We are gathered here today, in the midst of economic calamity, to ask if we
really should be gathered here today, in a funhouse of merchandise designed
to send us deeper into debt.
Specifically, we are gathered in the Chapel of Love, sandwiched between a
LensCrafters and a Bloomingdale's and tucked into a relatively quiet corner
of the vast prairie of retail and amusements that is the Mall of America.
It's a convenient starting point for rethinking the 50-year marriage between
the American shopper and the American mall. Because we've been married to
the mall for so long that some of us are now getting married in the mall -
5,000 couples in this chapel since it opened 10 years ago.
And one recent Sunday afternoon, Brianna and Jesse Bergmann are standing
here under a white wedding arch, beside an ordained minister, having
promised to cherish each other in sickness and in health. There was a homily
about forgiveness, an exchange of vows and finally a kiss and some applause.
Before everyone heads past the Foot Locker and down the escalator to the
Rainforest Cafe, the bride - a cherubic 19-year-old - leans against a wall
in her billowy white dress and explains why she chose this spot for her big
"I love shopping," she says, giggling. "Mostly clothing. I love Macy's, Aero's,
American Eagle, Maurice's."
"I come with her when she shops," says her husband, a 21-year-old who loads
pallets in a food warehouse, "so she doesn't spend too much."
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem: We are reliably
informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can't be pinned on Wall
Street - or on mortgage-related financial insanity - can be pinned on
consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent
of the American economy. So if we don't spend, we don't recover. Fiscal
health isn't possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers,
including those at this mall and every other retailer.
In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it's part of the
cure. And once we're cured, economists report, we really need to learn how
to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.
So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can't quit, though we
really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is
wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.
Like any other troubled marriage, this one needs counseling. And pronto,
because even a trial separation at a moment as precarious as this could get
So we have come to this 4.2-million-square-foot behemoth - the mother of all
malls, a pioneer in the field of destination retailing, and a sprawling,
visceral economic indicator - for some talk therapy with shoppers, retailers
and management. We let people vent, grumble and sift through their feelings.
They catalog their anxieties, describe their fears and express the
surprising varieties of guilt that only dysfunctional relationships can
"I feel a need to get out there and do the mall thing, because I don't want
the mall to disappear," says Cookie Tomlinson, who is visiting from Maryland
and sits on a bench next to her son near Lego Park.
Mrs. Tomlinson and her husband are here Christmas shopping for their two
grandchildren, who are too young to realize that their gifts are a tad late.
"It's a social experience, being with the grandkids, watching them
interact," she says.
Her son, Gary Tomlinson, is a computer repairman who wears a black T-shirt
that reads, "No, I will not fix your computer."
"The mall is tactile in a way that online shopping isn't," he says. "So the
kids pick out stuff that they wouldn't pick out if we were at home shopping
on the Web."
But could you quit the mall if you had to?
"Yeah, I could quit the mall," he says. "But I don't want to see it die."
THERE are roughly 1,500 malls in the United States, according to the
International Council of Shopping Centers, many of them ailing, some of them
being converted into office buildings, and others closing their doors for
At Web sites like deadmalls.com, the carcasses of these abandoned buildings
are photographed and toe-tagged, along with tributes from former shoppers.
All this as the worst retail environment in decades continues to sag in a
But from those overseeing the Mall of America, you don't hear panic. "We're
bucking the trend," says Maureen Bausch, vice president for business
development. "We always knock wood when we say that."
Ms. Bausch has the effervescent, can-do cheer of a small-town mayor, which,
in a way, she is.
Eleven thousand people work at the mall in this suburb of Minneapolis, a
five-minute ride from the airport. Forty million visitors arrive here each
year, which, according to the mall's promotional material, is more than
visit Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Graceland combined.
The mall has a seven-acre theme park with 24 rides, an aquarium with
hundreds of sharks, an 18-hole miniature golf course, 20,000 parking spaces
and 520 retail stores.
The mall has its own security force and a holding cell, which is run by the
Bloomington police. There are 250 video cameras spread around the mall,
which Darcy Kwyla, a security systems controller, monitors in a hushed room.
"You see everything," says Ms. Kwyla, as she flips from camera to camera
with a control panel on her desk. "Sex in the parking lot, a naked guy on
drugs walking through the mall, thefts, fights. You name it."
