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.