When my parents moved to the Merced area in the late 1970s, I was in college.
During semester breaks, I was able to get part-time jobs in Merced, and in the early 1980s one of those jobs was at Miller’s Outpost, a now-defunct clothing chain that catered to young, mostly female, shoppers. Working at Miller’s was probably the most boring summer job of my life. I spent a lot of my time asking customers what they were looking for (one of retailing’s commandments is to never ask if someone needs help, since that question can be answered in the negative) and then pretending to help them find it. The rest of my time was spent re-folding clothes left in disarray by shoppers pawing through stacks of tank tops and denim shorts. At some point that summer, I was promoted to the cash register. That step up the ladder turned out to be the highlight of my retailing career, which ended sometime in August when I went back to school.
There were some perks to working at Miller’s, though. For one, the thermostat at Miller’s was set to unnaturally low temperatures, so low in fact that during breaks I often went outdoors to get warm. Dressing up for work meant wearing my town jeans and a good T-shirt (featuring shoulder pads—it was the 80s, remember, an era when looking like a miniature linebacker was all the rage), an outfit I could not get away with in substitute teaching or even waitressing.
But perhaps the best benefit of working at Miller’s was that it was in the Merced Mall, and so I was likely to see a lot of people there. Most of Merced’s citizens spent at least a few hours every week slogging or traipsing or meandering from Mervyn’s on one end to Sears on the other, stopping halfway at Orange Julius to refuel with a hotdog and a refined-sugar-enriched drink. Around that time, also, or maybe slightly before, a corner across from Sears was occupied by Sambo’s, still a noticeably racist establishment decades after the Civil Rights movement. Penney’s was the other anchor store, across from Long’s Drugs, and in between were various small stores, including one selling toys and another offering books. I believe there was even a Mode O’Day.
That was the mall I knew when I first came to live in Merced.
America was at the height of its mall frenzy then, a culture started in 1956 when the Southdale Center opened. It was the first indoor mall ever, and it was designed by an Austrian named Victor Gruen, who hoped to replicate the European model of a town center with stores facing onto it, a hub for living and commerce. Gruen’s original idea included housing as part of the plan, but instead his center was built with only retail space bookended by anchor stores, the model which reigned as 1,500 malls went up all over suburban American from 1956 to 2005. Averaged, that’s about thirty malls built every year in the United States for forty-nine years. The eruption of malls across the American landscape coincided, also, with white flight from our urban areas. And malls, which were typically located far from housing developments, additionally contributed to an increased need for families to own multiple cars.
Now, as you have undoubtedly heard, malls are dying. It has been about three years since a new mall has been built in the United States. Between 2010 to 2013, Christmas shopping at malls plummeted by 50 percent. There are about 1,100 malls left in this country, with an estimated 25 percent of those at risk of closing soon. One study shows that by 2022 about one out of four malls in America will be defunct. Some readers might say good riddance. Americans are an over-shopped people. In Europe, there is an average of 2.5 square feet of retail space for every citizen, while in the United States, the average is 26 square feet per person. We could do with a little less indoor shopping, probably, and a little more of something else.
That something else might just come in the re-imagining of America’s malls.
The first remarkable change in mall culture came in the form of outdoor shopping spaces added adjacent to indoor malls. It turns out that people wanted to be outside occasionally when they shopped, even in places like Modesto and Fresno, where one might expect summer temperatures to drive people indoors. In the late 1990s, places like River Park, an entirely outdoor shopping mall in Fresno, started cropping up. These places were designed to look like a downtown center, with sidewalks, street parking, and mixed-use spaces, such as an animal adoption center next door to a women’s clothing store.
The Mall of America, which opened in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1992, is an example of how malls are morphing into something more like what Victor Gruen might have hoped for in 1956. There are about 500 stores in the Bloomington mall, but there is also an aquarium. And a Nickelodeon theme park. Local poets set up impromptu kiosks outside of stores and write poems for passersby. A Holiday Inn bills itself as part of the mall’s south end.
Malls, as they try to survive in today’s more internet-driven culture, will increasingly become entertainment, not shopping, centers. Some malls in upscale communities will continue to thrive, and shoppers who can afford exclusive brands will still flock to malls offering Gucci and Louis Vuitton. But other malls for the more plebian among us will have to focus on offering customers something beyond shopping. Some already offer bowling alleys, comedy clubs, and unique dining at food courts.
In Merced, as we get ever closer to the realization of UCM’s 2020 plan, we will hopefully see some of these ideas come to life in the remodeled Merced Mall. In my next article, I will explore some of the possibilities for the future of our only local shopping mall.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.