Since the mall opened in 1992, there have been a handful of suicides -
mostly people jumping from the seventh level of the parking lot - as well a
murder and two accidental deaths on the amusement park rides. But you are
far more likely to see a TV chef than a crime on the premises.
Last year, 95 celebrities were limoed here, mostly B- and C-listers like the
professional wrestler Bret Hart and Jay McGraw, the son of Dr. Phil and
author of "Life Strategies for Dealing With Bullies."
"We're more promotional now than we've ever been," as Ms. Bausch puts it.
Sitting in her office in the basement, she is explaining how it's possible
that total sales at the mall were up 2 percent in 2008. Even she seems a
little amazed by the number, in part because a major highway nearby was shut
down during some crucial days in the holiday shopping season.
Yes, 11 stores closed in 2008, including Hot Dog on a Stick, a clothing
retailer named Big Dog, and Wilsons Leather. But 31 new stores opened, among
them American Apparel, True Religion and Best Buy, which brought in New Kids
on the Block, the reunited boy band, for what the store billed as an
"exclusive Best Buy opening performance and autograph signing!"
Tourist dollars helped. There are 71 Mall of America package tours from 32
countries. And there are special events, like the "Spirit of America"
cheerleading competition, which unleashes a couple of thousand cheerleaders
in the mall on the weekend we visit.
But the girls in sparkly mascara, on teams with names like Xtreme Storm, are
outnumbered by shoppers. And few of those shoppers are in the mood to spend.
Here, for instance, are six women from St. Cloud, Minn., waiting for a table
outside Ruby Tuesday. They have come for their eighth annual weekend trip to
the Mall of America. Four of them are sisters and two are women who married
into the sisters' family, and happen to be sisters, too.
"Can you guess who the four sisters are?" one asks. (We can, but by dumb
They are all splitting a single suite at a hotel, which will cost each of
them a mere $16 a night. As they do the math, it's clear that an unofficial
competition is under way for the title of Least Extravagant Shopper.
"I got this for $25," says Shannon McDonnel, draping a leopard-pattern scarf
around her neck. "From Macy's. On sale."
"That's not a sale item!" a sister shouts.
"It is a sale. It was originally $40. No wait, it was originally $34. So
that's a sale."
"I spent $36 and got eight items," says Kyna Reiter. "All of them from
Garage, a store I'd never heard of, but it was a great store."
"I got a dress from Ann Taylor for $5," says Meaghan Banes. She also has a
burrito from Chipotle in her hands, which she will take into Ruby Tuesday,
which means she'll spend less than everyone else on lunch. So she wins.
Each of the six women is in a defensive spending crouch for a different
One woman's husband hauls new cars, which means he's on the verge of being
laid off. Another's husband is training to be a police officer, which means
he isn't earning anything now. The couple have been trying to sell their
house for a year, hoping that they can downsize to a smaller home, in the
$100,000 range. But so far, no one has even asked to see the house twice,
let alone made an offer.
"Have you buried a statuette of St. Joseph in the yard?" Ms. McDonnel asks.
(The statue is supposed to bring good luck.)
"A year ago," Ms. Reiter says. "We buried St. Joseph a year ago."
The black disc that Ruby Tuesday gave them is now blinking and making noise.
Their table's ready.
"Maybe you should bury St. Jude," Ms. McDonnel says, heading into the
"He's the saint of lost causes."
IF we were actually in couples therapy with the mall, we'd have to confess
to something: We have changed, not the mall.
The economic crisis has caused shoppers to go into an essentials-only mode.
But the mall has never trafficked in essentials. You can't, for instance,
fill a prescription at the Mall of America, because it doesn't have a
pharmacy. You can, however, buy a vanilla hazelnut fragrance candle in the
shape of a miniature cooking skillet. Or a $13 baseball hat that looks as
though it's made of cheddar cheese. A store called Corda-Roy's sells a
variety of bean bags that convert into beds. Magnet Max sells a
battery-operated guinea pig that runs continuously on a spinning exercise
And, as ever, the Mall of America is filled with I-dare-you combinations of
fast food and entertainment. You can nibble on a carton of Long John Silver's
buttered lobster bites, then ride the SpongeBob SquarePants roller coaster.
