Beyond the sale rack: More than shopping at the mall

Calgary Herald, Sept 1, 2018: After an especially good haul at a sale, my dad, a dapper dresser and committed bargain hunter, would grin and pronounce that he was “going broke saving money.” I think of him every time I go to the mall to get face cream and come home with two pairs of pants and yet another grey sweater because they were on sale. I have no problem walking past regular priced items but I get a little giddy at a sale rack. I skip down the mall swinging my shopping bag and calculating how much money I saved while conveniently glossing over how much I spent and the fact that I don’t actually need any pants or yet another grey sweater.

A few weeks ago, I discovered that you can get giddy at the mall without a credit card. You can go mall walking, or “malk” as my friend and trekking companion called it. Normally we walk in a park, but it was one of those days where the sun was red and the air was thick with smoke from the wildfires next door. So we went to the mall. Granted, my pal and I are late to this party. People have been signing up for mall walking programs for years and a bunch of malls around town happily open their doors early so gaggles of malkers can get their laps in before shoppers get in the way.

I think Victor Gruen would be pleased to see people walking around a mall before the stores open. He’s the architect credited for designing the world’s first enclosed shopping mall. When Southdale opened in Edina near Minneapolis in 1956, Time Magazine called it a “pleasure-dome-with-parking.”The building was “introverted,” meaning it didn’t have any windows on the outside but it had plenty of action on the inside. It had 72 stores, air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter and a garden court with a skylight, fish pond, trees, greenery and a giant cage with colourful birds flying around. Gruen envisioned the shopping mall as much more than a place to buy stuff. He wanted to build a community centre.

A couple of decades earlier Gruen had fled his native Vienna after the Nazis moved in. In 1938, the 35-year old arrived in New York with an architect’s degree and little else. Gruen got his first American gig, designing a store on Fifth Ave, after bumping into a fellow Viennese émigré on the street. After that successful project another architect suggested starting a firm together, but backtracked after talking with his wife and deciding that he couldn’t be an equal partner with an immigrant. Gruen went looking for another partner and found Elsie Krummeck. The two got married and the husband and wife team went on to design dozens of “retail architecture” projects.

As early as 1943 they drew up plans for a shopping centre that included a post office, a library and a nursery school. But those good intentions for building community never made it off the drawing table, writes Joseph Malherek, a scholar of American studies and the history of capitalism. “In the end, the ‘communal’ component of the mall shrivelled down to a few benches and lampposts, which was a source of great bitterness to Gruen, who returned to Vienna in 1968. For the rest of his life, whenever described as ‘the father of the mall,’ he reacted with wrath: ‘I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard ­developments.’”

In 1964, as thousands of shopping malls were popping up in green fields across North America, Gruen wrote a book disparaging urban sprawl and outlining how to bring density to the suburbs: The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis, Diagnosis and Cure. Gruen died in 1980, a year before West Edmonton Mall opened. I have no idea what he’d think of the pirate ship or sea lion show but I like to think he’d be pleased that families skate at the rink in summer and frolic in the water park in winter.

My friend and I discussed a couple of these urban issues on our mall walk, but he set a timer on his phone to limit how long we talked about politics. We’d take turns going left and right (and up and down the escalator). We kept walking as the stores opened and shoppers arrived. We went into an expensive department store and started guessing how much things cost. I won that game. He won the next one, where we guessed the most expensive shoes on the sale rack ($1,430 on for $450!). We took a few selfies goofing around with elegant white mannequins. We left the store before the sales clerks were tempted to call security and went back to walking in circles in the mall.

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