I’ve had cause to enter a mall twice in the last week, which is unusual for me. On Friday I took my kids to get their hair cut at the Avalon Mall, always the biggest mall in St. John’s and, today, the only really thriving, viable mall in the city. Then last night I went to a movie at the mall formerly known as Sobey’s Square in Mount Pearl, which isn’t even a mall at all anymore. It’s a Dead Mall — now filled with call centres and offices incongruously clustered around the movie theatre.
When I was growing up, people of my parents’ generation complained that the malls had “killed” downtown. I used to go shopping downtown when I was very small — at Bowring’s or Woolworth’s, always stopping for a snack at Bowring’s cafeteria with its view of the harbour. Downtown was where I went with Aunt Gertie on the bus, and there was still a lot to see and do there despite its alleged demise. But the mall was where the real action was.
I led much too sheltered an adolescence to ever do a lot of serious hanging out at the mall, but to the extent I did hang out anywhere, that would be the place. In those days we had two lively and viable malls in St. John’s, and I cherish fond memories of trying on clothes I never intended to buy at Smart Set in The Village, then tossing pennies in the fountain. It was clear to me that malls had everything over downtown. So many different stores, all under one roof! No need to go outside or face the weather. I could drift from the bookstore to the record store to the food court to … well, usually back to the bookstore. Downtown? I didn’t mourn its passing. Malls were where it was at. The Mall was the way to shop.
I’ve never really loved shopping — never been the kind of gal who went in for “retail therapy.” In fact, shopping often stresses me out more than it relaxes me. But the beauty of a mall is that you can go there to hang out, drift around aimlessly, look at things — and you never have to buy anything if you don’t want to, except maybe a book and a coffee.
The height of my mall-going career was probably in the late 80s when I lived in Ontario as a young adult. I have many happy mall-memories from those days, though I can’t remember many things I actually bought. I remember marvelling at how all the Town Centre malls in various Toronto suburbs all had the exact same layout, which at the time I thought was fairly cool, although I knew it was supposed to be a sign of the cookie-cutter lack of originality in suburbia. Let’s be honest: identical layouts make it easy to find the bookstore and the food court.
Malls are also good places to take a kid in a stroller. In fact, even before the stroller stage, one of the first places other than the grandparents’ house and church that Christopher ever went, was to the Mall. When he was three weeks old we stuck him a Snugli and took him to the Avalon Mall, where we picked up a few items at WalMart and then went to see Bryan Adams, who was giving a free mini-concert IN THE MALL to celebrate the release of some new album. Chris doesn’t remember this, but it’s a cherished memory for me.
Sometime in my adult years, a strange thing started to happen. Back here in St. John’s, Woolco — the big anchor store in both the Avalon and Village Malls — got taken over by WalMart. I didn’t mind that — we were supposed to be incensed, of course, but there’s very little practical difference between a Woolco and a WalMart. But then the unthinkable happened … after several years, WalMart moved out of the mall. Suddenly both malls looked like first-graders who’d lost their front teeth.
WalMart moved to a big empty space on the fringes of town, and other stores followed. A gigantic Canadian Tire; the Sobey’s that was supposed to stay in the mall, a Mark’s Work Wearhouse with more jeans than you’d ever need to see in one place; a FutureShop and a Staples. Small malls like the Torbay Road Mall and Sobey’s Square collapsed in upon themselves. The Village began to look like a hollowed-out shell of its former self, and they shut off the fountain. Even the Avalon Mall, still grimly hanging in there, lost its Sobey’s so you could no longer buy groceries under the same roof as everything else.
And now I find myself a middle-aged grumpy person, complaining, “Those big box stores are killing all the malls!“
I guess the mall was my shopping culture, just as downtown was my parents’ shopping culture, and I mourn the loss of that perfect world-within a world where you could buy everything under one roof and never be exposed to the harsh North Atlantic breezes. OK, so I don’t actually shop that much, but when I do go to the Mall now I’m hit by a wave of premature nostalgia. Whatever we grew up with seems normal to us, and malls, whatever their flaws, are convenient, fun, and friendly for walkers (have you ever tried to walk from one big box store to another?). I hope the day will never come when the mall is just a distant memory, but just in case that ever happens, here’s a little gem that’s meant to be totally satiric (it’s from the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and the plot of this particular episode is that Robin turns out to have a secret past as a Canadian teen pop star who recorded this horrifically bad song) but it actually makes me a little nostalgic for the good old days … at the mall.
(Of course, what would really be an awesome clip to end this with would be the Wonderful Grand Band, circa 1978, singing “Babylon Mall.” What I wouldn’t give to see that again … can you believe no-one has put it up on YouTube? Maybe someday. “Parking’s free … at the Mall! But you got to pay to pee … at the Mall!”)