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.

Winter Love

brown sneakers on wet pine needles

kinship with the cold
and built for solitude,
me in my brown leather sneakers,

mashing down a wet bed
of pine needles. the memory
finds me, like a friendly dog

whose owner’s property
my trail traverses, and January
opens again resplendently,

its frost-gilded limbs growing
wet with the warming day–
how clean light crackles

through the canopy,
pinned in place by a bolt
of cirrus clouds curling

across my panning eyes,
a coasting vulture glides,
its wings a black whisper

shushing like the jagged floes
that tilt and tumble down
the rocky river’s dips

and the water’s glassy slide
draws a song of life and death
from the slick, ancient limestone

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

Longboard Dad

People in Nashville don’t expect to see a grown man on a skateboard, at least not in the suburbs. That’s what I deduced on a recent outing with my boys. They had their bikes and I had my longboard (which is exactly what it sounds like, for those unfamiliar with skater lingo), and we pushed and pedaled around the parking lots and walking track of my oldest son’s school for a couple of hours. The clear, cool day brought out other people, too, so we had a little company: walking middle-aged couples (probably close to my age, actually); a teenage kid blasting hip-hop in his headphones and doing basketball moves with no ball; a man giving his daughter a driving lesson. The basketball kid paid us no mind, and the father giving driving lessons checked to make sure we’d be in a different part of the parking lot, but the walking couples stared. Rudely stared. Some said hi, but others had this bemused look, like they thought I was kidding about being a longboard dad, or that any moment I might break into a Rodney Mullen street routine. It got a little awkward.

I’m jealous of two kinds of people: really tall people, and people who don’t care what anyone thinks of them. As hard as I try, when someone outright stares at me, I can’t ignore it. I may not look at them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel their eyes burning whichever side of me happens to be facing them.

The longboard stayed, of course, because thankfully I’m too stubborn to let a little awkwardness deter me. But it would be nice if the stigma of skateboarding being only a thing for kids would go away. I can’t see why it’s any less a legitimate activity than riding a bike.

Anyway, that experience has me thinking about the awkwardness and vulnerability artists undergo for the sake of their work. It’s risky to take something you created and place it in front of others. It’s risky because an artist’s work is built from the raw materials of his own life; to put it simply, it’s intimate. The best artists hold nothing back. It terrifies me to think of holding nothing back. Yet to be honest and to be good, artistically speaking, that stuff has to come out. Like a longboard.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist