As a connoisseur of garbage, I feel right at home.
February 28, 2023 5:04 PM   Subscribe

The Soul of the American Teen Can Be Found Next to the Sbarro "The word is that the mall is dying: something about kids these days, something about online shopping, something about the food court’s legacy going the way of the three-camera sitcom and the middle class. In an effort that was part journalism, part exposure therapy, I put on my best “hello, fellow kids” regalia and lurked the food courts of Anchorage, Alaska; Tempe, Arizona; and Portland, Oregon, to find out what today’s mall teens had to say about it, if they even still existed at all. My question for teenagers and other youths across the West is simple: Is the mall food court still a cultural watering hole, or am I fucking old now?"
posted by General Malaise (66 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I just thought this was a fun read, and it's been my goal lately to share the fun things to read that I discover.
posted by General Malaise at 5:04 PM on February 28 [37 favorites]

Yay, Jamie Loftus!

This last episode of The Last of Us took place in an abandoned mall, and it made me realized something unexpected: kids want there to be a future. Not today's kids in particular, just all kinds of kids -- they're primed for it, so they see it. The malls are worse now, and so are most things, but the teens are fully there, in a way we were once and will never be again.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:22 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

It was a fun read. Makes me sad, though. I was a mall kid, still kinda am. I do most of my shopping online now, but it’s still mostly at mall stores like Gap or J. Crew or Old Navy. I’ve made several online orders from JCPenney, even. My mind just has a block for stores that weren’t in Central Ohio malls in like 1998.

I still go to the mall occasionally. The one hear me has a Target which is marginally better stocked than the other one in town. I go to the Trader Joe’s next door pretty often, so sometimes I make a trip over. It’s still fairly active, thanks to being on just over the border (literally, they had to tear down part of a wall because it was built over the state line) in a state with no sales tax. The stores all suck now, though. And the food is terrible.

But food court food was always bad. The real culinary delight was in mall-adjacent restaurants, in the outbuildings at the edges of the parking lots. Don Pablo’s and PF Chang’s and Red Lobster. I write a big comment once about what places like that meant to me when they showed up at my hometown mall in 1995. It felt like civilization had arrived, even though thanks to MTV, Spin, etc. I was already “over” mainstream pop culture by that point. Everybody always talks about MTV playing, like, a Flaming Lips video and kids from the heartland having their minds blown, but that’s not how it works. Everyone at my high school listened to Pavement. We knew about indie rock. He’ll, the Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma. What we didn’t have was fucking Texas Roadhouse. Then we did. What more could we have asked for?
posted by kevinbelt at 5:34 PM on February 28 [22 favorites]

My teenage son and all his friends love to ride transit and hang out at different malls around the city every weekend. There are always lots of other kids there too. Cheap winter Ottawa entertainment.
posted by fimbulvetr at 5:43 PM on February 28 [8 favorites]

Something registers in the pit of my stomach that I recognize — a boy offered you something at the mall, you’d better take it or what will they say about you at school on Monday?

it's 1993, seventh grade, I'm an unpopular outcast tween "dating" a boy named Davey, who left one of those "will you go out with me yes/no circle one" notes in my desk, and in retrospect was clearly either fucking with me or deeply, deeply odd

at this point he's already pretended to be his own sister on the phone, swearing up & down that I'm speaking with "Davida"

we have a romantic couple's song and it is "Horse With No Name" by America

a couple months from now he will break up with me by getting the person who sits behind me in the class where we make cardboard rockets too early in the morning to announce, artificially loudly, "Don't Davey and Anna make a great couple?"

I am autistic with no diagnosis & none of this quote/unquote neurotypical shit makes any fucking sense to me as a thing people would choose to do when they could be reading or playing video games, but all right, whatever

anyway it's 1993, the landline rings, still rotary, I answer it

a girl I don't know asks for me, it's not Davida, it's very possibly Anna, she doesn't give a name

"You better leave Davey alone, because he's mine," she says, in place of hello

"Okay?" I respond. Davey and I already only barely interact, mainly in social studies class, I live outside the city between a feed store and a cemetery & I'm definitely not allowed out on dates, so this isn't a huge deal in my life

she repeats her initial point a couple times as though she were expecting more of an argument

"Okay," I say again

she stops, pauses, then asks "Do you want to go to the mall?"

"What?" I say, more surprised by this sudden question than any sentence in my life to this point, including the one where my mom informed me my father was having an affair with someone else's bipolar patient he'd met at work. "No?"

almost 30 years later & I still wonder what would've happened if I'd said "yes let's go to the mall"

what the whole-ass fuck
posted by taquito sunrise at 5:46 PM on February 28 [148 favorites]

But food court food was always bad.

