttering research wonk on the cusp of his fifty-third year. I am called a retail anthropologist, which makes me uncomfortable, especially around my colleagues still in academia who have many more degrees than I do. For whatever combination of reasons, I've spent my adult life studying people shopping. I watch how they move through stores and other commercial environments restaurants, banks, fast-food joints, movie theaters, car dealerships, the post office, concert halls. Even in church, I study people. It is an odd skill, not one I would have sought. Yet I am good at it, and it pays the bills. I can't imagine not doing it.
I am definitely not a shopper. I don't own lots of stuff. When I do buy, in spite of whatever professional knowledge I have, I perform like an ordinary guy.
I own a research and consulting business called Envirosell. We work with merchants, marketers, and retail bankers around the world. Our specialty is looking at the interaction between people and products, and people and spaces. We look at all the ways in which retailers, product manufacturers, bankers, restaurateurs, and commercial and other public spaces either meet (or fail to meet) their customers' needs. It is a niche business, but it's our niche. We've been doing it for almost twenty years.
Our home office is in a funky landmark building, a former hotel, in New York City, in the middle of what was the department store district at the turn of the nineteenth century. We have an old-fashioned manual elevator run by a guy named Billy. The company occupies the hotel's second-floor lobby. I sit in the old manager's office, which has a gas fireplace I have never used. My south-facing windows look out onto what was once a Lord & Taylor store. It's now a shop that sells fancy dishes. We also have offices in Milan, São Paolo, Mexico City, Tokyo, Moscow, and Istanbul.
We have done hundreds of research jobs in mall stores. There are only six states of the fifty where we haven't worked a mall (the Dakotas, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, and Louisiana). I average 130 days a year away from home, nearly all of which are spent in retail settings. I have been inside about three hundred North American malls, and some in other countries Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, France, Spain, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Britain, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, Australia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong; the list goes on and on. If someone mentions a mall somewhere in the United States the Galleria in Houston, say, or the Del Amo in L.A. I can picture the place, whether I want to or not. There are more than one hundred American malls to which I could give you accurate driving directions off the top of my head. I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed.
Okay, look around.
We're getting close to the mall, but you'd never know it. There are no directional signs anywhere on this highway, as there might be if we were headed toward Disney World or New York City or some other destination. The mall itself isn't a looming, dominating presence, even on this flat suburban landscape. We're just about to pass the only marker, a smallish road sign directing us to our exit, but beyond that there's nothing to steer us toward the mall, no attempt to inspire an impulse purchase, no billboard aimed at the road-weary traveler with an hour or two to kill. A mall is a huge commercial entity, but it tends to appeal strictly to the local shopper, the one who is already familiar with it and what it has to offer.
It's our mall. Maybe you have a mall, too.
You see a lot of a community's life in its mall. Families especially tend not to be on display in very many public spaces nowadays. You can find people in places of worship, but they tend to be on their best behavior, and they're mostly just standing or sitting. Increasingly, cities are becoming the province of the rich, the childless, or the poor. I love cities. But America hasn't lived there for a long time. The retail arena is still the best place I know for seeing what people wear and eat and look like, how they interact with their parents and friends and lovers and kids. If you really want to observe entire middle-class multigenerational American families, you have to go to the mall.
It's also not a bad place to shop.
A French historian I like named Daniel Roche wrote a book called A History of Everyday Things. In it, he examines and reconstructs the lives not of kings, queens, and generals but of ordinary French people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries what they ate, what they wore, what they knew, and how they acquired what knowledge and possessions they had. In the spirit of Daniel Roche, this book is not about the official history of shopping malls and the tycoons who build and manage them. This is about malls, stores, and parking lots as experienced by us consumers.
Studying shopping provides the rhythm that governs my life pack, leave home, fly somewhere, pick up a rental car, check into a hotel, then drive to a mall or store. For myself and my colleagues, it's a life of science and research, except instead of going to an excavation site in Peru, we end up at Tyson's Corner, a mall outside Washington, D.C. It's an unusual way to make a living, and an even odder way of experiencing and understanding a time and place.
