There is a slew of content on the internet about shopping malls closing, about the loss of what was once a societal staple of American culture. Many of the articles are primarily about the changing retail landscape, and often come off as an attack on the hub of commercialization shopping mall’s once represented. The term “mall” can apply to different types of shopping centers, but this article is about the enclosed interior shopping malls that once stood as staples near every community. My personal concern in this article is also more about what a mall meant to those living in rural areas. From tacky neon decadence, to filthy sauce splashed walls in the food court, I certainly held some love for the old shopping mall I grew up with.
Throughout the early twentieth century, people spread from cities to suburbs. Stores followed and tended to conglomerate outside these suburbs. A major barrier to the outdoor shopping experience was the potential for harsh weather. The idea of a giant enclosed shopping space took shape and the first enclosed mall opened in 1956 in Minnesota. Locations with winter climates embraced interior malls first, but hotter climates soon followed. By the 1960s, shopping malls were popping up all over the country.
For the rural landscape and communities spread by swaths of farmland, a mall’s department stores offered access to clothing, furniture, and appliances. Aside from the larger anchor stores, smaller shops specialized in hobby, toy, music, books, etc. This gave rural communities access to things that were often less accessible outside cities. The mall I personally grew up with, the Woodville Mall located in Northwood, OH, was the only mall within about a half hour drive of where I lived. There were other large malls in the nearest city of Toledo, but most people I knew tended to show a subtle loyalty to their hometown mall.
To boost curb appeal, malls usually had some pretty signature décor. My mall had giant purple archways. It had fountains near every anchor store. The food court offered “ethnic variety” (Sbarro pizza and fried-rice can seem ethnic to one who is rurally-sheltered). Malls offered a connection to pop-culture as well. Much of the music, movies, and clothing styles that helped to define signature aspects of the 70s, 80s, 90s, were all helped by a countrywide hegemony of similar stores in similar malls. Fads ranging from Pet Rocks to Cabbage Patch to Beanie Babies, were all boosted by the shopping mall.
For a kid like me, born in the early 80s, I saw malls as pretty standard. The mall felt like an ideal family shopping experience in that everyone got to visit a particular store of choice. In the early 2000s, I was especially grateful that my mall offered employment outside of working for farms, or the fast-food places off the highway.
Having a job at a mall gave me some inside perspective into some of the problems that led to my childhood mall’s demise. The popular narrative is that online shopping killed many shopping malls, and although it plays a factor, my old mall, had some other major underlying issues prior to the slowing sales.
The first problem came from infrastructure. Many early shopping malls were built using hazardous asbestos. As this material began to get regulated in the 70s, it slowly began to reveal that the idea of renovating buildings with asbestos required special time, care, and expense. This often meant small problems in the mall were left to fester. Structural and building upkeep was ignored. A neglectful spiraling of small issues also relates to the next major problem my old mall faced, and that was with neglectful ownership.
As decades passed and local landlords of malls changed hands, ownership often went to banking or investment corporations. These were often based in distant cities or states, with little interest in local communities. Sometimes these capitalistic firms were also looking for ways to shift their debt around, (although that is another story, places like KB toys and Toys R’ Us, were both victims of predatory capitalism and debt being shifting). One new landlord can be jarring, several can be turbulent. In my mall’s case, it seemed like new owners only tried to collect as much rent as possible before the inevitable.
Near the end of what I considered my hometown mall’s lifespan, things were looking pretty grim for the Woodville Mall. Parking areas were sun-bleached, with most traffic lines gone and weeds poking through any cracks—heaven forbid you had to dodge an old person in a Cadillac out there in the Wild West of driving conditions. Inside, fountains were turned off and drained, big potted plants gathered dust, and much of the internal decadence was disassembled. Bathrooms were sometimes out-of-order for months. There are news reports about the ceiling almost falling on mall-walkers. Such ceilings also leaked, sometimes by the bucket-load. As the heating system often broke, sometimes the mall was colder inside than out. These problems eventually led to The Woodville Mall’s closure slightly before the building was condemned. I have to imagine many other rural malls faced similar fates of neglectful ownership, building decline, and sure, the declining sales that just exasperated the eventual demise.
Enclosed shopping malls do continue to exist. Ironically enough, considering malls once followed people to suburbs, it is usually in or near cities that many of these buildings still stand. Some buildings came late enough to escape the use of asbestos, or perhaps a proximity to people made them feasible to renovate. Newly constructed malls have opened in recent years, but primarily in cities. The era when the rural community seemed to have malls within reach has changed vastly compared to the booming mall-days of previous decades.
After my old mall closed, the building stood for a few more years before being bulldozed. What I miss about my hometown mall has little to do with the shopping experience. When I used to visit the mall in the years after working there, I just enjoyed going inside to see it. The Woodville Mall had been a community staple for nearly fifty years. The building was like walking into an old school, a church, perhaps almost as significant as a childhood home. The mall was a communal building that connected people for many miles within its radius. When people lament the loss of their personal malls, it is mainly in losing that building full of kinship and good times, in seeing a building that seemed a significant part of their past, suddenly turned into a part of the world that only then exists as part of both memory, and history.