In March of this year, Neelu Joseph received a flurry of text messages from her mother, who was at their local Macy’s going-out-of-business sale. She was floored—not by the deals but because her childhood mall, Metrocenter Mall in Glendale, Arizona, was losing another big box store. Sears exited a couple of years ago, and the mall had steadily lost tenants like the Gap, H & M, and Abercrombie and Fitch. Her teenage self would barely recognize the place today.
The water in the pan is boiling. Neelu swirls a Tetley teabag and watches the curls of black spread through the water like ink. She adds a few tablespoons of nonfat milk to the simmering chai, then drops cardamom seeds and a cinnamon stick as images from yesteryears parade through her mind.
She was seventeen and so proud when the manager at Macy’s moved her over from the candy counter to the cosmetics counter. It was thought the prettiest girl in the store would be placed at the cosmetics counter where face cream, bath powder, perfume, nail polish, and beauty products, including combs and hairbrushes, were sold.
Neelu soon learned that the cosmetics counter was a much harder job than the candy counter. Almost all the customers of cosmetics were women, and women were much harder to wait on than men. Women would come and look at things for what seemed like hours, opening bottles and sniffing. They’d spray samples of perfume on their wrists until they smelled up the whole store, then walk away without buying anything. Some old sisters, in matching twinsets, bobby socks, and emanating a faint odor of cat litter, would say cutting things to her, and some would slip a bottle of nail polish in their oat pocket. She had to learn when to be nice and when to be cool. That was the hardest part. Yankee women and well-heeled tourists from Scottsdale would treat her like dirt under their feet. Neelu reckoned they saw a brown local store clerk as nothing but a servant or trash.
During her lunch break, Neelu would race to the Orange Julius store and consume untold quantities of the fruit-flavored blended drink. Sometimes she’d wander into Claire’s and watch queasy teenage girls grimace as they got their ears pierced with a glorified staple gun. Now, it seemed she would never again smell the heady scent of Mrs. Fields’ cookies as she peered into the murky mirror in the department store’s fitting room while brooding over how fat her ass looked in low-rise jeans. The standard American mall—with its vast parking lots, escalators, and air-conditioning—Neelu’s hometown had two of them, each thriving. She would have been shocked to hear that in a few decades, the very concept of a mall would find itself in existential peril.
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The pandemic has been devastating for the retail industry, and many small stores like Papyrus and GNC Vitamins are disappearing at a rapid clip. Some chains are unable to pay rent, and prominent department stores like Neiman Marcus, as well as JCPenney, have filed for bankruptcy protection. As they close doors, it has caused other tenants to abandon malls at the same time as large specialty chains like Victoria’s Secret and Payless Shoe Source are shrinking.
Even before the pandemic, American shopping malls were seeing their revenue plummet due to the surge of Internet shopping. Jim Hull, the owner and managing principal of the Hull property group in Augusta, GA, which oversees thirty enclosed malls, said in an interview in the New York Times that he anticipated making malls more “community-based” in smaller markets. “It’s going to be cooking classes, boutiques, Internet businesses that want a physical presence, healthcare, and food choices,” he said.
Sometimes change is inevitable and for the better, other times not so much. We put a man on the moon when I was three years old. Now I am in my 50s, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide still don’t have access to clean water.
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