Malls, malls, malls….

We went to one of Buffalo’s malls the other day, and it occurred to me then that I did not set foot in a mall a single time during the entire Christmas shopping season. And what’s more, I didn’t really miss it — there was no conscious decision to avoid malls, just the fact that my Christmas shopping last year never took me to a mall at all. Now, I don’t want to read terribly much into this — had we still lived in Syracuse, I am certain that I would still be regularly going to Carousel Center, which is simply the most beautiful mall I’ve ever been in — but it interests me nonetheless. (I didn’t buy anything online either, the first time in six years that that has been the case.)

My family has always been a mall-going family; my parents can tell you which malls are the best ones in an impressive number of metro areas in the Great Lakes region, and it was not uncommon for us to pile into the car when I was a kid and drive two hours to another city to tour one of their malls. I specifically remember shopping in a number of the malls on, and we even bought one of our more memorable cats at the pet store in this mall way back in 1978.

But that was all a long time ago, and a person familiar with the malls of today no doubt finds the idea of driving two hours (or, occasionally, more) to “do a mall” somewhat ridiculous, since malls today are pretty much the same. Not the design, exactly — they still use different lighting, different architecture, et cetera — but in the shopping experience itself. The stores are all the same these days. You’ll find the same clothes on sale, in the same layout, in the exact same stores, in malls everywhere. When my wife and I took our honeymoon to the Boston and Cape Cod area in 1997, we stopped at what looked like a spectacular mall in Framingham, MA, and when we walked in, we were shocked to discover almost the exact same selection of stores that can be found at Buffalo’s Walden Galleria.

It wasn’t always that way, though. You’d find very different stores in malls in different cities, and going to a mall in Rochester, NY was a very different experience than going to a mall in Buffalo. These days, though, we seem to have made “sameness” the desirable quality. We seem to want the same stuff on sale everywhere, and in the same layout, and we seem to want the same selection of fast-food in the food courts.

I’m not really complaining or griping here, but it struck me that going to the mall just wasn’t as much fun anymore, and this is a large part of why, I think. There is nothing particularly unique about the whole “mall” thing anymore, except for the fact that one mall here in Buffalo has a carousel and nifty kids’ play area while another has a really cool sporting-goods store with two-story climbing wall that’s fun to watch as people scale it (although, strangely, the wall was closed when we were there on a weekend recently).

I’ll read news stories about local malls and retail development, and they’ll say something like, “Such-and-such Mall was struggling recently, but now they’ve rebounded with 92 % occupancy”, meaning, I guess, that 92 % of their space is occupied by stores. But when I go to these newly-resplendent malls, I discover that what’s being talked about in the articles is space, not the number of stores. What seems to happen a lot is that the big chains — the Gaps, Old Navy’s, American Eagles, Pottery Barns — get bigger, taking over flanking slots. Thus, instead of two separate stores, you get one big store. So the smaller, often more-interesting and locally-owned stores get driven out and are taken over by larger versions of the same stores that everybody in the country already has.

I know I’m far from the first person to notice the homogenization of American culture, but there’s still something disconcerting about actually seeing it in action.

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