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Shopping Malls

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Shopping malls orbit all of the large cities dotting the American landscape and most of the small ones. To many people the shopping mall is a symbol of America and the American lifestyle. They are huge affairs, where three or four 'anchor' stores are bound together by many smaller stores set in the midst of oceanic parking lots1.

The anchor stores are normally well-known icons of the retail world, offering a variety of merchandise in a bewildering number of departments. The smaller stores - the mall fascia - are specialty shops that are pigeon-holed into box-like spaces connecting the main organs. They sell all the goods that Americans have grown to love, as their lifestyle moves from the frontier to the sofa, and which have come to be considered just as essential to modern living in much of the rest of the world. There are often curious trinket shops, specialising in the accoutrements of a particular religious or ethnic group. The age and health of a mall can be reckoned fairly precisely by the proportion of discount stores, comic shops, and constituency offices of fringe party politicians in relation to popular franchise outlets.

There are usually several eating establishments ('restaurants'), offering assorted cuisine from greasy chicken and hamburgers to ersatz ethnic fair. What they have in common is their specific appeal to diners who are more concerned about their feet than their tummies... or their taste buds. Many malls feature 'food courts', in which an eclectic blend of tacos, chow mein, pizza, and chips are tried and justly condemned.

The shopping mall is especially popular among families, as toys for children are located just a short walk away from toys for their parents. Mall walking is a rite of passage for teens, offering a chance to flirt, loiter, and shop for sneakers and acne cures. The press of humanity, especially the press of adolescent humanity of the opposite gender, imposed by the mall shopping experience is the perfect environment in which to strut one's newly acquired stuff, both anatomical and sartorial. If only the muzak was a little less geriatric! On the other hand, perhaps it's just as well that it is. While teens are often the last to be chased out by mall security guards at closing time, the elderly are flocking in increasing numbers to join mall walking clubs that offer a safe environment in which to take exercise, often before the shops are open in the morning.

While not unique to the shores of America, the shopping mall is a concept that blossomed in the USA. This is likely due to the large amount of land required to build a mall on, something many cities in America offer at attractive rates on the outskirts of their urban sprawl. Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have also taken up mall building. The phenomenon has spread to Asia too, because it is such a wonderful way to condense stores. In Japan the shopping mall can grow to twice the number of floors of a traditional American mall, in order to fit more stores into less horizontal space.

Landmark Mall, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

The I-95 corridor, leading south from the District of Columbia, has three such shopping malls located within Washington's Beltway: Pentagon City Mall is across the highway from the famous military office building of the same name; Springfield Mall is located in the vicinity of the Springfield Interchange; and poor Landmark Mall is a three-storey structure situated roughly an equal distance between the two.

The difficulty of having three malls in a very limited geographic area is that each must find a niche; each must have something about it that makes it unique. For a while, this was not a problem, as the three malls co-existed for several years after the most recent edition to the trio, Pentagon City, was built. The expansion of the metro area, south beyond Springfield and vertical in the Pentagon City and Crystal City areas, has caused Landmark Mall to be squeezed out.

For years, Landmark Mall did provide two anchor stores that were not duplicated at either of the other area malls. One of these was Sears, which still continues to offer automotive services and a good selection of power tools, appliances, clothing, and so on. The other store was Woodrow and Lawthrops, a large department chain that had a warehouse nearby, giving it an advantage in selection and product turnover over most department stores in the area. Within the Washington DC area, Woodrow and Lawthrops (affectionately known as Woody's) was the bastion of department store shopping, with the large Landmark warehouse, and their flagship store in the heart of the District. The Woody's store took up three floors and extended all the way up to the small food court level.

Unfortunately, the Woodrow and Lawthrops chain became a victim of the vagaries of American consumerism. It floundered for a few years, before finally being forced into bankruptcy. They finally announced that all store locations, including the large Landmark store, would close down. It held on for a while. The store was close to a Woody's warehouse, so they kept it open to serve as the location for the local liquidation of the chain. But soon the inevitable could no longer be postponed, and large barriers were erected in front of what had been one of the nicest department stores in the area. Another store took over, but failed within two years.

Death and Decay

A corpse does not simply disappear. No, there are parts of it that hold on, clinging desperately to the skeleton, as it is slowly eaten away. Thus it was with Landmark Mall. Three music stores soon became two... then one; then the one merged with the last remaining video store in the mall. The result is one of the better sources for movies and music in the area. But, even as such, it has slowly started falling into disrepair, no longer maintaining a large inventory or restocking as quickly as it once did.

Similarly, three book stores soon became two, as the upscale Brentano's shut down. Then, as book store chains began to consolidate, the two remaining stores found themselves under the same blanket ownership of Barnes and Nobles. As soon as this happened, those higher up in the company decided that two stores in a failing mall was one too many. Now there is but one Waldenbooks, located on the third floor food court level. Also on that level is the last software store, where once there were two. No store has flourished; they have either failed or just held on. Many owe their tenancy to the fact that rent at Landmark has fallen a bit in a last ditch effort to keep stores on.

Life After Death

The economy will continue to cycle through periods of boom and bust, and demographic data (people) will continue to flow along I-95 like so many corpuscles. Sooner or later, conditions may once again favour a vibrant, healthy Landmark Mall.

1Those who aren't quite up to the rigours of an actual shopping mall can exhaust themselves almost as completely in virtual malls, which are beginning to dot the cyber landscape.

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