The silent mall

Fifty years ago, economists and bankers predicted that we were on the verge of becoming a society that would buy and sell things with little plastic cards instead of cash. They were right.

Shopping became easier. Just whip out that plastic card. Retailers adjusted. We loved the convenience. Stores proliferated, and so did shopping malls, some of them huge, vacation destinations with amusement parks. Others more modest, but all of them were enclosed, climate controlled, convenient, Tempting.

Teenagers flocked to these inviting environments, great places to hang out with friends. Santas appeared on their thrones in season. Local performing groups entertained on small stages. Seniors found a home for exercise walking in a climate-controlled environment. Food courts sprouted. Malls became community centers, gathering places for neighbors and visitors.

Then came online shopping. Why get in the car and drive to the mall when with a few key strokes on one’s computer, or cell phone, one can shop, buy and receive goods delivered to one’s front door? Why indeed?

Retailers saw their in-store sales decline sharply. Stores suddenly empty. Employees were laid off. Then, coronavirus pandemic struck, exacerbating the problem. Online shopping exploded. Malls died.

In the university town where I live, a smallish shopping mall appeared in 1973 near the town’s center. University Mall was anchored at each end by department stores and included a variety of about 50 other shops. Locals and university students celebrated its convenience, and the mall became a popular community gathering place.

Over time, shops came and went, but the mall continued to thrive, until in 2002, a major regional mall opened a few miles east, next to the Interstate highway. One of our mall’s anchor stores folded and left, and an upscale gourmet grocery and import store took its place. Several smaller shops closed, others moved in, including some transplants from downtown.

New owners bought the mall and tried changes, changed its name to University Place, but the decline continues. That gourmet grocery is gone. So are most of the smaller shops. So is the other anchor store. It’s now a multi-screen movie theater.

Still, until recently a visit to the local mall remained a pleasant experience. Comfortable chairs and benches invited shoppers to stay a while in comfort. A fast-food restaurant added the tempting fragrance of food being cooked to the air. Earlier this week, I visited the mall to get a replacement battery installed in my watch. A smiling clerk in the jewelry store told me the process would take about 15 minutes. Expecting to wait, I had brought a book along.

I looked around for a place to sit and read. The chairs and benches had disappeared. Why? I walked the length of the mall in one direction. No benches. No chairs. Nothing. Mostly empty stores. Dark. Closed. I walked to the opposite end of the mall. Same story. The fast-food place was open, and one or two stores.

I returned to the jewelry store, stood outside and read. Before long, my watch was ready.

I was wearing soft-soled shoes, but I could hear my footsteps as I made my way to the door.

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