The suburban mall

Today’s thirty-somethings witnessed a revolution. During our teenager years, the world discovered the Internet, and everything changed.

Unlike younger millenials, I can remember my life, pre-Internet. Before text messaging, easy-access information, and Facebook friendships, we relied on another institution for our mindless wandering and cheap entertainment. We called it “the mall.”

As a pre-teen, I cherished every visit to that consumer mecca. My favorite Internet activities each had their own mall equivalent:

  • On the Internet, we play games. Mallrats visited the arcade. Even without cash, it could kill an hour; you didn’t need quarters to watch. For a video game nerd obsessed with the latest graphics, arcade consoles were cutting-edge stuff.
  • On the Internet, we read, bouncing between Wikipedia, blogs, and online news outlets. Malls let you read for free, too. Ask your parents about something called “bookstores.” You could slip into Waldenbooks, find a quiet aisle, and devour a few bound comic paperbacks. Or you could flip through your favorite magazines—if the store clerks didn’t catch you ripping the plastic seal.
  • The Internet has its bizarre, disturbing corners. Malls had Spencer’s Gifts, a one-stop-shop for the weird and wonderful. There, a pre-adolescent boy hovered between twin pleasures: grotesque trinkets and off-color, forbidden gifts.
  • Online, we lust after the latest gadgets. At the mall, wandering the toy store fulfilled the same passion. Did the Nintendo kiosk have any new games installed? What ninja turtle figurines had been released? What quirky doo-dads littered the front tables?
  • The Internet encourages day-long YouTube binges. The mall enabled its own share of gluttony. Scrape together a few coins, and you could gorge yourself. One-dollar hamburgers. Plastic baggies overloaded with gummy candy. Even if you were broke, you could eat; friendly Chinese fast-food kiosks often hawked free samples. With a little ingenuity, you could binge on media, too; sneaky teenagers spent rainy afternoons theater-hopping from one movie to the next.

Today, fewer and fewer bored teens ask to be dropped off at the food court. The mall is dying. Many local gallerias resemble post-apocalyptic ghost towns, and America hasn’t christened a new mall since 2006. Who needs overpriced boutiques, when Amazon exists? Why evade jaded bookstore clerks, when you can browse Reddit to your heart’s content? The Internet has supplanted the suburban mall for just about every consumer need.

But back in its heyday, there was nowhere better to waste a Sunday afternoon.