Shopping Mauled: Revisiting ‘The Mall: An Attempted Escape from Everyday Life’

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

Ty Matejowsky is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  He is a Libra who enjoys sunsets and long walks on the beach.
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3 thoughts on “Shopping Mauled: Revisiting ‘The Mall: An Attempted Escape from Everyday Life’

  1. Very interesting article. I’m tempted to track down a copy of this (they are cheap on Amazon), maybe I’ll resist my urge for once. Related, I just watched a pretty good documentary on dying malls, called “Jasper Mall.” Worth checking out as a snapshot of a mall right before the pandemic (which only made their struggles worse)

  2. That directory you have in this article is from my local mall. A few years after, they expanded the area by the food court into a smaller new wing anchored by a Mervyn’s (later a Steve and Barry’s and now a movie theater). The Montgomery Ward is now a vacant Younkers, Hudson’s, a vacant Macy’s. The only anchor left is the JCPenney.

  3. This was very interesting. I’m not sure I will read this book but I think the ascent/descent of American Shopping Malls will continue through books and documentaries. They rose up and displaced most small town shopping districts or main streets and now have been replaced by online corporate shopping Amazon and also box stores like Wal-Mart and Target online as well. Many large American suburban malls are part of American culture via TV and Film–notably in film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High first jumps to my mind. Growing up in a small town, the nearest mall we visited was in the city in Downtown Boston/The Corner Mall and is now been repurposed to office space, although the food court survives. The first suburban mall I recall was MeadowGlen in Medford, MA, anchored by a Marshall’s, all one floor but had the small stores, the open play area/fountain and a pet shop. It is gone replaced by a large Wegman’s supermarket although I think the Marshall’s is still there. The first multi-tiered floor malls I visited were in Long Island New York and then in New Jersey during college/university. Both were large and for me hard to navigate–I could never quite follow the conversations about the advantages of one mall v. another–I sometimes asked if someone went to the wrong mall by mistake–realizing the one (chain) store was not at that specific shopping mall? Everyone laughed and said that would never happen. In New Jersey, with my ex I saw part of the Berlin Wall on display at their local mall with huge reindeers hanging from the rafters — that is where I understood essays I previously had read about malls being both economic and (I guess) social town squares. For the record, I got down on the floor, and had my ex’s little brother as well so we could gaze up at the Wall like folks who tried to climb it did. Urban malls are definitely different that the large suburban/multi floor malls–they seem in Boston to be morphing into these mall-shopping districts, with large high rise apartments tucked between, stores, restaurants, gyms, dental offices, on the ground floors, or adjacent, etc. Assembly Row is actually a good example and re-imaging and expanding of a failed suburban indoor mall (Assembly Square, also was one story very similar to Meadow Glenn but larger one floor), as well as our Fenway and Seaport neighborhoods as well–they strike me as more like shopping districts than neighborhoods. It makes me recall an old essay I read back in high school/college, late 1980’s early 1990’s about how malls would have adjacent housing and amenities like gyms and it’s happened now, but not quite in the same form as was predicted.

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