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American Impressions, Chapter 5: Minnesota

“Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.”—Solomon addressing Victor in Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”

It is one of those Eurosnobbish myths to think of Americans as the only people on earth willing to shop until they drop. My native Beirut before the war had always been a Mediterranean sprawl of capitalism that threw thousand-and-one-night bazaars within shouting distance of Yves Saint Laurent storefronts. The city was all dealers, peddlers, shouts, money, grease. It had quit sleeping two millennia before New York. It catered to European tourists and shop-starved Arabs dripping with petrodollars, and to those many Lebanese who had made a killing, as yet just financial. Far more than the Paris of the Orient, Beirut was the Mall of the Middle East.

My family’s kitty wasn’t yet killer-caliber. So the idea of aimlessly spending hours flirting with acquisitions we didn’t really need hadn’t infected us. When the British megastore chain of Spinney’s opened a shopping center in a southern suburb of Beirut in the early ‘70s—a stone’s throw from where a suicide bomber would kill 251 U.S. Marines 10 years later—the rules changed. Here was a store that sold everything under one roof in what looked like a palace of green glass.

I loved going there. My parents must have as well: before long, my mother rented a section of the store on the top floor and set up shop as a representative of a British toy company. She took me along and didn’t mind it when I started exploring the place. I wandered, taking advantage of what must have been my first unsupervised drifts in a public place. But I don’t think I made it to the second floor before the war began and put an end to all that—toy corner and nascent freedoms included. Spinney’s became a looter’s paradise in the wee hours of the civil war, Lebanon’s first of many glass houses to shatter. Whatever chance I might have had of developing any affinity for shopping died in embryo.

Move the scene up a quarter century to a weatherless fall day in 1998 in Bloomington, a suburb of Minneapolis. I’m standing inside the Mall of America, hoping to pick up where I left off in Spinney’s.

My coat pocket is heavy with the weight of a press packet, a hymnal to the mall really, recitations from which have become every reporter’s ritual. So let’s get that out of the way: Since it opened on Aug. 11, 1992, the Mall of America has attracted more than 200 million visitors. Its 42.5 million visitors in 1997 exceeded the combined totals for Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon, a fact first revealed by The New York Times, not the mall’s megamarketing machine. It cost $650 million to build its 4.2 million square feet, its 500 stores, its 22 restaurants (and 27 fast-food joints), its 12,750 parking spaces. It employs 11,000 year-round, and its real anchors aren’t Sears or Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom, but Knott’s Camp Snoopy, the huge indoor theme park that should be logging its 30 millionth ride right about now. The mall also generates 19 tons of waste a day, has its own newspaper, and is big enough to hold 32 Boeing 747s.

It’s not made of glass. Its windowless concrete exterior fits novelist Douglas Coupland’s definition, in Generation X, of “The emperor’s new mall,” the notion that shopping malls exist on the insides only and have no exterior. The suspension of visual belief engendered by this notion allows shoppers to pretend that the large, cement blocks thrust into their environment do not, in fact, exist.

But 42,874 of these mall things exist in the country, up from 25,500 in 1984. They’re as defining of America’s public landscape as McDonald’s. We spend an average of 77 minutes inside their walls every time we visit, and we do so an average of 38 times a year. Mall-based retail sales passed the $1 trillion mark in 1997, accounting for 53 percent of all retail spending (excluding cars).

Malls are social centers, teen cruising strips, elderly treadmills, concert halls and puppet theaters. Some, like the Mall of America, have day-care centers, schools, college classes. They’re small cities, and they’re a cultural force.

In “ Moscow on the Hudson,” Robin Williams’ character decides to defect at Bloomingdale’s. The zombies in “Dawn of the Dead” are helplessly drawn to the mall, their demeanor not much different than the real shoppers. A town in southern New Jersey was so proud of nearby Cherry Hill Mall that it renamed itself Cherry Hill. And in 1985, Beverly Center became the first novel named for a mall “where everything is for sale and nothing comes cheap.”

