In the Mall, I Was . . . in the Mall

As a halfway educated man, I wonder why I like hanging out in shopping malls. There’s an understood mandate among we liberal arts types to despise such centers of consumerism, with their calculated storefront designs and cleverly displayed merchandise; and the hardly hidden motive for profit, which is one small, capitalist step away from greedy excess. In other words, the mall is a two-storied, soulless gallery of deception. Yet this store across from me right now, called Altar’d State, looks inviting, even though I think it’s geared toward women. The letters in the name are clean and modern, and they’re evenly centered above the entrance, on a slanted, wooden awning that runs nearly the width of the store. The tall windows are arched and contain rectangular bits of stained glass, all in various shades of brown, beige, tan, and off-white (I imagine that at some point, someone used words like “khaki” and “cream”). The facade reminds me a little bit of Macaroni Grill, which has even further pleasant associations. Anyway, staring at Altar’d State, it strikes me that mall storefronts are a little like television shows: just as TV gives us artificial slices of life on one convenient screen, the mall gives us artificial slices of architecture in one convenient location. Neither is what you would call real life or fine architecture, but they both seem to be enough. They both seem to satisfy some vagrant need for spectacle.

Maybe its the cleanliness and brightness that I love at the mall, and the good smells, and the splashes of color in the makeup department at Belk. The fact that the mall is climate-controlled is a definite plus, and opportunities for people-watching abound (even though most of the adults seem to be nursing a low-grade misery). Also, there’s something to be said about the pairing of familiar stores, like Dillard’s, with stores I’ve never heard of, like Native and Nomad. It’s as if the mall is saying, “I know who I am, yet I also like trying new things.” Humans like that kind of spirit.

Inevitably, I begin to wonder what this desire to be in the mall says about me. Am I drawn by the scent of retail? By its implied promise that happiness can be bought? Yet I almost never buy anything. (But I could. But I don’t. It goes back and forth.) To embrace the idea that buying brings happiness is, of course, shallow. So if I do get some kind of thrill from close proximity to retail, I hope that it is only a vicarious one. Perhaps the fascination is an expression of social class: an overlap of the working-class obsession over brand names with the middle-class obsession over buying power. This doesn’t feel quite accurate either, though. I shook brand-name obsession decades ago (I like to think), and as I’ve already said, I almost never buy anything. Or maybe, like most Americans, discussions of social class put me on edge, so I’ll drop that. Anyway, I think I’m gonna just drop this whole thing. I’m beginning to feel shallow.

Consumerism and Childlike Vision

Ours is a consumerist society.  When I enter the word “consumerism” into my Dictionary.com application, three definitions appear:  one concerning the protection of customers; one about the benefit of goods consumption to the economy ; and one dealing with the “practice of an increasing consumption of goods”.  All of these are represented in America, but the last definition is the one that readily reveals our unsavory side.  We are addicted to whatever is newest, best, and/or most impressive.  There is a wide-ranging impulse to buy up each technological advancement the moment it comes to rest on a retail shelf, and the lack of funds is hardly a hurdle given the surplus of financing options at our disposal. The release–or better still, the reduction in price–of a much ballyhooed product has the power to whip a crowd into a credit card-wielding frenzy.  At its most uncivil, the consumerist bent leads to violence, as evidenced by the senseless trampling at a predawn Wal-Mart a few years back (the day after Thanksgiving, no less).

 

With characteristic resistance, I try not to get taken in by the darker side of consumerism, by which I mean the reckless expenditure that has its roots in the notion that one can buy happiness.  Yet there I was on a December Sunday, strolling past a quaint Dickensian miniature village on the second floor of a department store at the Galleria mall, thinking to myself, without a bit of irony, “Hmm, that’s nice.”  Meanwhile, seasonal classics sung by assorted somebodies are falling like snow from audio speakers in the ceiling and the spicy-sweet scent of cinnamon emanates from some unknown region of the store.  A hitherto non-existent urge to part with my money begins to form, and it becomes clear how easy it is to get caught up in the consumerist moment and exit the mall with an armload of extraneous merchandise.  Is it really that big of a leap from the desktop pinball game to the latest high-definition television at a Black Friday sale?

 

There may have been no irony behind my admiration for a ceramic Christmas village, but there is a bit of irony in the fact that some of the very props used to lure unsuspecting customers into a spending stupor are those that can provide a way out of this costly conspiracy.  It is by looking at them through the eyes of a child.  By recalling the sense of wonder we had as we gazed upward at a lighted tree that seemed impossibly tall, we can lay claim to the old magic that made us fall in love with this time of year in the first place.

 

My son gazes up at our tree from time to time.  He is barely a year old, so nothing holds his attention for very long.  It was obvious moments after we put the tree up, though, that we would not be able to leave it on the floor. Arthur tends to pull down, take apart, or throw whatever is within reach.  The tree is now on a side table, with all but the lowest branches inaccessible to his two-and-a-half foot frame. Seeing his upward stares gives me a specific memory of doing the same thing.  I was a little older–old enough to have memories, obviously–but still very much a child.  I remember thinking that either chipmunks or elves lived in the center, behind the pine needles where they could not be seen.  They would run around, jumping from branch to branch, way up high and out of sight, rearranging ornaments while we slept.  This sounds like it has the potential to be scary, but it was not.  It was an imagination at play, inspired by the colorful lights and shiny garland that embellished a big tree in my family’s living room.  It was a part of the joyful anticipation of that big day that was coming ever so slowly.  Perhaps harnessing just a hint of childlike vision will help us to resist the soul-squeezing grip of unbridled consumerism.