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.

Pickle’s Record Store Reboot

We spent a couple of days in my hometown of Union City, Tennessee, doing Christmas with my parents and brother and his family. On the way to visit my aunt yesterday afternoon, I took an indirect path through Graham Park. I spent many childhood and teenage hours in that park, from collecting tadpoles and playing tee-ball to skateboarding and meeting girlfriends (my first real kiss came on one of those playgrounds, and it was the awkwardest thing imaginable). Every corner of Union City seems to hold some kind of memory. No matter where I drive, memories come at me with unexpected, bittersweet clarity. This onslaught of memories got me thinking about a part of my thesis where I mention Pickle’s Record Store. Many may remember Pickle’s, but I suspect just as many have never heard of it, especially those of younger generations. So here’s an excerpt in which I’m writing about the poet Rilke’s idea that we have an obligation to create meaning in the world by “saying” things. In other words, by writing about Pickle’s, I give it more life than it would have otherwise had–immortalizing it, in a sense. Poets “say” with words, painters “say” with paint, musicians “say” with their instruments, et cetera. Here goes:

“Rilke makes a compelling case for the world’s need of us: like us, it is perishing, but it has no voice with which to proclaim its existence. A thing’s existence soon ceases, and if we don’t “say” it, there will be no record it ever was here: “More than ever / the Things that we might experience are vanishing,” and they vanish because whatever resides within a thing “outgrows it and seeks new limits” (DE 9.44-5, 48). Nature lets few things outlive their usefulness. Today’s strip mall is tomorrow’s weedy outcrop. But what if people congregated inside one of that strip mall’s shops, like they used to do at Pickle’s Record Store in Union City, Tennessee, twenty-five years ago, listening to reggae, partaking in a certain substance associated with reggae (so go the rumors), and generally being the kind of scandalous cool that only kids in their late teens can be? At that time, the store’s owner was something of an icon among a contingent of Union City High School’s juniors and seniors—possibly not the kind of man many parents would want their kids hanging around, but that only fueled his anti-hero status in their kids’ eyes. The shop is no longer there. The space is not a weedy outcrop yet, but Pickle’s has been replaced. Generations of kids are growing up in Union City with no memory of the old record store. It was a unique place in a city not known for such subcultural enclaves. But it met its end, as all things must do. Nevertheless, I have performed it a great service. Here, in this same paragraph, I have transformed Pickles Record Store by giving meaning to what would otherwise be a forgotten rectangle of retail space. I’m not saying that whatever replaced Pickles has no meaning, but that Pickles has had its life extended a few years by my inclusion of it in this essay. It may not be immortality, but it is more life than it had before.

“Sharing memories of defunct record stores is a base form of transformation, I admit; the meaning created is sparse. No great contribution to the arts has been achieved. But what matters here is that the memory has been “said” at all. Pickle’s may not achieve immortality from my effort, but I know of at least three who will read this essay, and they will know that Pickle’s existed, which is more life than the store could ever have expected.”

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.