"The mall at the end of town is dead. Amen."

I hate malls. I avoid them like the plague, even though I live just a few minutes from the largest (probably) downtown shopping centre in North America and a short subway ride from the fifth-largest mall in Canada. And apparently there are a bunch more around the city that I’ve just never laid eyes on. The crowds, the stale compound-like atmosphere, the food courts reeking of Manchu Wok…I’ve just never liked them.

Mind you, growing up, it was a big deal when a mall came to the town near where we lived. It had a K-Mart and a Save-Easy and a sports store and a drug store where I could buy comics. Truthfully I was too young to remember that mall opening, but I remember it being a big deal when we could go. Then a second mall opened in the mid-80s with better stores…Zellers instead of K-Mart, Sobeys instead of Save-Easy, Coles instead of just the drug store magazine racks,  A&W, a music store and (hooray!) an arcade. This mall was the new hotness, and everyone loved going there.

My mother still preferred to shop and do business downtown when she could, at the small locally-owned photo printers or clothing stores, and there was a real music store there where I could buy drums, but for the most part business was conducted on the outskirts of town at these malls. Before long, though, the new mall killed the old mall, leaving a near-empty shell sporting a few die-hard stores just across the road from a parking lot of mall-goers. Rare visits to the old mall felt vaguely creepy or eerie. I was too young to know that I was sensing imminent failure; dating would later allow me to hone that skill.

Now, when I visit that town on occasion, the “new” mall still seems fairly busy, but the real excitement seems to be at the big box stores…Wal-Mart came, first attached to the mall and then stand-alone. The grocery stores detached themselves from the malls and built neighbouring castles. Canadian Tire and Kent moved in. God knows what else is there now. Meanwhile, the stores downtown on or near main street struggle to survive. While this bothers me a bit, let me be clear: I’m not advocating the nostalgic return to an old towne main street; people will shop where they want to shop, and I have no desire to artificially perpetuate a dying model for posterity’s sake. I just have a fondness for that particular main street.

That said, I recognize that business and public preference can change, and for years I’ve hoped that the fad of shopping malls would eventually burn out. The last several years have certainly been pointing in that direction — though focus seems to be shifting more to the “power centre” model and not back to main street — the mall still seems to have a powerful hold. Even in downtown Toronto, with Queen Street, Yorkville, King Street, St. Lawrence Market and the like nearby, I still get asked for directions to the Eaton Centre all the time.*

So I was very interested to read that, according to Newsweek (via the Creative Class blog), last year was “the first in half a century that a new indoor mall didn’t open somewhere in the country—a precipitous decline since the mid-1990s when they rose at a rate of 140 a year.” The Newsweek article points to DeadMalls, a site which was always filled me with worry and joy. I wanted this trend to be over, remembering how empty and awful the old mall in that town became, but I didn’t relish the idea of hundreds of deserted neon bunkers littering the landscape. The mall experiment won’t be an easy one to clean up.

* It happened yesterday, actually.

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