I’m not enamored of malls. I find them dull and claustrophobic, a lousy and generally tasteless imitation of community life. But it’s too easy to bash malls. They’re like Disney or the media, the sort of intellectual target practice even a klutz can enjoy because you can’t miss. My biggest challenge for the three days that I walked the Mall of America was to keep the bashing down as I hunted for memories of Spinney’s. I could just as easily have done that at Lakeland Square or Eagle Ridge Mall. But those are shopping dioceses or parishes. Minnesota’s Mall of America is shopping’s Vatican.

”Weren’t we just in one of these?” I hear the older man tell his colleague as they enter one of the mall’s four identical Mall-of-America gift shops. The back of their jackets say FORD in big letters. The two men spend 10 minutes looking at sweatshirts, mugs, spoons, bells—the sort of things one finds in gift shops from the Badlands to the Corn Palace. When they were done, Eric Sheppard, 27, had bought a shot glass and a shirt, and John Rakowski, 57, had bought a Beanie Baby—“even though we don’t need this,” Sheppard said. “If my wife knew that I’d been to the Mall of America and didn’t get her a souvenir, she’d be disappointed.”

Engineers at Ford, both men were done with the day’s business in Minneapolis but had three hours to kill before their flight. The locals directed them immediately to the mall. But a mall is a mall is a mall, Sheppard says, insisting on a conscious distance between himself and the act—the purchase—he had just committed. I don’t know that shopping necessarily defines Americans, but frivolous shopping certainly does. Younger people are frivolous because of peer pressure. The next generation, my generation, the 23-to-33, are spending because of the belief that he who dies with the most wins, as opposed to he who lives the best.

Continuing the trail of souvenir shops, I was attracted by the internationalist theme of a small place that sells stuff emblazoned with almost every nation’s national colors or flag. Six percent of the mall’s annual visitors are foreigners, a seemingly small proportion until translated to an actual number: 2.6 million people, or a few planeloads under the total population of Lebanon when I left 20 years ago. Inevitably, many converge on Alamo Flags to check whether their country’s colors are represented.

”They get mad when it’s not here, but if it is here, they don’t buy it,” says Sarah Hardin. Although just 17, she has worked after school at Alamo for two years, which makes her the mall’s demographic expert. Asian colors are big sellers, but Western Europe is still bigger. And the east African nation of Eritrea, along with the southeast Asian nations of Laos and Cambodia, draw surprisingly numerous visitors. And Lebanon? Actually, its a medium-popular one, more than you’d think.

Those four nations— Eritrea, Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon—could not be more different one from the other except for one thing: they are among the nations recovering from the longest or most destructive wars of the last 40 years. Now their tourists are shopping, spending, buying up things they probably don’t need, Beanie Babies included. But oh! the bliss of strolling storefronts for hours without fear of snipers from the mezzanine. It sounds silly, but I remind myself of that bliss once in a while, even if taking it for granted is the least of our rights. It hasn’t been so, elsewhere. For visitors from that unlikely quartet of battered nations, shopping must have a restorative element about it, a reclaiming of old rights and habits.

An American mall is especially restorative because its so energetic. That, too, is not necessarily the case elsewhere. On my way to Alaska a few weeks before, I had stopped in Canada at the West Edmonton Mall, currently the largest mall in the world with 800 shops (300 more than the Mall of America) and 5.2 million square feet of retail space. Same owner (Triple Fives, based in New York), different province.

What struck me was the mall’s lethargy. I had stopped there at noon on a weekday. The density of shoppers was lighter than any I’ve seen at Lakeland Square, which may explain why West Edmonton Mall draws only half as many visitors as the Mall of America, and why it was on the verge of bankruptcy four years ago. Only the redesign of the mall as an amusement center and the introduction of casino gambling staved off the collapse. The redesign’s effects may be wearing off.

Maybe it was the time of day, the day of the week. But on my way back from Alaska two weeks later I stopped at the mall again, on a Saturday evening at 7. It might as well have been midnight. Every store was shuttered. Two teen-agers kissed on a bench in the emptiness, the smacking of their lips audible from 15 paces away. Not far from them, the mall’s imitation whale, the one that ate Jonah, stretched frozen in a pool of water, its mouth as if gaping—not for more Jonahs, but for air, the replica of an endangered species caged in an endangered mall.

Most American malls, it seems, brim with the energy of late shopping hours and teen-agers kissing only after their shifts at one of a thousand cash registers. The whale in an American mall is the consumer, every shop a shoal of plankton, every sale a fresh Jonah. Or is it the reverse? Are we, consumers, the Jonahs, and America’s 42,874 malls the least of endangered whales? They gobble us up, spit us out, and before long, we hear their command: “Arise! Go to the mall!”

The word “shopping” first appeared in the London press in the 1780s. The Paris arcades and London’s shopping emporiums of the 19 th century were really the first malls and superstores. Mideastern bazaars predate them all by centuries in aimlessness and impulse, minus the glass windows. Shopping is not an American invention.

But the segregation of shopping as a form of entertainment distinct from any other activity is. And it’s that segregation from the rest of life that makes it difficult, ultimately, to embrace malls, which have as much to do with bazaars or real towns as a video of the Grand Canyon does with the real thing.

Malls and their private police forces -- 130 officers, 125 closed-circuit televisions, 130 call boxes at the Mall of America—have become fortresses, gated communities equivalent of shopping. The car culture weeds out the poor, the loiterers, the weirdos. Whoever diverges from approved shopper behavior is escorted out or arrested.

The outside world doesn’t penetrate. There are no smells aside from the sort of packaged aromas of Bath & Body Works or the imitation leather smells of Payless ShoeSource. There are no clocks, no weather, no Times-Square-like news-ticker that might remind shoppers of Washington scandals or Bosnian mass graves. There are, instead—more than bathrooms, more than elevators or mall maps or information booths or visible police officers—ATM machines. In all this, my quest to recover Spinney’s memories was proving as chimerical as the manufactured forest of 400 trees inside Knott’s Camp Snoopy. I wasn’t recovering my boyhood’s first freedoms here. I was merely complying with the mall’s clockless present.

When the novelty wore off, the 500 stores began to look like the 500-channel television universe of a well-fed satellite dish, and just as passively, numbingly entertaining. A walk anywhere turned into a channel-surf through the same shops arranged differently. The difference with any other mall was exclusively one of size, not of quality. Without a well-fed Visa card’s endorphins, a shopper’s mind is bound to go TILT.

But shoppers keep coming, probably for the same reason that the mall’s Chapel of Love will keep doing good business, at $229, $629, or $3,200 per wedding ceremony.

“People nowadays are into convenience,” the chapel’s wedding consultant, Tairie Starr, told me one evening before marriage number 1,851 or so. “They’re into what will serve their needs as easily as possible. People are willing to pay the price to have things done for them.”

Starr might as well have been describing the union between shoppers and their malls everywhere. It is America’s most recurrent marriage of convenience. The wedding gifts may cost money but they never cease. And eventual disenchantment or divorce is as painless as driving 10 miles to the next mall, where a new ceremony and plenty more 77-minute encounters await.

A week after my visit to the Mall of America the following item appeared in Lebanon’s only French daily: “Long associated in pre-war Beirut with the country’s first escalators, Spinney’s opened its doors anew yesterday in Dbayeh (a Beirut suburb) no longer as a department store or a megastore, but as a supermarket . . . the Middle East’s biggest supermarket in retail space and number of employees.” The article also noted that Spinney’s in the next five years plans to build 12 more stores in Lebanon, a nation barely twice the size of Polk County.



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