On the other hand, I never run out of socks.
The job has become a habit. If I have two hours to kill before a flight out of Dallas, I'll visit the Irving Mall or Outdoor World on my way to the airport. I don't know what I expect to find; but like any research geek, I'm constantly on the lookout for something I haven't seen before some innovation in digital signage, or a new sneaker style, or an interesting way to manage the line at the cash register. If I'm on vacation and get bored with the beach, I'll find the nearest mall and spend an afternoon there. It's not such a weird thing to do. If I said I enjoy a stroll along Madison Avenue in Manhattan, where Armani and Calvin and Donna Karan sit cheek by jowl, you'd understand. Doing it at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles or Bluewater outside London isn't so different.
I remember the first big research project my company landed, studying AT&T stores in two suburban Chicago malls. Back then it was just me and a few freelance researchers out in the field. Over a four-month period, we studied several incarnations of the same basic store, which meant I practically lived in those malls. I'd arrive at the telephone store and arrange the time-lapse cameras to watch how shoppers interacted with the merchandise and displays. The film cassettes had to be changed every two hours, so I couldn't stray too far, but unlike my researchers, I didn't have to remain inside the store. Moreover, I felt it was my responsibility not to appear in my own research footage. As a result, I spent many days roaming those malls from ten a.m. to ten p.m. without a single productive thing to do except change film. I went into every store. I didn't buy much, but I saw a lot.
My fascination with stores is rooted in childhood. My father was a diplomat. As an offshore American raised in Third World nations and behind the Iron Curtain, my national identity was secondhand and based heavily on the Sears catalog. But to those around me, I was all-American. Sometimes I paid the price, like when I was beaten up on the street in Warsaw after the Bay of Pigs in 1961, or when rocks were thrown at our car in Seoul. When the kids in the British Army School I attended in Malaya chose sides for playground games, it often wound up as the few Americans against the rest of the world.
Still, to me America was always a far-off, mystical place, familiar yet completely exotic and fascinating. I wanted to feel connected to it, even long distance. When we'd return briefly to the States, I'd look at what the other kids were wearing, or playing with, or watching on TV, and realize how hopelessly out of it I was. It was painful to ask my grandmother to send me rock records, knowing that what she'd get would be awful, given her preference for Lawrence Welk. In Kuala Lumpur in 1963 there was no American Bandstand on TV, no T-shirts or lunch boxes. I was in cultural exile. My friend Steve was a little older than I and listened to a radio station he picked up from Bangkok. Thanks to him I knew that the Beatles existed, but that was about it.
Even today, that early cultural deprivation haunts my life. I am no good at the board game Trivial Pursuit, having missed too many cultural references from the 1960s and 1970s. I've had friends try to explain to me what was so hilarious about Rocky and Bullwinkle, or who the Waltons were, and why girls who favor Laura Ashley always liked Little House on the Prairie. I still don't get it.
Having gone from life abroad to living in downtown Manhattan, the shopping center was still an exotic locale, something I'd heard about but had little real exposure to. It's where, for the first time, I felt completely swallowed up inside white-bread middlebrow median-income America. It wasn't bad at all. I suddenly understood those 1980s émigrés from the Soviet Union who would come to this country and cry tears of joy over the splendor they found in the produce aisle of an average supermarket. At last I found what seemed to be the real America, and it was out shopping.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was stranded in Dallas, unable to get home, which is a twenty-minute walk from what was the World Trade Center. On September 12 I spent the day wandering around the new mall in Plano, Texas. I just gravitated there. I needed to be around something familiar. It was the eeriest thing, though a sparkling mall, in the middle of a beautiful September afternoon, with all the stores open and not a single shopper in the place. Around one-thirty I walked into a RadioShack and asked the clerk, "Am I the first person you've had in here today?"
"Yup," he said.
Strolling around got too lonely, so I decided to see a movie. I was just in time for Tortilla Soup. I was the only person in the theater. They screened it for me anyway. After the show I returned to my hotel, but I still had lots of time on my hands, so a few hours later I drove back to one of the mall's restaurants for dinner.
