In the 1995 cult classic Mallrats, Brodie and his buddy T.S. are engaged in a debate over the definition of a food court:
Brodie: Cookie stand is not part of the food court.
T.S.: Of course it is.
Brodie: The food court is downstairs. The cookie stand is upstairs. It’s not like we’re talking quantum physics here.
T.S.: The cookie stand counts as an eatery, the eateries are part of the food court.
Brodie: Bullshit! Eateries that operate within the designated square downstairs qualify as food court. Anything outside of said designated square is considered an autonomous unit for mid-mall snacking.
Brodie is right—the food court is a specifically designated area. The first one appeared in 1971 at the Plymouth Meeting Mall in Pennsylvania—it flopped because it was too small and offered little variety. But then came the food court at the Paramus Park Mall in New Jersey three years later. It was bigger, had better selections, and, more important, was located on the second floor, forcing visitors to go that extra distance, thereby increasing the odds of their purchasing something along the way.
In fact, everything about the mall, from its layout to the sounds and smells (from places like Mrs. Fields and Cinnabon), is designed for you to spend more time and money there. Which turns out to be an easy sell. As Alexandra Lange writes in Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, we are drawn to shopping centers because of our inherent need to be together—think of the agora in ancient Greece.
“People love to be in public with other people,” writes Lange. “Seeing happy families is the core of the mall’s strength, and the essence of its ongoing utility. In postwar suburban America, the mall was the only structure designed to fill that need.”
The person most responsible for conceiving this structure is Victor Gruen. An Austrian immigrant, Gruen was part of the design team at the 1939 World’s Fair that envisioned America in 1960. The model contained multi-lane highways with thousands of cars, not to mention enormous skyscrapers and airports. (It was called Futurama.)
Gruen’s original concept for the mall—a word derived from London’s Pall Mall street—was a place that not only included retail but also the post office, library, and medical facilities in a setting replete with fountains, plazas, and greenery. The aim was to transform shopping into a recreation, not a chore. This became known as the Gruen transfer: “the moment when your presence at the mall tips from being goal-oriented (must buy new underwear, must buy birthday gift) into a pleasure in itself.”
The first enclosed mall was a Gruen project, the Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, Minn., built in 1956. As an ad at the time touted, “Every day will be a perfect shopping day.” This, of course, was only made possible with the invention of air conditioning (the first department store to feature climate control was Abraham & Straus in New York in 1919). The other crucial innovation was the escalator.
While elevators take customers directly to their destination, escalators allow them to see everything along the way, once again tempting them to divert from their intended path, explore, and buy.
Diversion became the objective. “To be lost. How frightening. To be *safely* lost. How wonderful,” wrote the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in “The Aesthetics of Lostness,” what Lange describes as “a manifesto for the mall.”
Bradbury’s idea of a mall, writes Lange, included a “ring of food purveyors including a malt shop, a pizza parlor, a delicatessen, a candy store. Shops selling the things ‘most delicious in our lives’: books (‘why not three’ bookstores?), a record store, an art gallery, hardware, stationery, toys, magic. At the four corners of the block, his anchor stores would be not vast emporia but entertainment: one cinema for new releases and another for classics, a theater, a coffeehouse for music.”
The author was prescient as usual. In fact, Bradbury’s vision was the basis for the Glendale Galleria in California. The designer was Jon Jerde, who not only wanted a visitor to be safely lost. He wanted her immersed in chaos, “confusing her senses spatially, then luring her in to shop with sales, displays, and signs.” Take, for instance, Las Vegas’s Fremont Street Experience, Universal Studios’ CityWalk in L.A., and the mother of all shopping centers, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.—all designed by Jerde.
And yet for all the spectacle, malls are in decline. From the 2,500 malls that dotted America in the 1980s, there are only about 700 today. Nick Egelanian of SiteWorks recently told the Wall Street Journal he expects that number to dwindle to 150 by 2032. And though the decline began well before 2020 (with the migration of retail to the internet), the pandemic made conditions far worse.
Lange devotes many pages to the future of our malls. In the right setting they can be redone as open-air “lifestyle centers” (ironic considering a major benefit of the mall is weather-free environment). “Lifestyle centers do all the things that urban planners have promoted for years as ways of counteracting sprawl,” writes Andrew Blum in Slate. “Squeeze more into less space, combine a mix of activities, and employ a fine-grained street grid to create a public realm.”
Lange laments, however, that this reinvention “is still a private place, owned, operated, and policed by people more interested in the comfort of paying customers than in democratic ideals.” The author would rather see future malls cater to a locally diverse crowd, community-focused, even transit-oriented. And if the mall is our modern-day town square, why can’t we have protests and demonstrations? (My ideal mall would not include protesters.)
Indeed, while chock-full of interesting facts, Meet Me by the Fountain does require the reader to slog through some seriously woke prose: “Built in 1968 as the Buford-Clairmont Mall, Plaza Fiesta … was reborn as the Oriental Mall [sic], and then, in 2000, retrofitted into a place for the area’s growing Latinx community.” (I hope none of the stores sells oriental [sic] carpets.)
Lange does, however, answer one of my biggest questions: Where did all the mall arcades go? In the early 1980s there were about 5,000 of them. Lange traces this back to 1977 when Nolan Bushnell first installed arcade games in his new chain of kid-friendly birthday restaurants. That’s right: The founder of Atari also created Chuck E. Cheese.
But as arcades grew in popularity among teens (think Fast Times at Ridgemont High), so did concerns about juvenile delinquency, vice, and security. “The total number of security guards increased by 300 percent between 1969 and 1988,” Lange points out. At the same time, sales of home video-game consoles were on the rise—why spend all those quarters in an arcade when you can play at home for free? By the end of the ’90s, most of these mall arcades had vanished (though trendy “barcades” have made a bit of a comeback thanks to nostalgic Gen Xers).
In spite of the convenience of shopping from home, Lange is hopeful that our need to be around others will keep the mall alive, albeit in one form or another. “Why we are out—a movie, a sweater, a concert, boba—does not matter as much as having the space in which to be out in the comfort of strangers,” she writes. “Shopping isn’t going anywhere, and it’s so much nicer to do it together.”
As for my ideal mall, all I want is a climate-controlled environment, safe for kids, with interesting stores, a multiplex, an old-school arcade, and an extremely diverse food court, plus those autonomous units for mid-mall snacking.
Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall
by Alexandra Lange
Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $28