Fair Retail

in the mall (a retail sanctuary)
In the mall.

A few days ago, from my vantage point on northbound I-65, the look of the morning sun on the roof of the mall reminded me of a notion I formed several years back and one to which I still hold today: that there’s a comfort in the bland commercial aesthetic of well-kept retail spaces. By well-kept I mean clean and free of blemishes: if the floor tile is dingy or the carpet soiled, or there’s a hole in the drywall, or if there are water stains on the drop-ceiling panels, the common charm is lost. Of course, most retail spaces in the CoolSprings Galleria aren’t so basic: a sheetrock wall is hardly to be seen, because they’re concealed behind designer paneling; commercial-grade vinyl floor tiles, a la Kroger, have been eschewed in favor of hardier, better-looking ceramic tiles. At heart, though, all these spaces, whether banal or beautiful, serve the same basic function, and that is to sell stuff, and there’s just something ordinary about the whole enterprise of retail–a denominator to which we’re all pandering.

It’s comforting to buy stuff. The least self-conscious among us make a show of their retail habits, whereas the more self-aware may seek to transcend so-called retail therapy (that phrase makes me cringe), but at heart, everybody likes getting new stuff. In Don DeLillo‘s novel, White Noise, the narrator is an academic who, though he understands that hanging out at the mall is a taboo thing for people like him, can’t deny his urge to shop. He talks about walking through stores, “puzzled but excited by [his] desire to buy.” He’s just been insulted by an old friend he ran into in a hardware store, and his reaction is to go shopping. And while there at a mall with his family, he summarizes the experience in sensual and self-empowering terms:

“People swarmed through the boutiques and gourmet shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. I shopped with reckless abandon.”

He heard music and he smelled good smells. He exercised his illusion of autonomy by choosing one thing over another or by choosing nothing at all. He even felt a closer bond to his family for having gone shopping with them. But doesn’t all this sound ridiculous on the surface? How American, in the less savory way, to make spending money on things we don’t need into a noble act. Yet I won’t knock it. I have to be honest, or rather I’ve reached a stage in life where it’s easier just to admit I like hanging out at the mall than to pretend it’s below me somehow. I’ve enjoyed the CoolSprings Galleria for all the same reasons mentioned in that paragraph above and more: the people-watching, the smells, the deliberately designed mini-environments of individual stores, even catching unexpected glimpses of myself in cleverly positioned mirrors.

Speaking of mini-environments, Journeys shoe store has a very different feel from the gleaming white makeup and jewelry displays of Belk, but I appreciate them nearly equally. It doesn’t matter if the spaces are selling anything I want or would ever buy–I like to see them anyway. And if I happen to find the perfect flannel shirt on sale in Express, then all the better.

What is at the back of this enjoyment? It’s become one of those things I wonder about. I wonder if it’s class-based, as in because of my humble ancestry, it feels good to be able to spend money inconspicuously, even if it’s never very much at one time, because that makes me uncomfortable. Just a little bit here and there–a new pair of shoes on one visit, and then a Yankee Candle a couple of weeks later. Does it make me feel I’m doing okay if I’m able to go out and buy a random thing once in a while?

Then there’s the fact of comfort. The mall has skylights, yet it is gloriously climate-controlled, meaning I can appreciate the sky in July without ever breaking a sweat. And there are good smells, many of which come from food, although there are many others that are harder to identify–general kinds of retail smells, clean and elusive. There are phone-charging stations and free wifi; coffee, ice cream, and comfortable chairs. And nobody expects anything of you. Everybody’s minding their own business, which makes it an ideal place for an introvert who sometimes craves the presence of other humans but doesn’t want to interact with them.

Perhaps going shopping is simply such a staple of American life that I’m performing my patriotic duty in some perverse way–doing my part to grease the system’s wheels. It doesn’t matter if I buy something every time I go, I’m paying homage just by showing up.

the author
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger, Essayist, & Novelist

**Here are two other articles that address the hegemonic nature of retail.

Roadside Trees, Devourers of Ego

roadside trees, I-65, Franklin, TN

Roadside trees show us nature’s indifference. It wasn’t always this way. Was a time when I could watch the trees fall away as I drove by and imagine all manner of stories unfolding just inside the treeline. Meaning was inherent in the trees, as well as magic, mystery, and beauty. But lately, they’ve become constant reminders that wildness waits at the edges of civilization for its chance to retake what has always been, and will be in the end, hers. She knows that for all the roads and skyscrapers and shopping malls we may build, for all the fields we may pave and the clouds we may pierce with our flying, silver tubes, our time is limited. We will return to her. And when we do, she’ll swallow us up. I’d add that she also will forget about us, but that would imply she knows us in the first place, and I’m not sure that’s the case: we don’t personally know the buzzing flies that slip into our open doors and harass us; we merely swat them away so we can go about our day less annoyed. Is nature not more indifferent than us?

I talk about nature like it’s a person, using feminine pronouns and attributing human actions to it. Sometimes she does feel like an adversary, with predators and viruses and hostile conditions. Other times she sustains us, both with beauty and with food. Anyway, this will become tiresome if l continue, for the roadside trees tell me that there are no groundbreaking ways to write about nature. Everything I might write has been written before, and better.

Roadside trees don’t just spread their message from the shoulders of the interstate, of course–they’re much more thickly present on country lanes, where people are less distracted from their own mortality. As an undergrad, I was enamored of the movie Braveheart, and by extension, its soundtrack, which I still think ranks among the top movie soundtracks for its depth of feeling, and for its ability to convey human pathos via its dark and beautiful themes. Once I was fishing with my dad at some pond out in the country near Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, close to where I grew up. I was probably twenty-one, still obsessed with Braveheart, so that soundtrack was often playing in my head. Dusk was fast-approaching, and a warm, glowing pink had begun to form opposite the setting sun. The pink was bracketed by the trees on the other side of the road–it was the kind of sky one only sees in summer. To my youthful, idealistic mind, with that bagpipe-heavy music playing in my head, the scene seemed to have so much meaning. I couldn’t tell you what it meant in any concrete terms, but it held something of destiny. Back then I believed in destiny–destiny and beauty were inseparable.

Now I’m okay with things just being what they are, and that includes roadside trees. I still create meaning, but in different ways: it’s not as simple anymore as assigning meaning to a natural setting, with nothing more than a song and a fuzzy feeling to back it up. There’s no more facile forcing of narrative onto my surroundings. The trees along the interstate no longer reflect my mood; they are not a manifestation of me. Yet they are no less beautiful. In fact, they are newly beautiful, because now I allow them to just be (like they needed my permission). They never needed my influence, even when I needed to project it onto them.

Alan D. Tucker: content blogger, essayist, & novelist
Alan D. Tucker
content blogger, essayist, & novelist

**I’ve written a lot about trees. Here’s one I particularly like.

Time: the River’s Work and the Stone’s Burden

Old Stone Fort SAA, Blue Hole Falls, marking time
Blue Hole Falls

Everywhere I turn is a stunning new view. I’ve descended a somewhat steep path into the woods behind the museum at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee. A cluster of dozens of waterfalls combine to cut a craggy, descending amphitheater, its gallery facing downstream, where the water glides, tumbles, and creeps along on its way to Tennessee’s central basin. Broad slabs of limestone–five feet thick, fifteen or twenty yards long, and wide as a highway–angle toward the riverbed, lying just how they fell, however many eons ago. Here, the river’s work is obvious: it carves its gorge incessantly, and as it cuts into the bases of its bordering cliffs, the rock above loses support and falls like stacks of dishes off the edge of a counter. And my mortal brain can’t fathom the time this all takes; the brevity of my life is clear in this spot, overlooking Blue Hole Falls, and yet I feel connected to it. Many of us return to nature for psycho-spiritual realignment, and this makes the most sense of just about anything I can think of: rivers, woods, mountains, deserts, and oceans realign us because they’re the stuff we’re made of–they’re the stuff of our origins: water, clay, minerals, viscera, and mystery.

I’m standing (as I write this) on a shelf of limestone that juts out over the gorge, several yards down-trail from where the photo above was taken. Here, the riverbed’s at least a hundred feet down. And I suspect that this ledge, too, will break off in time–it will fracture away from the bluff behind me with great, terrifying cracks that echo like rifle shots, and then it will slide with a many-throated roar to the river’s edge, where it may rest for ten-thousand years, propped at a forty-five degree angle against the steep hillside–a giant stone plate, snapped in half, with the back half tilted against the rock wall from which it fell and the front half lying flat in the riverbed. A tree might arise and thrive in the break. The river will have altered its course accordingly.

At some far-flung future time, this stone that supports me will remain, either in its present place or at the bottom of the ravine. Long after me and my offspring and their offspring are lost to time, our names no more remembered than those of the citizens of ancient civilizations, the stone will exist. Nature carries on without us, but also it is us. This is a great mystery, and I’m past the point where I think anyone alive understands it or is even capable of understanding it. But that doesn’t keep me from searching.

Alan D. Tucker: content blogger, essayist, & novelist
Alan D. Tucker
content blogger, essayist, & novelist

**Here’s an earlier post in which I grapple with time: http://alandrue.com/nashvilles-current-time-warp/.

***Here are more images from Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park: