By Mike Janssen
The malls of our youth have changed irrevocably over the years. Some have even closed their doors for good. But, some nostalgic shoppers are now enshrining cherished mall-hopping memories with an up-to-the-minute technology — the blog.
Over the past few years, devotees of mall lore and history have launched online troves of photos, postcards, floor plans and old newspaper ads with blogs. Labelscar, Malls of America and BIGMallrat's Malls in Northern California and Reno are just a few. And though shopping is often seen as a woman's favorite pastime, many of these mall bloggers are men — an oddity they're at a loss to explain.
The sites have attracted hundreds of readers daily, eager to relive their own mall memories. A community has sprung up that uses LiveJournal, a popular personal blogging tool, and a Remembering Retail forum on Yahoo! boasts 430 members.
Malls of America (mallsofamerica.blogspot.com), one of the most popular and frequently updated mall blogs, features new pictures of vintage malls nearly every day, along with awestruck commentaries free of even a hint of irony.
“If that ain't Heaven, I'd sure like to know what is,” wrote proprietor Keith Milford of a '60s-era photo of Westland Center in Westland, Mich., in which the promenade is lined with bizarre, towering structures that resemble mutant dandelions.
A vintage picture of kids at a shopping-mall fountain sent Milford into a reverie — “the relaxing sound of the gurgling fountains, the shimmering ripples on the surface, the glistening coins blinking up at you from the fountain's tiled bottom, all mixed with the murmuring din of busy shoppers and lulling Muzak echoing throughout the mall in the background.”
Milford, 40, is among the older mall bloggers, but shares an idyllic view of the malls he visited as a kid with fellow fanatics. They also rue the ways in which malls have changed over time, shedding their aesthetic frills of yesteryear: murals, sculptures, birdcages and huge fountains and courtyards. To these bloggers, today's malls seem more homogenized and, sadly, less central to the social life and shopping routines of today's suburbanites.
“They're a huge part of our landscape in this country,” says Labelscar's Jason Damas, 26. “And yet, not many people are shedding a tear over it.”
Damas, whose Web site Labelscar receives 400 unique visits per day, has not received any comments from mall managers, developers or owners.
Damas's passion for malls is rooted in his youth in Newport, R.I., where the nearest mall with any stores worth patronizing, the Rhode Island Mall in Warwick, was a 45-minute drive away.
At Rhode Island Mall, Damas relished the freedom to wander off from his parents for a little while to play video games, eat junk food and buy alternative rock albums. Going there was an “event,” he says.
It was there he discovered a compilation of British indie rock bands that spawned an abiding passion for music. “It was not a planned purchase — it was hanging out at the mall that brought it on,” says Damas who blogs under the name Caldor in homage to the defunct department store chain.
That warm fuzzy feeling
Scott Parsons, who covers California malls as BIGMallrat (bigmallrat.blogspot.com), says malls remind him of outings with his mother and grandmother, who would often visit three malls in a day.
“It's like comfort food in some respects,” he says. “They provided so much for us when we were growing up. We'd look at the birds in the cages, play in the water fountains, all these things you can't do anymore.”
“Looking back, you get warm fuzzy feelings,” Parsons says.
Milford also enjoyed his childhood shopping trips but joined the ranks of mall fanatics after seeing the 1979 horror film Dawn of the Dead, in which the protagonists, seeking refuge from zombies, hole up inside Monroeville Mall, just outside Pittsburgh.
In the early 1980s Milford became “utterly obsessed” with the film and Monroeville Mall. He asked the mall for brochures and floor plans and even built a digital recreation of the center in a 3-D computer modeling program, which allowed him to put himself inside a vintage reconstruction of the mall.
Milford's obsession later grew to include vintage malls in general. (He also maintains blogs devoted to pop culture depictions of Satan, Halloween and Santa Claus, as well as one highlighting YouTube videos of busty, scantily clad women.)
“One of my biggest fantasies has always been to somehow have a huge deserted shopping mall all to myself at night — not so much for all the ‘stuff’ there, but more so I can freely explore the place and run around in it to my heart's content,” Milford says. “I'll be the first to admit that my own enjoyment of malls actually comes from a slightly weird and very personal place.”
The rise of blogging offered Milford and other mall fans a home for their stores of memorabilia and historical research. Milford launched Malls of America in June 2005 because no other Web site catered to his appetite for “lots and lots of groovy photos!”
Parsons, 37, was early to the Web with his Guide to Northern California Malls, which he started in 1998. But, it was not until December that he started its companion blog, when he discovered two boxes of mall-related materials stowed away in his attic — industry magazines, newspaper clippings and hundreds of directories from malls in the western United States and Canada that he has hoarded since the 1970s.
Milford and Parsons, as well as many other of the writers, run their sites using Blogger, a Web-based service that furnishes free site hosting through its Blogspot service.
The mall bloggers buttress their collections of mall materials by scouring eBay, searching other Web sites and visiting libraries, flea markets and estate and garage sales. Their posts often link to related online resources such as mall Web sites, Wikipedia entries and aerial images of malls found via Google Maps.
Damas and co-blogger Ross Schendel take a more encyclopedic approach to mall history on Labelscar (labelscar.com), named after the mark that remains on a building's façade long after a sign has been removed. The bloggers met on America Online in the late '90s and discovered a mutual love for malls and road trips.
Damas and Schendel met in person at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and made pilgrimages to many malls of the Midwest. Damas estimates that together and individually they have visited two-thirds of the country's enclosed malls. He often extends business trips to give himself an extra day or two for visiting malls, then details his travels in lengthy posts illustrated with many photos of the properties.
Their professions suit their unusual hobby. Schendel, a grad student, studies the geographic information systems that are sometimes used to plan retail developments. Damas works in search-engine optimization and brings a marketer's eye to his analyses of malls and their financial fortunes.
Labelscar and other mall blogs attract loyal visitors who contribute reminiscences and submit selections from their own caches of old ads and photos. The bloggers also read each other's sites, commenting on posts and collaborating on the creation of a collective store of knowledge.
Damas acknowledges that a competitive spirit fuels his blogging. “You always want to be the first one to get the story,” he says.
As a whole, the blogs embody their authors' dreams of paying tribute to what may be a fading piece of Americana.
“I hope it serves to not only remind people of all the aesthetic design, beauty and character we've lost from our classic malls at this point,” Milford says, “but, also that there's a need to consciously appreciate and celebrate those places, as well as the people who designed and built them.”
Their efforts are time-consuming. Parsons estimates he puts in 10 to 40 hours a week on his mall guide and its accompanying blog, often starting after getting home at 5 p.m. from his job as a technical writer — “I have to cut myself off, really.”
Milford too spends at least a few hours a day on Malls of America, including weekends, which inspires awe among his fellow bloggers. Damas calls the blog a “must see.” Parsons is similarly impressed.
“It would be interesting to talk to him in real life,” he says. “Wow, this person is more of a mall geek than I am. What kind of person is that?”