The Longform.org Guide to the Mall
Five great stories about how malls revolutionized the way Americans shop, snack, and flirt.
Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter. When the country's first enclosed mall opened in 1956, an initial report described the $20 million structure as a "pleasure dome." While that feeling may have faded—"pleasure" is not an adjective I've ever considered attaching to my local shopping center—the idea behind that first building has endured, and the goal remains the same: to get as many customers to look at as many stores as possible. Here are five great pieces about malls, from those idealistic first years to today's world of "immersive retail" and pop-up casinos. The Terrazzo Jungle Malcolm Gladwell • The New Yorker • March 2004
On the visionary architects who, along with an extremely helpful tax break, gave birth to the American mall:
Southdale Mall still exists. It is situated off I-494, south of downtown Minneapolis and west of the airport—a big concrete box in a sea of parking. The anchor tenants are now J. C. Penney and Marshall Field's, and there is an Ann Taylor and a Sunglass Hut and a Foot Locker and just about every other chain store that you've ever seen in a mall. It does not seem like a historic building, which is precisely why it is one. Fifty years ago, Victor Gruen designed a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant shopping complex with a garden court under a skylight—and today virtually every regional shopping center in America is a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant complex with a garden court under a skylight. Victor Gruen didn't design a building; he designed an archetype.
The Mall of America Ian Frazier • Atlantic • July 2002
A writer tries to make sense of a national landmark:
At the Mall of America, stores come and go with regularity; when a new one opens, sometimes it's hard to remember what was there before. In that respect the Mall is like television—you know what you're watching when you're watching it, but it slips from your mind when new images appear. At malls, as on TV, history becomes feeble. If I were alone in the Mall, I might drift in an endless present tense, as I do in front of the TV in my hotel room at night, watching whatever's on.
The Casino Next Door Felix Gillette • Businessweek • April 2011
Over the last five years, so-called "sweepstakes cafes," known in Las Vegas and elsewhere as "casinos," have opened in malls from Florida to Massachusetts. On the law-bending rise of a $10 billion industry:
The sweepstakes parlor sits in the middle of the Bear Lake Village Shopping Center alongside such businesses as a Burger King, a pharmacy, and a bank specializing in payday loans. Next door is a large gym. Last year the owners of the gym sued the owners of the shopping mall, alleging that the 'unsavory clientele' at Allied Veterans' 'thinly veiled gambling operations' was scaring away the gym's customers. The suit is ongoing.
Inside the game room, bright lights illuminate fields of industrial carpet. A beefy security guard sits by the front door. At the back of the cavernous room, a handful of customers stand in line to buy more 'Internet time.' There a young man in a red polo shirt takes their cash and hands out the complimentary snacks. For $20, customers can get 100 minutes of Internet time and 2,000 sweepstakes entries. In a nod to a "no-purchase necessary" rule in state sweepstakes promotions, first-time patrons are given an extra 100 free sweepstakes entries.
Scenes From a Mall Katy Vine • Texas Monthly • September 2002
The soap opera of an off-brand mall in West Houston:
The kids have come here to cruise the strip, strolling in groups as big as ten or as small as two. They check their cell phones, stop for ice cream at Maggie Moo's, pump tokens into the video games at Jillian's, and duck into the theater to catch films like Halloween: Resurrection. Boys sporting do-rags and oversized basketball jerseys introduce themselves to groups of girls dressed in low-riding baggy jeans. A pair of spindly limbed, baby-skinned brunettes flash their braces at a boy wearing XXXL clothes and a puka shell choker. Some kids dress like athletes, some like hard-core punkers. Clusters of both genders discuss their sexual exploits. A punk store-clerk recalled overhearing one twelve-year-old girl tell another twelve-year-old girl, "You think he's cute? I had sex with him; he's cool. You should do him."
Sweatpants in Paradise Molly Young • The Believer • September 2010
How Hollister employs the dark art of "immersive retail" to bring the allure of the mall to its flagship store in New York:
"Topless men and girls without pants stand at the entrance, some wearing zinc oxide smeared across noses. The employees are selected for their insane good looks and friendliness, which creates the disorienting customer experience of receiving attention from people way out of your league over and over again. You can't avoid having a sexual experience at Hollister, even if it's just to stare at a greeter's bullet-hard nipples. Hollister's strategy may not be subtle, but it is clever. By literalizing the mall's sexual promise in actual naked flesh, the brand makes it unnecessary for shoppers to wander elsewhere. Rather than provide the neutral spaces of food courts and lobbies for promenading, the store offers a prefab (and make-believe) environment of sexual opportunity. It's the whole mall in one store!"
Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.
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