New York Fries & mayo dip flavoured with curry spices begs to differ.
posted by srboisvert at 5:49 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]

I don't remember a lot of mall hanging out when I was a kid. I'd go to a mall if I was seeing a movie but there was never any attraction in spending too much time at the mall and I knew that the best food at the food court, Manchu Wok, wasn't all that good but sometimes you feel like eating Chicken Balls in red sauce with fried rice even if you know it is objectively crap. The good stuff was always the snacks in random shops throughout the mall: the cinnamon buns, flavoured popcorn, soft cookies, or pretzels. I remember the highlight of visiting my cousins in Cincinnati was going to the mall though. We'd drive down every other month and the malls were the best thing that city had to offer. Even there the food court food wasn't good but they had Cinnabon while we only had Saint Cinnamon.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:55 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

taquito sunrise: I would read—no, wait, I would wait in line to buy and then read, an entire book of anecdotes like that.
posted by General Malaise at 5:57 PM on February 28 [50 favorites]

There is one living mall in my town, one dying, one dead. The living one has a Sbarro’s. The worst thing about being on my present diet is not being able to go to Sbarro’s.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:58 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

In the 1980s, the mall was the only place other than a friend's house, the one stand alone movie theater, or perhaps the roller rink that anyone's parents would drop us off or pick us up later at. We had few other options if we wanted to interact with more than one person at a time (over the phone) unless we lived close enough to walk or bike to each others' houses, or meet at the library (thankfully close). This was, of course, suburbia, although dense enough that I could reasonably get to two or three of my friends' houses without a car.

I don't live that far from my childhood mall (that's a Jersey thing to say!), and oddly enough, it seems pretty crowded these days after they renovated it a year or two before COVID. I drive by it a lot and I'm surprised to see how many cars are there, despite it having two out of four anchor stores standing empty.
posted by mollweide at 6:09 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

I'm pretty sure in storage somewhere I have some bleach-distressed long-exposure prints of a Sbarro circa 1989 or so.

Yes, we were kinda bored.
posted by credulous at 6:13 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I remember going to the Macy’s furniture store in the mall and trying out a bunch of chairs with my friend. At age 17 or something. Not 40.

The suburbs are fucking boring.
posted by rhymedirective at 7:35 PM on February 28 [9 favorites]

I haven't been to a Sbarro in over a decade. I didn't even know they still existed. And dammit, all I want right now is one of those greasy garlic rolls! I just looked at the website. This still exist but the garlic rolls are gone. Now it's just some breadsticks that look to be an imitation of Olive Garden breadsticks. I am devastated.
posted by Ber at 8:37 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

This all makes me sad.
posted by evilDoug at 9:38 PM on February 28

I was one of those kids who was at the mall every weekend just hanging out, shopping and never buying anything, shooting the shit with friends, eating huge soft pretzels covered in sugar, pretending to be a badass and/or hoodlum, walking across the street to the record store to browse the bins. It wasn't the coolest way to fritter away the hours of my youth, but I reckon I enjoyed it at the time.

My "home mall" was bulldozed a few years ago and replaced with a much bigger and fancier mall (with a carousel!! oh the shenanigans we'd have gotten up to on a carousel) that's packed to the gills every time I go. My kids have their choice of a few reasonably healthy malls within a short drive of us if they decide they want to do a stint as mall rats. The rumors of the death of the American mall are greatly exaggerated as far as I can tell.
posted by potrzebie at 10:37 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I love a Weird Mall. There's something comforting about the stores and folks that re-wild the mall 40 years after it opened, when half the stores are empty, and rent has dropped low enough to attract sellers of weird things and weird food.
posted by lookoutbelow at 10:47 PM on February 28 [10 favorites]

This was a lovely read. My favorite of many great quotes:
I look at the teenager on their phone at Kay Jewelers and wonder if they could conceive of not remembering where they’re standing at this moment a half century from now
posted by yuletide at 12:24 AM on March 1 [2 favorites]

Gosh, I love the mall. One of the last mall memories I've ever had was being at the Westfield San Francisco Centre around 6-7 years ago, and basically being really sleepy in the food court while my friends were talking. We were really bored, just graduated college, and needed to get out of our house and away from our parents because we were all forced to move back to our hometown. There were some brown boys, one of them who was trying to make eye contact and flirt with me, and I thought it was really cute that neither of us could tell whether we were 16 or 22. I said hi and left. That was so fun.

(I guess I should do my own art project around malls...I have so many mall memories seared into me, might as well do something with them!)
posted by yueliang at 12:29 AM on March 1 [4 favorites]

I was visiting my retired in-laws in the 1980s [Brisbane, Australia in December - hot and humid] and I went to work at my employer's local branch, getting a cake on the way home after work.

"What did you do today?" "We went to the mall for the day."
"What did you buy?" "Milk, bread and a newspaper."

