Ty Matejowsky / February 9, 2022
By now, dead shopping malls are as much a part of the popular imagination as they are blighted fixtures of suburban landscapes: sprawling vestiges of a bygone era when droves of consumers flocked to self-contained hubs of retail commerce, embracing late stage capitalism’s aspirational promises, seeking distraction from the inertia of edge-city ennui. Today, abandoned shopping malls haunt spaces of modernity in ways both real and notional, leaving baby boomers and Gen-Xers to confront varying levels of nostalgia and angst as memories of frequenting the enclosed facilities during their halcyon heyday collide with the stark realities of their prolonged and seemingly irreversible decline.
Doubtless, part of the sentimentality surrounding this emergent “mallstalgia” is the conspicuous foregrounding of multi-tier shopping centers in recent popular culture, including Stranger Things Season 3 (2019) and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020). Such depictions—what with their gleaming chrome surfaces, pastel-tinged aesthetics, and requisite new wave needle-drops—exert an outsized influence over how we (mis)remember indoor malls, never mind the commercial primacy and unique subcultures (e.g., mall rats, mall walkers) they once engendered. Amid such vivid renderings, it’s instructive to revisit contemporaneous accounts of mall life published at the height of their 1980s popularity, if for no other reason than to avoid overly romanticizing or essentializing these prevailing generational touchstones.
Notable among these is sociologist Jerry Jacobs’s slender 1984 monograph The Mall: An Attempted Escape from Everyday Life, which makes for some curious if occasionally vexing reading nearly 40 years after its initial publication. Boasting perhaps the least inspiring cover image of all time—a blurry black and white photo of a giant concrete planter sitting amid the half-shadows of a nondescript mall interior—the book came out as part of Waveland Press’s Case Studies, a multivolume academic series familiar to most ‘70s and ‘80s anthropology students.
In The Mall, Jacobs trades the indigenous societies and far-flung research locales of his series peers for the apparently pseudonymous Oldtown Shoptime Mall, an L-shaped, 750,000 square foot retail venue built in 1975, housing some 115 individual stores, and presumably located in upstate New York near his home institution of Syracuse University. Like most other early ‘80s malls, the Oldtown featured a healthy mix of retail and entertainment offerings: video arcades, banks, restaurants, department stores, and specialty shops selling jewelry, music, shoes, men’s/women’s/children’s apparel, sporting goods, books, greeting cards, and gifts. Local teenagers, housewives, and retirees are among those Jacobs identifies as frequent mall-goers, their comings and goings overseen by management staff and minimum wage-earning security guards.
Jacobs’s stated aim is to present “a documentary and ethnographic study of shopping malls in the United States and their profound influence on transforming our urban and suburban landscapes.” He largely achieves this objective when discussing things like tenant composition, mall security measures, and crime statistics (it is employees and not shoplifters who inflict the most “shrinkage,” or store inventory losses). More effective is when he documents the attitudes and behaviors of mall denizens, capturing in sometimes granular detail the ephemera of their casual conversations and social interactions. To wit, Jacobs records some bored high schoolers detailing what they find “weird” in other mall guests (“people who do their hair weird, wear dumb clothes, or wear ‘high waters’”).
Less productive are Jacobs’s attempts to situate his findings within established theoretical concepts. For example, he argues that the social life of shopping malls approaches Durkheim’s “society of saints.” That is, since “nothing unusual is happening” at malls, any untoward teenage or adult behavior, however slight, is unduly magnified and labeled deviant. Unlike the aberrant behavior that he associates with downtown business districts and their various “stigmatized persons” (“vagrants, drunks, prostitutes, street people, ex-mental patients, the retarded, or many blacks and ethnics”), the threshold for appropriate shopping mall behavior is so high, according to Jacobs, that any misstep can invite serious reprimand or sanction.
He further critiques malls by arguing that those frequenting them indulge in what he terms a “shrinking world,” a place where people seek out “a wide range of diversions, e.g., T.V., video games, the ‘walkman’ craze, alcohol, drugs, transcendental meditation, mental illness, art, science or rubic [sic] cubes” to avoid interpersonal interactions and escape the tedium of everyday life. For Jacobs, shopping malls remain places where the tacit promises of social transcendence and personal gratification ultimately go unfulfilled. If these assertions seem a bit tentative or lacking rigor, then readers had best brace themselves for the gratuitous editorializing and anecdotal asides that Jacobs deploys throughout The Mall. The book is chock full of strange digressions that only tangentially relate to its stated research aims.
