The great American indoor mall is a lumbering architectural dinosaur. An unwieldy beast that has been hit by the meteor that is the Internet and is slowly becoming an amber-encased fossil of a simpler (but decidedly less convenient) era.
As a kid, malls enchanted me. As an adult, I still find them enchanting but also oddly melancholy. My happy boyhood memories of visiting Capital City Mall with my mom, combined with so many of them falling into disrepair in the 21st century, has given malls a nostalgic, warmly faded appeal for me.
Maybe that’s why Starcourt Mall from Stranger Things was such a cultural touchpoint. It’s a vividly remembered place that feels frozen in the 1990s, and is being lost to the ravages — and renovations — of time. Extinction feels imminent.
But luckily for my nostalgic self, malls do still exist. And due to the quarantine era, as well as our increasingly online shopping habits, my young children have somehow never knowingly been inside an indoor mall. (Our 6-year-old son did go with us a few times when he was too young to remember.)
So on Friday after work, since the wind was too jagged to take the kids outside, I followed a random impulse and took them to the Capital City Mall, that relic of my childhood, for a field trip of sorts. I didn’t want to buy anything; I just wanted to give them a new sensory experience.
I didn’t know what Greyson and Violet would think or whether the trip would be a dud. But it was a delight. Largely because the kids are so naturally filled with delight.
The most delightful part is that they were so content with the mere experience, they didn’t once ask me to buy them anything. Even when we walked past the toy section of Macy’s and saw shelves full of items branded with Peppa Pig, a show they enjoy for some reason that lies somewhere beyond the realm of my adult understanding.
Their lack of consumerist greed made my fatherly heart swell with pride. On the drive over, I had given them my usual talk (“Do we need to buy more stuff?” “No.” “Right! And why not?” “Because we have plenty of stuff already!”) and it sure seemed to pay off. I like to think my grandparents, who sadly never got to meet Greyson or Violet, would have been proud.
As we strolled down the mall’s central corridor, I had my 6-year-old son read the names of each store aloud and I told the kids what items that store sold. I mumbled something about gifts when we shuffled quickly past Spencer’s. The kids and I both made note of the disproportionate number of stores that sold shoes (a whopping 7 I think) as well as candles (do we really need 2 in the same mall?). They didn’t ask what it was that Victoria was keeping Secret, which I appreciated.
Strangely enough, the thing that exhilarated my kids the most was the sight of every bench or cushioned chair in the middle of the mall walkway. Each time they saw a sitting area, they ran over to clamber onto the benches and conjure up some pretend scenario in their minds.
They have both been oddly obsessed with furniture lately, and they wanted to know if the mall had beds and dressers and ovens and refrigerators like a house does. I explained to them that no one lives or sleeps at the mall. Although when we did see one bed in Macy’s right before we left, they were pretty thrilled. (They’re easily thrilled, which is one of their most endearing qualities.)
I walked them through the food court and explained what kind of food was sold by each tiny restaurant. They were intrigued by the sign for the shut-down Saladworks being reversed, and I told them that most people must not want to eat salad when they go to the mall. Violet was still talking about that backward sign after we got home. You never know what will make an impression.
When we got to Dick’s Sporting Goods, I called an audible and decided to give the kids a whirlwind sports education. So I did my best to explain each sport, demonstrating the use of a baseball glove and a lacrosse stick, and letting them hold each kind of ball. Then at the putting green, the kids grabbed $80 putters and each of them 13-putted from 6 feet away. So it would appear Tiger Woods and Jordan Speith don’t need to watch their backs quite yet.
During our entire mall visit, at this mecca (or former mecca) of consumerism, I spent a grand total of $1.00. And it wasn’t even for something the kids asked for. I saw those vibrating chairs they have in the middle of the mall, near the cell phone case kiosks. And I couldn’t resist letting Greyson and Violet take a ride.
So I had them snuggle up next to each other on one of the chairs. I built up the suspense a little. I watched their eyes get wide with excitement. I inserted a dollar bill.
And I watched with pleasure as they experienced a 3-minute back massage. (Which was really a head massage for Violet because she’s so short.) “It feels bumpity!” she cried giddily. Truly a dollar well spent.
Once we returned to our starting point, they joyously ran circles around the open, blandly empty carpeted area where Santa sets up shop every December. Just ran and ran. Because again, it simply doesn’t take much to make them happy. And that is one of the happiest, simplest joys of my life.
So I would like to say to the fading malls of America: Thanks for the memories. From 1985 to 2023, you’ve given me an enchanting indoor escape. Back in the days when wide-eyed little Jeremy held his mom’s hand. And now in the days when I hold the tiny hands of my own wide-eyed wonders.
Because just like the kids happily plinking and plonking their golf ball all the way around that little putting green until it finally dropped into the hole…
Everything comes full circle.