You can grab an A & W Coney cheese dog and barbecue fries and then take a
virtual submarine ride. You can treat yourself to Mama's Cinnamon Bread
Pudding at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and try the flight simulator at
The mall is the stalwart spouse that hasn't learned any new moves in a
decade. It is owned by the Ghermezian brothers, who live in Canada and run a
real estate conglomerate called Triple Five. They rarely talk to the media
and declined requests to be interviewed for this article.
Recently, they upgraded the Mall of America's movie multiplex, and in 2006
they dropped the Camp Snoopy theme in the amusement park after failing to
reach a deal with United Media, which owns the rights to the brand. The park
is now Nickelodeon Universe.
But the basic design and sales pitch of the mall are unchanged. The mall is
still a huge rectangle, with the stores surrounding the park and the
shopping areas divided into four sections - each with its own name, décor
and background music.
As the publicist Dan Jasper explained in an e-mail message, the West
Market - the hallway between Nordstrom and Macy's - is supposed to feel like
a European train station and gets smooth jazz. The North Garden, which
connects Sears and Macy's, is lined with trees and lampposts and is supposed
to feel like an outdoor park; the retail mix skews toward teenagers and the
music is described as "pop contemporary adult hottest hits." South Avenue
collects the upscale, chic stores and pipes in "rock adult album
alternative." East Broadway is supposed to feel contemporary and gets "pop
Despite the different looks, and despite navigation maps on kiosks around
the building, you never quite get your bearings. Several stores have more
instance, and four Caribou Coffees - which gives you the impression that you're
lapping places you haven't yet been.
The mall has skylights but, like a casino, has no windows and not a single
"Why do we want you to know what time it is?" Ms. Bausch says with a smile.
"We don't want you to leave so we don't want you to be in a hurry."
SPEND enough hours in the Mall of America and you wind up in a sort of fugue
state in which the specifics of time and place turn fuzzy. The hope, one
assumes, is that you'll spend more freely in this alternative universe of
It seems to have worked on Consuelo and Steve Ebert, a good-looking couple
in their late 30s. In their well-stuffed shopping bags are a sweatshirt, a
ski coat, pajamas and a children's book about Martin Luther King Jr. for
their daughter. This after having spent, by their own calculation, more than
$1,600 in the mall in the weeks before Christmas.
At a time when most people are watching from the sidelines, these two are
shopping decathletes. So one wonders: What do they do for a living?
"I'm a 911 dispatcher," Mrs. Ebert says, "and he's a fireman."
Both have been labeled "essential workers" by the state, and they feel more
essential than ever.
"I take calls from 36 cities," Mrs. Ebert says, "and for weeks, when the
price of gas was at $4 a gallon I would get a dozen calls a day from
gas-station managers reporting a gas drive-off" - when a driver speeds off
without paying. "We got so many of them that the police finally said that
they wouldn't pursue anyone unless more than $70 worth of gas had been
Mr. Ebert, meanwhile, was kept busy with calls to homes - all of them
vacant, many of them in foreclosure - that had been stripped of copper
pipes, presumably for sale as scrap.
"People would smell gas coming from those houses and call the fire
department," he says. "For a while, we had one of those calls every day."
These are among the few people with job security - the ones fielding the
local distress signals of the American economy. But there are, it seems, far
more people making those calls than answering them.
"There are days now when I make $160 and think I had a good day," says Mark
Classen, co-owner of Just Dogs! Gourmet, a store in the mall that sells,
among other items, signs that say "My Labrador retriever is smarter than
your honor roll student" and dog treats shaped like fire hydrants.
"You'd be amazed at how many people are returning things now," Mr. Classen
adds. "I'm going to have to start enforcing my return policy because - well,
look at this."
He reaches under the counter and retrieves a pair of pink dog shoes called
Cozy Boots, size "xxsmall," which are in a custom-made plastic zip bag.
"A woman just brought these back," he says. "The zipper is broken. The
cotton in the booties is gone. I can't sell these again. This keeps
happening. Today, every time I got past $300 in sales, somebody brought
something back and I was back under $300. Back and forth all day."
Mr. Classen isn't buying the "up 2 percent" line that the mall's management
is bragging about. In fact, you hear a lot of skepticism about that figure
from retailers here. (Except for the big ones. Representatives of the mall's
four anchor stores - Nordstrom, Macy's, Sears and Bloomingdale's - either
did not return calls or said they would not comment .)
