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VOL. 46 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 24, 2022

Malls are dead – again; But they will be reinvented

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

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You never had trouble saying “goodbye.” Goodbye, paycheck! Goodbye to the space in your closet and kitchen, spare change from the couch and the car console! Goodbye, everyone! You won’t be back any time soon because you’re heading for the mall now.

As you’ll see in “Meet Me by the Fountain” by Alexandra Lange, the mall just isn’t what it used to be.

Viktor Gruenbaum knew design.

He’d fled the Nazis in Vienna in 1938, immigrated to New York, changed his surname and almost immediately landed a job creating buildings for corporate exhibitors at the New York World’s Fair. He then worked as a designer for high-end boutiques and stores and, turning his eye toward the problems facing downtown stores versus suburban stores with more parking, Gruen saw a solution: he created the first mall.

It “was a national event,” Lange says.

Within a very short time, other designers realized shoppers perceived the mall as a “treat” and made it even more so. Rocks, ponds and greenery were added to malls, along with park benches and mini-zoos. Child-friendly zones were created. Stores were required to upgrade or remodel every few years, and underperforming stores were dropped, often in favor of national chains. Then, about 20 years after its creation, the mall itself began to morph into open-air marketplaces.

“Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall”

By Alexandra Lange

c.2022, Bloomsbury

$28

320 pages

This was, Lange says, both good and bad. Marketplaces revitalized downtowns and made use of abandoned or derelict buildings – but creators often ignored the three things that made such pedestrian malls work.

So if the mall needed to change, why not go bigger? Why not invite senior mall-walkers and teenagers flush with cash and young arcade gamers? In fact, what about offering public spaces for meetings and movie theatres and restaurants for every budget?

It sounded great, and shoppers loved it – until they didn’t. In 1980, says Lange, the notion that the mall was “dying” was first raised in the media.

It wasn’t the last time...

When was the last time you were in a mall? For most Americans, it was sometime this week. “Meet Me by the Fountain” explains how that happened.

Or, more specifically, how it happens since malls have never stopped changing to become what shoppers want in the moment. Even the word, Lange says, is going out of favor. This shift has been for the better.

Malls of the 1960s were marred by racism, and malls of the ‘80s by a certain amount of blight. Still, despite all the mall killjoys who crow about their demise, Lange pooh-poohs any sort of death. Malls survive by adapting – something they’ve done well – but they can do better, she says, by tapping into nostalgia. That’s one thing, she points out, that Americans love.

Reading this book is like looking in the nooks, crannies and hidden hallways of your local shopping emporium with a critical eye. It’s a hark back to your childhood in the most intriguing way. “Meet Me by the Fountain” is a very good buy.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

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