Each and every December, as Christmas music glazes over the airwaves and decorated pine trees pop up in the windows of stores and homes, my desire to shop transforms from a benign vice to a fixation, an anxiety. I lay in bed at night, half asleep, combing through the “promotions” section of my gmail account and bookmarking good deals (which have inexplicably tripled in number under the weight of holiday shopping). When I’m bored or lonely or have an hour to kill, I go to nearby malls and visit my favorite stores, scouring for new items. “Should I stop at the Citadel and just peruse the Le Creuset outlet?” I ask myself (only half-ironically) on the way to and from work, envisioning a glorious flame-orange dutch oven magically marked down by 80%.
I’ll be the first to admit, I probably don’t purchase all that much more for myself in December than I do in any other month of the year. Yet the massive increase of space in my mind I give to the idea of buying things has become a shameful and accidental holiday tradition. I can’t help but wonder if this outcome was even imaginable to Victor Gruen when he designed America’s first enclosed mall, Southdale, in Adina, Minnesota in 1956. In addition to plentiful parking and consumerist novelty, part of Southdale’s initial draw was that it included two department stores, strategically placed on either side of the mall’s structure. It also housed an aviary. Did the birds ever get to go outside? I can’t help but ask myself.
According to a 1991 article by sociologists Richard Feinberg and Jennifer Meoli, Southdale was intended to both “get the shopper out of harsh weather” but also to “[introduce] the world to shopping complexes as worlds unto themselves–free from bad weather, life, crime, dirt and troubles.” Nearly 60 years later, it’s hard to imagine a world without them. As Feinberg and Meoli note, “malls are now the retail, social and community centers of their communities,” often rehabilitating and rejuvenating forgotten or dangerous urban downtowns and neighborhoods.
It is, of course, fitting that a year after this article was published Minnesota’s famous “Mall of America” opened. Much, much larger than Southdale, the Mall of America all but shattered the mold created by its earliest predecessor. It now includes, among other things, over five hundred storefronts, a roller coaster, a wedding chapel, an aquarium, a flight simulator, a PEEPs store and a business referred to only as “emoji”.
I can’t help but observe that the Mall of America creates the same kind of access to the over-the-top that some of the malls nearest to me accomplish, though in a different way. In the Los Angeles area, the Grove and the Americana are best known, not for their stores, but for the lavish, Disneyland-like atmosphere their developer, Rick Caruso, is (unfortunately) famous for. Walking into either one of these outdoors oases, one is met with large gilded fountains shooting spouts of water a dozen feet into the air (even as the rest of their state crumbles under a drought). Frank Sinatra croons through speakers attached to old- fashioned street lamps. A trolley runs down fake cobble stoned streets several times a day.
Of the two, the Americana has always fascinated me the most. It’s slightly smaller than the Grove, yet works three times as hard to create a air of all-encompassing luxury. Among other things, the Americana boasts a seven-story clock tower, a complimentary concierge, and a marble public restroom cared for by attendants wearing traditional maid uniforms. As if this wasn’t enough, the entire structure is surrounded on all sides by luxury apartment complexes. At first glance, their facades are easy to mistake for part of the mall’s elaborate set, however close inspection reveals that atop every store, surrounding patrons on every side, are high-end condominiums.
Who would want to live in a mall? I can’t help but wonder with disgust. Yet I can’t stop myself from imagining what it would be like. With stores so close by, so within-reach would every day be filled with constant concern over if J crew has put new sweaters on sale? Would this, in the end, be a gross perversion of Gruen’s original dream? A way to live somewhere where goods and services are so readily accessible one can pretend that tidy, convenient, self-involved consumerism is a valid existence?
Despite the deep revulsion I have at the thought of living at the Americana, I wholeheartedly admit I go there more than any other mall, in fact I go there more than anyone else I know, especially when my shopping anxiety is at its height. When I’m there, assuaging my consumer-driven nerves by watching the fountain or perusing stores, I’m often at my calmest, most content. I am not lonely around so many people enjoying themselves. And I am not afraid whatever purchase I seek to make will elude my grasp. Of course it doesn’t hurt that their display of bells and whistles is no more impressive at any other time of year than it is in December, when a one hundred foot tall Christmas tree looms over the stores, the fountain, the apartments. A temporary faux cottage is put up beside it for children to take photographs with Santa. If you go on a good day, you may spot actors dressed like elves or characters from the nutcracker prancing around.
Regardless, there is something exhausting about being around so much unrestrained, inauthentic joy. Though I keep returning, lately my favorite part about trips to the Americana is the blissful moment after I leave when I’m able to escape the worry that there’s a deal I’m missing out on or a gift promotion I’ve overlooked. I glide out of their parking lot in my 1998 Honda and feel a peaceful return to my former self. This, more than anything, is the reality I want, once the Holidays have come and gone, once December is over, once I can forget that there’s anything in the world I could possibly want to buy. If only I didn’t need a mall to remind me of it.