Me - mind blown - nine hours and "milk, bread, newspaper" - that's it - that's ALL - wtf

Slooowly realisation dawned - nine hours in air-conditioned comfort for two people for less than the price of a movie ticket
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:49 AM on March 1 [6 favorites]

My relationship with my "main mall" as a teen was weirdly bifurcated because on the weekend we'd go there and do weekend teen stuff (food court, book store, hobby store, music stores mostly) but I also worked as a gopher in my dad's attached insurance office during the week in summer from when I was 15 to 18, so i spent a fair bit of time around the weekday denizens as well and went to the coffee shops and delis and stationers and dropped off the daily take at the bank. (If there are any Hamiltonians out there this was Jackson Square in the late 80s -- I still remember the schnitzel sammiches from Denninger's and the coffee from Treats)
posted by hearthpig at 5:05 AM on March 1

I miss the mall. They don't exist anymore really, where I live.
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:13 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

"whatever vegetable they decided to put on top of the cardboard dough at Sbarro that week"

Any seasoned mall-goer knows that what you order at Sbarro's is the ziti, which comes with oodles of sauce and ricotta cheese, and that said cheese is most effectively utilized by quickly placing a dollop on your nose when your grouchy friend looks away for a brief moment, ensuring that when they return their gaze to you they will be filled with maximum irritation, to your endless delight, and which anecdote still to this day causes your friend - now a parent, wizened, no longer prone to bouts of ranting on mundane topics - to elicit a mixture of guffaw and hackle-raising.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:05 AM on March 1 [5 favorites]

If there are any Hamiltonians out there this was Jackson Square in the late 80s

I do indeed recall Jackson Square in the late eighties. Basically every Gen-X classmate of mine who worked retail in their youth worked in the building at some point.

I love a Weird Mall. There's something comforting about the stores and folks that re-wild the mall 40 years after it opened, when half the stores are empty, and rent has dropped low enough to attract sellers of weird things and weird food.

Physically attached to Jackson Square was the Hamilton Eaton Centre, which ended up very weird indeed.

For non-locals: a bit of context: Hamilton, ON had a very futurist mayor in the fifties and early sixties, fella name of Lloyd D Jackson. He seemingly disliked anything old enough for the paint to be dry, so in a grand gesture he expropriated huge swaths of the downtown core to remake it all in a glorious new vision. In practice this meant flattening scores of buildings and sending their tenants fleeing to somewhere safer from well-intentioned destruction. Jackson even sold the land where City Hall was to Eaton’s, which was an iconic national department store chain, and they built their big Hamilton store on the site.

Lloyd D. Jackson Square was and is a sprawling mall taking up much of the wiped-out core, and it is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. The atmosphere is best described as “beleaguered.” So far as I can tell, exactly two tenants have been there from day one — a bookstore and a chocolate retailer.

Eaton’s itself tore down their big store at the end of the eighties and in 1990 erected the Hamilton Eaton Centre (HEC) in its place: a three-storey mall with a new, more compact Eaton’s as its anchor tenant.

I strongly suspect that the core, on wobbly legs after Jackson’s futurist dream, had its legs cut out from it by the Eaton Centre. I speculate that its tenant stores were all ordained my head offices of their chains, blissfully unaware that this new mall was physically attached to the other mall where they already had an outlet, so they were in competition with themselves. (I subsequently paced off some of the distances between stores and found that, for example, from one branch of mid-range women’ clothing store Fairweather to another branch was 44 steps.)

The Eaton Centre was limping out of the gate, and its outlook did not improve when Eaton’s itself folded in 1999*. It was subsequently acquired by the city, renamed the Hamilton City Centre, and its management as a retail shopping centre was at best desultory thereafter. It was, as I say, three storeys of nominal retail. Because of the missteps, the upper floor never to my knowledge saw even a single retail outlet open its doors there (by the end, it was given over to some city offices, the administration of a catering firm, a chiropractor’s practice, and the like).

The City Centre gradually lost all its recognizable stores and turned into this weird, run-down mixture of a scattering of off-brand discount stores, a few places selling weird gaudy trinkets, a dozen of so offices for non-profit organizations, and a sparse food court that would cause you to burst into tears. All set in a building still so heavily committed to its pink-and-grey 1990 aesthetic that it cried out Stranger Things, season 8. It defined “weird mall” for me.

The place was finally put out of its misery on December 31 last year. For the final few years there had been a malaise over it, with odd infrastructure choices like the escalators mostly being shut down and blocked off, with signs directing people to use the nearby stairs instead (I guess the admins were unfamiliar with the works Mitch Hedberg).

It is to be torn down and the inevitable condo towers erected in its place, with a base nominally devoted to retail. The media coverage suggests this is planned To take a decade; converting to real-world figures, I suspect the block will this be a construction zone until the 2040s. Why so long to tear it down? I have read more than once the original 1990 building was planned to be expandable upwards, and was purposely overengineered so it could subsequently take the weight of towers above. The architects envisioned office towers, not residential towers, but I think the idea would have held. Of course, developers can extract more money this way, I suppose.

There are a few YouTube videos that show the building in its last days; I like this one. I do follow a few pages online showing “Vintage ________” (where the _______ is some city where I have lived). One of the two inevitable comments you see every day is, “Oh this now-destroyed building was so beautiful. They should of [sic] kept it!!!!” I have zero doubt that the HEC will be the subject of wistful reminiscences soon on Vintage Hamilton, almost certainly from people who today proudly proclaim they never go downtown because it is icky.

*For nostalgic Canadians: what I am pretty sure was the last Eaton’s sign was taken down in December 2022. It was on the top of the old HEC, not visible from the street, but it remained as a curiosity visible from nearby office towers.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:16 AM on March 1 [8 favorites]

There were four malls by me. The last one built became (wrongly) associated with crime and died first. It's offices now. The next to last one just sort of fizzled out and it's turning into a medical complex and outlet mall. The oldest one is still hanging on, it is also is associated with crime but for a legitimate reason yet it doesn't seem to bother the locals much. The fourth one has long been the upscale mall with an Apple Store and an LL Bean. It's the only one that seems to have weathered the mallpocalypse and is mostly occupied.
posted by tommasz at 6:19 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I spent my teenage years in a city, so weekends and afternoons without homework would involve bus rides to certain neighborhoods that were known for used bookstores, comics, video rentals and pizza. At the time, I did not think to wonder why it was that you could only find these shops in one specific neighborhood, and why other neighborhoods had shopping streets that were dominated by doctor's offices and art galleries and fashion boutiques; but I did enjoy this semi-regular ritual of riding the bus somewhere, and spending a couple of hours browsing, snacking, then going back with a maybe new-to-me Dragonlance book or a Leonard Cohen cassette. I didn't think of it as "going to the mall" but honestly it scratched the same itch, just more open air.

My main experience with malls did not begin until I was much older and working in suburban office parks where the nearest decent place to get a fast workday lunch was the mall foodcourt. I spent a lot of lunch hours sitting by myself with a tray of Panda Express or Bourbon Chicken, and a book or a magazine. It may seem lonely but at the time it felt like a pleasant way to eat alone. Nobody bothered you. Endless people watching. You could just let yourself meld with the universe under a TLC soundtrack.
posted by bl1nk at 6:24 AM on March 1

I love a Weird Mall. There's something comforting about the stores and folks that re-wild the mall 40 years after it opened, when half the stores are empty, and rent has dropped low enough to attract sellers of weird things and weird food.

Sadly our mall isn't doing that. Now, two of its three anchor stores are gone, and the spot of one of them (and that whole wing besides) is now one big church.

Arcades are the thing that tell me if a mall is worth going to. I'm now 50, but I'd still love to go to a real arcade. There is one in town, focused on pinball, but it's pay by time and a little pricey for me. The person who mostly runs it knows me and generally lets me play if I want to, meaning, in that case I end up paying in embarrassment and depression, so mostly I go there just to hang out with him for a while and just relax in an arcade atmosphere. But that's good too, after all I can already play most of the video games there in MAME.

Back to malls. Back in college, the mall in town, which was tiny enough that we called it the sMall, had a correspondingly little arcade in it. This would have been early oughts, so fairly miraculous that it lasted to that date. They had a rare Golden Axe: Return of Death Adder machine in it that was pretty wonderful!

I guess most of my memories of malls are tied to arcades. I probably ended up going to the mall no more than a couple dozen times growing up in total. My parents never really drove me many places.
posted by JHarris at 6:25 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]

OK, another one, on the subject of malls:

My senior year of high school, I worked at the Sears in my local mall. It was a very modest mall with only two anchor stores. In the middle of the mall was a small arcade with maybe 5 machines in a metal-and-glass enclosure. Next to that arcade was a deli setup where you could get lunch. So I would on my break, get lunch at the deli and then go play Street Fighter II. It is also important, for the purpose of backstory, to know that I had in the past year reconnected with a childhood friend with whom mutual affections blossomed but were never realized, though of course rumors spread, and she had at the time an older boyfriend who was in college.

So: one fine day I was on my lunch break, playing SFII, and I heard a familiar-ish voice say:

"Grumpybear69! Just the man I was looking for!"

I turned and it was, of course, the (at this point I believe ex-) boyfriend. He was staring at me with an evil gleam in his eye, and bore down on me in a menacing fashion.

"I'm gonna kick your ass..." he growled.

I gulped.

" Mortal Kombat!"
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:00 AM on March 1 [5 favorites]

As a Boomer, the first malls around me were outdoor, so no food court.
The closest mall to me converted from outdoor to indoor, without leveling the walking surface or changing most of the layout, so it was kind of a weird hybrid.
So hanging out meant hanging outdoors, which for half of the year was not that much fun, so I missed the mall experiences my kids had.

And food courts- that's something I avoid if I can. I suppose as a teen I would have been fine, but now it's just too loud and busy. McDonalds is peaceful by comparison, as everyone eats in their car now.
posted by MtDewd at 7:20 AM on March 1

The description of the Anchorage Mall design may need a picture or two to convey how amazing a glass dome food court at the top of an urban mall is.
posted by zenon at 7:31 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]

Zenon, this looks very reminiscent of the Hamilton City Centre I held forth on above. It’s a lovely building, ill-served by decades of mismanagement, and now it is being levelled.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:42 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

My mall was the mall they used for Stranger Things and let me tell you when I saw the promotional still of the food court, shot from where Software, Etc. was before they moved to the ground floor, and showing the view across the way where the B. Dalton was and the entrance I always used it definitely made me Feel Some Kind Of Way™. That mall was supposed to be the economic engine of the county, and now it stands empty in a sea of office and light industrial also standing empty.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:55 AM on March 1 [6 favorites]

I grew up in Minneapolis so the mall was City Center (immortalized by The Hold Steady and The Replacements) and we didn’t so much hang out at the mall as occasionally go through it as part of our rounds of terrorizing the city. Plus most of my friends had been banned by security for some infraction or another. I did know a girl who worked at the chocolate shop that would give us free samples so that was always worth a stop. There was a Sbarro and an Orange Julius. We hung out at the record shop which was down the street from the mall.
posted by misterpatrick at 8:34 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I'm a rare Gen-X'er who never really was a mall rat, for a few reasons:

* Most of the time I spent my after-school hours in rehearsals for the school plays,
* My high school jobs were mostly either at a McDonald's or a movie theater in town, both of whom were freestanding and were not affiliated with the one mall in town; and
* On the occasions I did have to go there to shop, I was usually being chauffeured by my mother because we were there on a specific errand, so there was no real "hang around doing nothing" time because I had only 2 hours to do everything before I had to meet Mom in the hallway just outside Caldor for the ride home. (And when I could drive myself places I usually favored outdoor places to hangout, and when I needed to shop I opted for larger malls an hour outside town.)

I also often preferred shopping in the smaller boutiquey places on Main Street. I was basically a New York hipster even in suburban Connecticut.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:45 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]

My hometown's mall was/is crummy and closed too early, we roamed the Wal-Mart (why yes, I am from a small town in the US south).

The exception was birthdays, for which the ritual was getting a pile of weird stuff at the Big Lots across the street as gifts, then meeting the birthday girl at Italian Village. The principal virtue of Italian Village was that it was cheap and had booths to sit at.
posted by momus_window at 8:53 AM on March 1

I just wanna know the verdict. Are the kids hanging out at the mall? If not there, where?

...okay, that question sounded creepy
posted by pelvicsorcery at 9:11 AM on March 1 [6 favorites]

I was about to say I was never really a mall kid, but then I remembered Seven Corners Mall. It wasn't really a mall in the classic 80s sense, just two hallways stacked on top of each other with no foodcourt or fancy atriums. The closest it got to public entertainment was the music store upstairs which sometimes had people playing the electronic organ outside. But it did have a couple of bookstores and a store that I cannot remember the name of (it may have had American in the name?) that had all the necessary tchotkes of my tween years, stickers and posters and little candles, rainbows and unicorns. And I could bike to it, while the real mall, Tysons, required driving.
posted by tavella at 9:15 AM on March 1

I was also a Gen X non-mall rat, mainly because the mall was filled with the kids I did my best to avoid at school and also because there was an even better arcade closer to my house (although I wasn't supposed to go there because there were kids who smoked and whatnot).
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:49 AM on March 1 [2 favorites]

It didn't seem like malls in my hometown were for teens, really--much moreso pre-teens. Teenagers were gonna go get drunk somewhere, unless they were nerds, in which case they were going to go drink coffee somewhere.

All of my mall memories are actually from being a little kid; my mom worked there, and we spent a lot of time pretending to not be unaccompanied minors because childcare wasn't any better then than it is now. Our mall had an elaborate central fountain with a tunnel full of fish tanks, and a lot of oversized abstract art sculptures of various climb-ability. No food court! The restaurants were just scattered throughout. I remember that there was a real mix of fast food and sit-down kind of places, and the whole entire building smelled like Gloria Jean's hazelnut. The entrance we always used (for no particular reason I could ever discern) was right by a Sbarro and I literally never even once ate there.

As a pre-teen I wasn't ever really allowed to do a lot of sans-parents mall wandering, while my friends were. At the time this was deeply insulting but as I look back at my young self I realize that person was super not capable of handling her shit at basically any time. The few occasions on which I was left somewhere unattended usually resulted in my calling my folks from a pay phone to come pick me up, them not answering, and me just sort of sitting wherever I was for several hours, too anxious to leave lest they show up after all...

...getting old sucks ass but I would not be a kid again for less than three billion dollars.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:42 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

Jamie Loftus is a National Fucking Treasure.
posted by slogger at 10:46 AM on March 1 [4 favorites]

I had such a close relationship with my local mall because in the mid 90s the largest mall in my state was built basically at the end of my street. I could ride my bike down to the park and then through the bike path under the highway specifically built to give people access to the mall. The mall where the new Super Target (oooo a SUPER target?? Wow!) was and my mom got a job there. It never had an economic downturn really. Stores have come and gone but, it's still populated. So, I was riding my bike down the <1mile to see my mom at work since I was like 9-10. I went to it's ice skating rink where all the tweens socialized on Friday nights for Rock and Skate, as it was called, I shoplifted from it's stores, got extremely good at DDR in it's arcade, and I guess if I think about it, I technically went on my first date with my wife in it's movie theater in my 20s.

Also, long live Jamie Loftus. After My Year in Mensa and AACK! I am a dedicated Loftus groupie now.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 10:51 AM on March 1

I also miss the mall, and still find excuses to sneak out and go the the big one nearby. It's not cool to admit this, but it relaxes me a bit, fills me with nostalgia I think I spent so much time as an adolescent there (the mall is a great place to leave kids when you're a single parent, esp if you're a single dad minimally interested in paternal custody weekends because it gets in the way of golf games or business meetings). It always felt aspirational and fun, even when I was in high school and worked so hard to pretend like I hated it.

When I was, like, 12/13, I always figured I'd be there when nuclear war broke out. Which sounds tragic, but I had a whole plan about whicho dude at Corn Dog 7 I was going to make-out with before the end of the world.
posted by thivaia at 11:01 AM on March 1 [9 favorites]

If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks,
Then I'll make out with you at the Corn Dog 7.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 11:16 AM on March 1 [7 favorites]

I'm 64, I grew up in New Zealand before malls were a thing .... shops were closed at the weekend, but Friday night
was late night shopping .... as teenagers we'd all go down town Friday night to see and be seen .... really nothing has changed, it just moved inside
posted by mbo at 2:27 PM on March 1

Malls weren't really a thing when I was growing up in suburban Auckland. We used to hang around the dairy (that would now be a 7-11) or the fish and chip shop. Other than that, we mostly spent our time outside and as far away from our parents as we could get, first on bikes and then various broken-down cars.

it certainly doesn't seem that malls are dead here in Australia - they are still building them and expanding/revamping them a few years later. I don't go there often, but the food court is always full of pre-and actual-teens hanging out in the same way they have since time immemorial. It seems this is more so the case in summer, when it's 30c by 9am and 80% humidity all day, so the parent-free airconditioning is probably as much an attraction as the space itself.
posted by dg at 2:28 PM on March 1

Jaya Saxena just had a fun article about mall food- she wasn't a mall rat as a teenager so it's "All the mall food smells, ranked" [without nostalgia].
posted by Shark Hat at 2:36 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I gotta say, the oddest thing for me (as an older US Gen-X who was not a mall rat but went to plenty of malls in the 80's & 90's & into the 00's because that's where the stores were) in the article and in the comments is the constant and near-universal references to Sbarro's as a sort of food court touch point. Maybe I was just wrong time, wrong malls, or maybe I just didn't notice them, but I don't recall Sbarro's being in any of the malls I went to at all, much less being the sort of cornerstone of the food court & social life.

For me, Sbarro's is primarily the Ohio Turnpike Rest Stop food place (that was usually closed by the time I stopped anyway.)
posted by soundguy99 at 3:24 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I just wanna know the verdict. Are the kids hanging out at the mall? If not there, where?

...okay, that question sounded creepy

Ma'am! Where do the high school girls hang out around here?
posted by General Malaise at 4:39 PM on March 1

I'm not sure where I first encountered a Sbarro. Growing up in rural New England, there were two malls that we "frequented" -- there was a pretty big one in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and a small one was built in Rutland, Vermont sometime in the mid 90s (which I'm sad to just learn closed in 2019, not that I can be too surprised, although I am more surprised it has a Wikipedia page). I see the Holyoke Mall now has a Sbarro, but I can't believe it had one back in the 90s. If I had to guess, I'd say that my only first-hand knowledge of Sbarro came from the 8th-grade trip to DC (specifically Union Station), and then I probably only saw it again at rest stops and that same Union Station location when I loved to DC much later on. I don't even think I clocked it as something people knew about until its cameo in that The Office episode, which coincidentally enough, I have been to a multitude of times since it's right where the old Chinatown buses would let off in the 2000s and was a convenient location to grab a drink or use a restroom before/after the bus ride.
posted by General Malaise at 4:47 PM on March 1

Well, color me embarrassed because that Rutland mall I linked to in my previous comment opened with a Sbarro in it, so I definitely had seen it back then.
posted by General Malaise at 5:16 PM on March 1

Working in a theater in a mall was the best job I've ever had. When you're in the mall all the time it starts to become a little community. You know the people who work there too cause you see them all the time. There was one kid who went to my high school that I barely knew in school but he worked at the Auntie Anne's so we had a deal. I'd let him into movies for free. He'd give me free pretzels. I knew everyone who worked in the food court and I'd always get the freshest food they had. Free mini bottles of hot sauce from the hot sauce store. That mall is pretty much dead now and the theater has been gone for years. But if it was still alive and I could afford to live off the pay I was paid I'd go back in a heartbeat.
posted by downtohisturtles at 6:44 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]

It didn't strike me until just now, but I have a Sbarro story. I never ate there because I had other choices I preferred, but my dearly departed friend who passed last November worked at a one in a suburban Atlanta mall. I'll call him Geoff.

Geoff was an experienced hand at running pizza joints. He'd run my local Pizza Hut for years. He moved to a different suburb and found a job at the nearby Sbarro's which wasn't doing well.

Big surprise, because the manager was a "fun" guy. Pulling stunts like giving a $20 bonus to whoever could short customers the most change. After a while, because it was the early '90s and the manager was very busy with a drug habit, he basically left Geoff to run the place. Geoff hired some more guys and got the place back on a paying basis, which meant the manager spent even less time there.

One day the regional manager comes in with these two guys with thick necks and New Jersey accents in tow. Looking a little pale, he wants to know where the manager is. Geoff calls him; no answer. "Why don't we all go visit him?" one of the thick necked guys says.

"Close during the day?" Geoff asks.

"Yeah. Get your coat."

So off they all go in a rented Town Car to the manager's nearby apartment. They get there and on the way up to the door, Thick Neck No. 2 says, "You knock. Don't let on we're here." Geoff, who had seen a scrape or two, started sweating.

The door opens and the manager appears in just his shorts, looking like he'd been on a three-day bender. Thick Neck No. 1 barges in and No. 2 ushers the regional manager and Geoff inside behind him.

As the pointed conversation proceeds, Geoff gathers that the manager had been spending money out of the store account and now he's really starting to sweat. The manager, despite obviously being a mess, was at least a solid enough dude to take all the blame. When the Thick Neck team figures out Geoff been making the deposits, doing a good job running the store, and neither he nor the regional manager was in on it, they told them to leave. Geoff got back to the mall, opened back up, and never heard from that manager again.

The new guy wasn't as cool, and didn't like the way Geoff was running the place, so he moved on shortly after.

R. I. P., Geoff.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:55 PM on March 1 [9 favorites]

The mall I grew up with is still around, and judging from some googling looks like it's still doing well, surprisingly, though it's just lost another anchor store with JC Penney about to close, so it may still be touch and go. My friends and I didn't spend a ton of time hanging out there because your parents would have to drive you there, so it involved a lot of coordination and convincing parents that they needed to go to the mall, which wasn't easy to do. The whole mall was only one story, though a couple of anchor stores had sublevels. It was laid out with long hallways of shops which all branched out from a central hub with a fountain in the center, which had seating and some food stands. We didn't have a Sbarros, but we had Orange Julius and Bavarian Pretzels and other snack kiosks. But.

Down one of the corridors there was a sublevel which you could see down into through glassed-in floors. When we first moved there, there was an ice rink there. Later it became a roller rink - I think I skated there a few times, but it was pretty claustrophobic because there weren't any windows and most of the natural light came through the "skylights" set into the floor of the mall - so we mostly went to the bigger roller rink across town. So it wasn't surprising when the mall rink closed too. It was replaced by this weird flea market - I never went there after the first time, because IIRC, it was an actual flea market with random people selling dusty "antiques" and old clothing and wtf? But it still had the glass ceiling so while you were shopping at Spencer Gifts you could look down on what looked like a carny encampment - it was very weird. Later it became the food court, which I think at the time was pretty radical, since we hadn't ever heard the term "food court" before. But at least it made sense. It looks like that's still there.

My other memory was that there was an attached movie theater that showed X-rated films. But since it was at the mall, they compromised and also showed non-X-rated films. So the marquee would have something like The Love Bug on the left and then XXX Love on the right. It's not there anymore. But I'm pretty sure I saw Peter Pan there. The 80's, man.
posted by Mchelly at 6:58 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]

I would have been a mall kid, except I lived in the boonies, didn't drive, and the mall was in the next town over.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:12 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

Spencer Gifts! That was it, the totchke store.
posted by tavella at 8:23 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

In 2005, Cottonwood Mall was still a thing, and they had a pet adoption center called Furburbia, which worked with local rescue groups to showcase adoptable pets.

We were a young cohabiting couple, and we decided it was time to adopt our first cat together.

Our landlord had insisted that the cat had to be declawed. We couldn’t put a cat through that in good conscience, but we knew there was probably a cat up for adoption who’d already been subjected to it, and who needed us.

Right by the door, we saw him. His name was Tux. (Was he a tuxedo cat? No. But he answered to it.)

They had a little back room where you could get to know a prospective adoptable pet in isolation. It didn’t take us long to confirm that this was our guy: it was love at first sight on all fronts. So I went to get the paperwork and fork over most of my tax refund for adoption fees.

When I came back to the little booth, it smelled a little like a latex balloon with a teeeeeeny little bit of poo inside.

The now-Mr.-Armeowda said, “Well, he’s comfortable enough to fart in front of me.”

We had to lug that gorgeous 20-pound boy out in a carrier sized for a kitten, down the escalator through Dillard’s. He had a meow like Axl Rose. Children pointed and stared. It was great.

That was eighteen years ago. Tux has long since crossed over (complications of diabetes), but he started an empire.