I was the only customer, but by the end of my meal the manager and the waiter had joined me at my table, and we three sat around drinking and talking, just the same as many people across the United States did that night. It felt all right to be doing it in a mall.
As I said before, I've devoted a lot of my life to malls, and in a few minutes we'll begin spending another Saturday in a typical one. We'll have lots of company.
Look up ahead you still can't see it, but take my word, we're almost there.
Copyright © 2004 by YOBOW, INC.
Are we really going to spend an entire book inside a mall?
Yes, we are.
It's not as though studying people as they congregate to buy and sell things is a totally frivolous or small-minded endeavor. Consider the history of our species, a fair swath of which has been propelled by merchants or their emissaries traveling to the far reaches of the planet, sometimes at great risk, in order to bring back stuff to peddle to the rest of us. As any schoolchild can testify, the romance of the ancient world teems with spice routes and trade winds and trafficking in silks and precious metals, frankincense and myrrh, gunpowder and fur. Theoretically, we could all grow our own food and make our own clothes and build our own houses. But it would be boring. So let's agree that the saga of humankind can be told at least in part through the story of shopping.
Surely, then, you'll concur that the sites of so much significant social activity might be worth a look now and then? We tend to think of the mall as a recent, primarily American phenomenon, and a rather banal one at that, born of demographic convenience we all bought cars and moved to the 'burbs rather than any profound change in who or what we are. But the mall has been with us always, under other names and in somewhat different forms. Virtually since the dawn of civilization, we have organized our world in part around the function of shopping. Even the simplest agrarian societies needed places to assemble to trade in goods, and from that basic impulse came everything else marketplaces, villages, towns, cities. The mall is, at heart, just an ancient organizing principle that hasn't yet outlived its usefulness. Perhaps it never will.
But it's also easy to forget how recent the enclosed regional shopping mall is, maybe because it has so quickly become such a mainstay of American life. The first one popped up (in Edina, Minnesota) a mere seven decades ago, and now malls are the dominant arena of American shopping, which is itself an economic force the likes of which the world has never known. Without even meaning to, the mall has transformed our country, and not always for the good. For one thing, it drew shoppers away from vulnerable towns and big cities, and when that happened, decline usually set in. But there's no guarantee that malls will be with us forever. In fact, some evidence points to just the opposite outcome.
What's that, you say? You're okay with shopping but not with the mall? A common condition. Many otherwise fair-minded, intelligent people scorn and despise malls. Some still end up shopping in them on a regular basis. But they're not proud of it. You of this opinion may not be swayed by arguments of how the mall is a contemporary version of the souks, bazaars, arcades, bourses, and markets of olden days. But by studying the mall and what goes on there, we can learn quite a lot about ourselves about the state of the nation and its inhabitants from a variety of perspectives: economic, aesthetic, geographic, spiritual, emotional, psychological, sartorial.
I might agree with those who say that some of the adventure and romance associated with trading has been lost along the way. Somehow, the glorious history of commerce has culminated in a sanitized architectural clichè in which you typically find not exquisite treasures and exotic wares but rather eighty different styles of sneaker or sixteen varieties of chocolate chip cookie. No wonder we look at the mall at the ambition of it, at the reality, at that already obese teenager stuffing her jaw with a drooling Cinnabon and we can't help but wonder: Is this the best we could do?
It's no surprise that the mall is such an easy target for American self-loathing in particular. It's a lot like television in that way: another totally fake environment that attempts to pass itself off as a true reflection of who we are and what we want. We disdain it, and yet we can't stop watching. Or shopping. Once in a while, TV fulfills its highest calling when a man first lands on the moon, say, or during the Watergate hearings. But most of the time it contents itself with reruns of Three's Company and infomercials for the home rotisserie.
It's the same with the mall. It could be much better more vivid, intelligent, adventurous, entertaining, imaginative, alive with the human quest for art and beauty and truth. But it's not.
It's the mall.
Copyright © 2004 by YOBOW, INC.