Merced Life

I’m pulling for the Merced Mall. And I’m dreaming big!

Go to YouTube, type in “Dead Malls,” and you will be able to view a series of depressing videos featuring dying and already dead malls throughout our country. Ask anyone under the age of 30 about the popularity of malls in America today, and you will receive confirmation that malls are no longer the social hubs of commerce they were just 10 years ago.

I think this could be a good thing.

I am not much interested in schlepping from one store to another in a space of roughly five indoor, fluorescent-lighted acres looking for a T-shirt or sweater, which is about all I ever buy in the way of clothing these days. I also blame mall culture for replacing healthy activities, such as barbequing in a city park and hiking a nature trail, with pastimes such as eating at a food court and mall walking. And malls cannot, in my opinion, ever replace a vibrant downtown center, no matter how many fake trees line the center promenade between Forever 21 and New York & Co.

And yet, for some reason I cannot quite pinpoint, I find myself mourning the decline of the American mall. Perhaps this is because, for all their annoying Muzak, screaming toddlers, and poorly-trained teenage employees, shopping malls are about the closest thing many small towns have to a vibrant downtown shopping center. I yearn for the day when our own Main Street resembles Downtown Disney (but maybe not so squeaky clean, and not quite so grimly cheerful, and without the pseudo-rock bands in the middle of the square playing covers of 1960s pop tunes). Instead, our downtown struggles to keep a few restaurants and coffee shops, one theater, and a scattering of antique stores in business.

Merced is not unique in its downtown problems, of course. In fact, based on my observations, I’d say we’re doing much better than a lot of Valley towns. But it is hard to believe in the day when our downtown will be home to even one thriving department store, much less a collection of them. And even though I don’t much like to buy things, I do like to browse from time to time, just so I can spend a few hours delaying the stuff I really should be doing.

So, I am pulling for a successful remodel of the Merced Mall, slated to happen any day now.If you had asked me how I might feel about a dying mall 15 years ago, I would have said good riddance. But now that I can see what a town without a thriving mall looks like, I am beginning to see the benefits of one large space devoted to the giddy joys of consumerism.

I want malls, particularly our own mall, to rise again, stronger and brighter and more glitzy than ever imagined before. And with the economic growth Merced is going to experience over the next decade, I think we might even be able to support a big mall. I like to imagine two stories (maybe even three!), and perhaps mixed use, and outdoor stores too, just like Vintage Faire and Fashion Fair. (Might we even be so bold here in Merced as to rename our mall, further extending the possible uses and spellings of “fair”?)

I have, in my quest to satisfy my fantasies about the possible future of the Merced Mall (Faerie Shrimp Mall?), done a little research about what successful malls are doing to stay in business. Some malls, like the Mall of America in Minnesota, which actually has its own tourism office, are far beyond my wildest dreams for humble Merced. But a little idea here, and another there, seems within the realm of possibility for the Faerie Shrimp Mall of Merced. One idea, from the Mall of America, is to rotate shop-in-shops. For example, Work World might set up a central location in its store to house a Clinique counter one month, and an Alexander McQueen collection the next. (Remember, I’m just kind of dreaming here.) Other ideas that have already been implemented in malls seeking to reinvent their places in their communities follow:

· Interactive toy stores. (Okay, no store I have heard of is doing this, but I think it’s a great idea. What about a toy store featuring interactive displays for remote control airplanes and drones, for example, or gas-powered scooters? We see this kind of thing at malls during Christmas, so why not year-round? I would love to hang out in such a store, just to see what might happen.)

· This next idea is a slightly revised version of a Zappos effort to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. Zappos hired artists to paint permanent murals throughout downtown, and then the company opened a store in the area. In my version, mall owners would hire struggling artists to paint a new mural every two or three months on a prominent wall. I would definitely be curious enough to step inside a mall to see the artist at work. And since most artists will work for just about anything, even maybe a meal at the food court, this might be a very inexpensive way to encourage foot traffic.

· Solar panels on the roof. Just saying this is a good idea.

· Pop-up stores. This is similar to the rotating shop-in-shops. Not a permanent kiosk, a pop-up store would just appear one day and be gone the next, like a bonus check. Shoppers would never know when a pop-up might appear, so the promise of a surprise would draw in customers, and of course shoppers would spread the news. Finally, we would all write on our social media pages, Trader Joe’s is in Merced. Even if the store were there for only a few hours, we’d all flock to the mall.

· Mobile apps for finding parking spaces. Some places are already using these. Even better, apps that help shoppers locate the exact item they’re looking for. After all, we’re going big here, and bigger means that those socks emblazoned with pink flamingoes might be a little harder to find.

· The possibility of a mobile app to help a shopper navigate a five-acre labyrinth leads us to the ultimate shopper’s fantasy—concierge services. This is not your typical bored kid sitting behind an information desk. No, in high-end malls, concierge services store your packages, and then, when you’re all done shopping, the nice people at the concierge desk will carry your packages for you, all the way to your car, just like at Save Mart but even better because the stuff they’ll be carrying will be way cooler than peanut butter and whole-wheat bread. I imagine them wearing dark suits and speaking with clipped English accents. As they escort me to my car, they will complement me on the wisdom of all of my purchases, including the neon-green sweater and the little yapping toy dog that does flips.

· Finally, and this is an idea whose time is long past due for Merced: high-end cuisine in the food court. I don’t mean sushi and Dom Perignon, though these should certainly be available. I’m talking about fresh sous vide trout on a bed of seasonal vegetables with a side of deconstructed something and macerated frais de bois in crème fraiche for desert. I don’t know what half of that means, but that’s what I want in my local mall’s food court. That, and an In-n-Out, too.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.