That was, and will forever remain, the most important thing I ever did at a mall.
posted by armeowda at 8:38 PM on March 1 [9 favorites]

Some malls even inspire a loving and nostalgic tribute song (including a comment about the food choices there). I present to you the Kingsgate Mall song, in Vancouver BC.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:00 PM on March 1 [3 favorites]

General Malaise you may not have made the stop between Holyoke and Rutland, but the Hampshire Mall (the live mall) had a Sbarro, underneath Interskate91, across from the arcade.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:22 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]

Ah, The Mall. My tenure began in the mid-late '80's. I started working at the Hot Sam's Pretzel stand (show up hung-over, mix up a batch of sodium hydroxide to fill the bottom of the oven). The automatic salter never worked right, so you reached through the hot, descending racks and salted them after they came out of they lye bath by hand. And as someone mentioned, it was it's own microcosm. We would trade pretzels with the people at Ben and Jerry's for nitrous, which they got in tanks to make whipped cream. As mentioned earlier, bringing a bag of pretzels to the theater would get you in. And we had a Pizzaria Uno, whose biggest feature in '87 was the fact that they (1) had a bar which was (2) open after the stores closed. So, people would gather there, drink, do coke, hook up, etc.

Eventually, I managed the pretzel stand. Then left for a job unloading trucks at Caldor. Then I got a job with US General -- which was across from a Sbarro's. Oh, and they guys at Hot Dog Charlies would keep a batch of meat sauce *extra hot* with serious amounts of cayenne. Taco Bell had mexican pizza. And the arcade was next to the pretzel stand. Then I took a job writing software.

I miss that pretzel stand.
posted by mikelieman at 3:23 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]

When I was, like, 12/13, I always figured I'd be there when nuclear war broke out. Which sounds tragic, but I had a whole plan about whicho dude at Corn Dog 7 I was going to make-out with before the end of the world.

Penn Jillette wrote a short story about people flocking to the mall when the world was ending, and then a cult holing up inside it. I tried to find it online, but I haven't. It was in a tiny pamphlet in a magic kit that people weren't meant to actually read, and he snuck it in there. I thought it was very good when I was 12 or 13, so it probably packs a punch of some kind.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:24 AM on March 2

I’m pretty sure it’s also the setting of the awesome Jonathan Coulton song Re: Your Brains
posted by Mchelly at 8:52 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]

.....Hold the phone.

So - there's this shopping center that opened up in Downtown Brooklyn in stages. First they rolled out the Target....then a Century 21...then a basement food market area with a lot of little food stalls, and a Trader Joe's....then a branch of the Alamo Drafthouse. The Alamo drew me in more, and as the smaller shops switch up I have lingered there more and more, and sometimes I've gone there on a Trader Joe's run.

And last night I head over there after work to see a movie, with a detour in to Target on the way home to get a couple things before popping downstairs to the Trader Joe's for some food. And that's when it hit me -

....I was in a mall, wasn't I?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:27 AM on March 2 [4 favorites]

I don't recall Sbarro's being in any of the malls I went to at all

It was omnipresent on Long Island, where I grew up, though the mall that I frequented - the Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington, NY - no longer has one, and in fact they are hard to come by on LI now.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:35 PM on March 2

My 1980s mall was the Garage in Harvard Square. We wouldn't've admitted it was a mall, I bet, because we were so cool, but it was a mall.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:05 AM on March 3

My 1980s mall was the Garage in Harvard Square. We wouldn't've admitted it was a mall, I bet, because we were so cool, but it was a mall.
There are folks I know who used to hangout in Harvard Square all the time, and spent most of that bouncing between the Newbury Comics and the anime shop (Man From Atlantis) and the piercing parlor upstairs and the Ben & Jerry's or Felipe's burrito place downstairs, as well as the Allston Beat groundfloor shop, who now lament how Harvard Square is dead and boring and "just like a mall now."

And if I wanted to be mean about it, I could say ask them to tell me why the Garage wasn't a mall or what they actually did in Harvard Square besides shop and eat shitty pizza and people watch; and how exactly is that different from hanging out in a mall? But I realize that the mallification is not what they're actually grieving and I just leave them and their nostalgia alone.
posted by bl1nk at 11:30 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]

Some malls even inspire a loving and nostalgic tribute song (including a comment about the food choices there). I present to you the Kingsgate Mall song yt , in Vancouver BC.

That is fantastic.

I haven’t lived in Vancouver since the nineties and even when I did, I was in Kitsilano, so Kingsgate was not on my radar. That said, maybe fifteen years ago some friends of mine lived on East 11th, a few blocks away, and I visited them a few times and saw a bit of the surroundings. I wasn’t 100% sure I was thinking of the right place, so I had a look on the Google maps and I see Kingsgate is indeed the place I recalled, and one which Google had marked as “unassuming retail hub.”

Such shade.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:47 AM on March 3

it's been my closest mall for decades now. Though I haven't had as much cause to actually go inside as I once did. As a friend once put it, "it's got everything a mall really needs when you think about it. It's got a liquor store."
posted by philip-random at 2:42 PM on March 3

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