The people who run the smaller operations are chattier - like Derrick Wolf,
the co-owner of a kiosk that sells hermit crabs as recession-friendly pets.
"I'd say we're staying afloat," he says. "We're down over last year, but not
to the point where it's worrying us."
Or Felicia Glass-Wilcox, who owns the Chapel of Love. The place has flower
sconces on the wall, a "Rod Stewart Unplugged" CD by the stereo and just
enough white lacquered pews to seat about 65 people.
It also has veils, flowers, dresses, guest books - and anything else needed
for a wedding ceremony - for sale, in a retail section, adjacent to the
chapel. On the day of the Bergmann wedding, Ms. Glass-Wilcox is standing
near the cash register, describing the kind of brides-to-be she is meeting
"We've heard it a lot lately and it just kind of kills us, but we have women
come in here and tell us they want a dress for $100," she says. "We have a
few that are close to $200, but they're pretty informal."
The retail part of her business is down 25 percent. Fortunately for Ms.
Glass-Wilcox, she also offers one of the area's least-expensive wedding
sites, with prices that start at $249, minister included, and go up to $649,
with add-ons like a photographer, custom music and Champagne.
"Thank God for those weddings," she says. "I make more money on my weddings
than I do on retail, so I'm up over all about 10 percent. We're balancing,
STORES like the Chapel of Love rent space from the Mall of America. (The
four anchors have long-term leases and constructed their own buildings.)
Everyone here, says Ms. Glass-Wilcox, has a different deal with the mall and
she is prohibited from discussing the terms with other renters. Under the
terms of some leases, management can tell a store to move to a different
"I've been here for five years and they've told us to move six times," says
Sarah Ertresvaag, an assistant manager at Tiffany Collection, a lamp store
that is closing in a matter of weeks. There are "50 percent off" signs all
"The shortest move was 10 days," Ms. Ertresvaag says. "We moved in, they
said somebody else wants the spot, and we moved out."
This is a revelation: Even the retailers have an uncertain marriage to the
mall. And the harder that times are, the trickier that relationship becomes.
Ms. Ertresvaag says she doesn't know when the store will actually close, or
even what is moving in to replace it. There have been rumors of a
restaurant; someone else claims that a labyrinth for children is planned.
She is just relieved to have another job lined up, one outside the mall.
Come March, she'll manage a gas station.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
Great article. Nice to see actual writing. Thanks for posting it.
There's not much one can do with an old mall, besides tear it down and start
from scratch. I have seen them retrofitted into telemarketing centers,
colleges, and city government centers. But in the long run it's probably
more profitable to find something else to do with the land. It's depressing
to walk through an old, dying mall... it's almost like walking through a
cemetery with an old beggar living on the premesis. One local mall (which I
used to work in) was completely demolished and an industrial park
(collection of warehouses) was built on the property. And a new outlet mall
is being built not far from that (unless their funding has just recently
Another big reason for America's abandonment of malls as a whole is, let's
face it, Wal-Mart. The whole family can get just about everything they want
or need there. Unless you're a teenage girl, there's not much reason
anymore to go to a mall; they're not really geared towards families. When
most families go to a mall, the first thing they do is split up and agree
when and where to meet up later. Most malls are/were geared toward women
anyway, and if you were there to actually find stuff to buy, it was likely
overpriced and a chore to get to. Malls still offer a few things that you
can't readily get elsewhere, but not much. If Wal-Mart starts building
movie theaters onto their stores, look out.
But Wal-Mart isn't immune, either. You probably live close to a
closed/boarded-up Wal-Mart, with a newer one not far away. One of Wal-Marts
little stunts is to build a new store and building, and run it for about 10
years, until the local government's tax breaks (which brought Wal-Mart there
in the first place) expire. And rather than fork over a bunch of new tax
money, Wal-Mart will simply close that location and build another one not
very far away (just across the city limits, most likely, in another
municipality that has just offered them some new tax breaks). That leaves
dead Wal-Marts all over the place. Not much can be done with those, either.
Good description of the feeling I get.
Deadmalls.com is a very interesting site. The pictures - like having a
ghostown/haunted building nearby ... then again, it gave us a hell of a good
Blues Brothers movie :-)