There used to be a bookstore, a music store and a tobacconist in every mall. Frequently more than one book or music store, at a time when they weren’t lumped together (it’s singular to me that I have seen the beginning and the end of the all-in-one media store, whether it be Borders or MediaPlay or the local likes of Bookstar or Davis-Kidd). In high school it was Musicland and Sound Shop at the Galleria, along with B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. By the time college came round, you could roll the sports-wear stores in there too: Foot Locker and Champs both in every mall. (I hesitate to say “sporting goods” because for the most part, those stores didn’t actually sell bats or gloves or balls or helmets.) And toward the end of graduate school, cell phone stores were of equal interest.
All of that has changed. Finding a tobacconist in a mall in California is like trying to find a rack of pork ribs at a mosque. Amazon did for the mall bookstore, and Apple largely managed to do for the music store and the cell phone store alike – sure, every carrier has a shop at the mall and a few kiosks besides, but you only go in there if you need to buy a phone on a legacy contract, not to check out the new hotness. And at my age, there’s precious little you want from the likes of Foot Locker.
In so many ways, that sums up how different life is. The mall as a point of interest was barely hanging on when I got here in 2004 – it was a short hop from Apple to Valley Fair, the principal temple of competitive commerce in the South Bay, and I dutifully did the rounds there if only for the sake of “this is how I orient myself in a new place,” just as I’d wandered through Cool Springs and Rivergate and Green Hills and Hickory Hollow and Bellevue in Nashville or through Ballston Common and Tyson’s Corner and Pentagon City and Fair Oaks in Northern Virginia. But it didn’t really last. I don’t know that I ever saw a music store or a bookstore in that mall, the tobacconist of those early cigar-smoking nights is long gone, and even the Apple store isn’t a draw any longer.
All of this came to mind in the wake of going through the AT&T store to replace my wife’s phone – she is still carrying a legacy foundation account plan which is damn near theft, so the corporate store is the only way to go. It’s the same AT&T store where I reluctantly acquired an iPhone 3G in 2008 after damaging my original model. That’s very literally the last time I’ve ever bought a cell phone in a carrier store – everything since was direct from the manufacturer or through work. Aside from the occasional glance at the new hardware, I don’t ever go in an Apple Store anymore, and I basically never go in a cell phone store (which is why it was such a jarring experience to wait over an hour for no service on Halloween. Everybody wants to be AAPL but nobody wants to put the resources into it).
And looking back, that makes perfect sense. If you need to sum up what’s changed in the last 10 years or so, make it this: the Internet is where you buy things. If I go to Santana Row, the most I’m liable to splash out for is a cup of coffee at Peet’s or maybe a pen. If I go to Valley Fair, I might go nuts and get a pretzel or maybe some Coldstone – if it’s even still there and I can’t swear it is. The only destination at a mall for me for as long as I can remember is to get that ham-and-cheese-and-pineapple sandwich from Steak Escape and that’s a special occasion sort of thing. Clothing? Ordered online. Phones? Bought from work or off the manufacturer’s website. Caps? Ballpark or online. Jackets? Japan, New York, or online. Watch? Apple Store or online. Socks? Books? Flask? Steel tumblers? If it isn’t food or drink, the odds are strong that it’s coming straight to my house or office in a UPS or FedEx box.
Which is a shame, in its way. Going to the mall was an event – maybe the defining social event of the 80s, although it came to me quite literally in a dream that walking the mall with your friends would be an ideal pastime before I was ever aware that the culture was way ahead of me. It was a heavy lift for me until well into high school, just because I was a half hour drive from the nearest mall, but eventually I sort of got there – and when I had to get off campus in college, the first stop was the mall, pretty much always. The malls at the points of the compass were my orientation and anchor in Nashville. The mall was on the way to work and on the way home for the first year and a half in Arlington. And now, a decade on, the mall has evolved into – at best – some place to quickly return the stuff you bought online and maybe a place to grab a bite if you’re in the neighborhood. Maybe.
And thus does the mall become one of those things we just don’t do anymore.