For instance, when theorizing why shopping malls lack adequate restrooms, Jacobs suggests that they not only serve as potential sites of “crime against persons” but also “other sorts of offences such as ‘tea room trades’ (casual homosexual activities in public restrooms),” adding, inexplicably, that “the author [Jacobs] inadvertently blundered in on a situation of this sort in the restroom of an upper-class department store that anchored one end of a large shopping mall in Northern California.” Similarly, he devotes considerable pages to the perceived socio-psychological effects of coin-operated arcade machines on impressionable ‘80s youth. When addressing the future implications of adolescents spending so much time in mall arcades, Jacobs assumes the moral panic posturing of then U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, who said in 1982: “Their body language is tremendous and everything is Zap the enemy. There’s nothing constructive in the video games.” As if to further challenge the legitimacy of video games, Jacobs then relates how an Oldtown Shoptime Mall arcade was moved from its original location near a mall entrance to a less accessible area within the shopping center’s basement owing to the actions and threatening presence of “lower class black and white teenagers,” “dope dealers,” and other “undesirables.”
Such finger-wagging gives way to hyperbole and heavy-handedness in the book’s final section. Here, Jacobs drops any pretense at understatement, arguing, for example, that the “promised safety, comfort, and entertainment” of malls are on a “scale [that] has not been seen since the court at Versailles.” No less excessive is the book’s curveball ending. On the last two pages Jacobs warns against seeking escape in things like shopping malls by abruptly recounting the tragic 1983 news story of a 13-year-old California boy who killed himself after his father removed a bedroom television to prevent him from binging soap operas.
So, what to make of this obscure bit of academic ephemera? How should 21st century readers approach what is arguably the first in-depth account of American mall culture compiled by a social scientist, never mind one that inexplicably ends with a teen suicide note. Does this flawed account of a once novel topic of ethnographic inquiry add any new dimension or counterweight to the generalized and deepening nostalgia gaining currency nowadays across popular culture? In considering such questions, it may prove useful to juxtapose this on-the-ground snapshot of early ‘80s mall life with another critique of American modernity, one also suffused with an underlying sense of dread that showcases the ultimate emptiness of Reagan-era consumerism and media information overload. That is to say, The Mall can and maybe should be read as an addendum or companion piece to Don DeLillo’s darkly comic novel White Noise (1985), the story of Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney and his fourth wife Babette searching for meaning amid a stitched-together family of children from previous marriages, a drug that suppresses the fear of death (Dylar), and an “airborne toxic event” that completely upends their middle-class existence.
A central setting of White Noise—a book itself with no shortage of digressions and seemingly pointless anecdotes—is the ten-story Mid-Village Mall (“a vast shopping center out on the interstate”) where, encouraged by his wife and (step)children, Jack spends an evening roaming fugue-like from store to store buying stuff he doesn’t need, and then driving home in contemplative silence. So immense is the Mid-Village Mall, in fact, that an elderly couple gets lost for two days among its vaulted interior spaces, eventually taking refuge in “an abandoned cookie shack,” before finally being discovered “alive but shaken.” As a sociological primer for the themes DeLillo more trenchantly explores in White Noise, The Mall provides some real-life observations grounded in ethnographic fieldwork. Read together, these nearly 40-year-old books work to demystify some of the idealized trappings retroactively projected onto enclosed shopping centers. More readily, they emphasize inchoate or latent existentialism characterizing mall-going at the height of its ‘80s popularity, as well as the gaping void that persists within so much of our consumerist lifestyle. Jacobs’s The Mall hints at many of the same issues as White Noise, now considered among DeLillo’s most popular and enduring works, albeit with much less eloquence and intentional humor, perhaps leaving some to ponder just how this curious retail ethnography got greenlighted, much less published.
Either way, the malls that Jacobs and DeLillo variously documented in the 1980s no longer wield the same cultural cachet they once did. As resonant reminders of time’s forward lurch and the impermanence of all things once ascendant, the ubiquity of dead shopping malls—analogous to “ghost” or “zombie” malls, which still operate but at much diminished capacity, scattered with mom and pop vape shops and nail salons—elicits visceral pangs of wistfulness even as Amazon buys them up to serve as massive fulfillment centers.