Malls aren’t what they used to be

March 15, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

I had myself a moment the other day. My son and I were sitting in a lounge area outside the Pottery Barn in Sherway Gardens. While he looked at his new BeyBlade (they’re a thing), I watched as people sauntered by; I saw a woman nodding off on the couch to the left of me; across from me was an older man reading a book; he was in a perfectly pressed cardigan, had bright blue eyes and a head chock-full of white hair. He’d look up from time to time, and appeared to be shocked, bewildered even, that there were other people in the space around him. I wanted to say something to him; I wanted to tell him that he reminded me of my grandfather. 

Before the lethal trifecta of maladies —Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Time —took my grandfather, one of the things he liked to do most, besides work in his garden and be with his family, was hang out at Yorkdale Mall. I remember being at my grandparents’ house during summer break from elementary school and being shocked when my grandfather left the house to go out, on his own. When I asked him where he was going, he said “Yorrk-ah-dale”. When he returned, he’d reach into his pocket and give me a handful of candies that he bought from the gumball machines. It was hard for me, at that age, to imagine that he had a life outside of his family —and to go to the mall, of all places. Through my ten-year old eyes, the mall was for young people, hip people, not retired seniors that couldn’t speak more than a dozen words of English. 

That image of him changed the day my grandmother sent me to Yorkdale to pick up some Chinese food for our lunch. While waiting for my order of Combo # 3 (fried rice, chicken balls, chow mein and two egg rolls) I spied four older men sitting on a bench. They were sitting next to one another, so close that their knees touched; they were talking, laughing, reminiscing. I recognized my grandfather immediately — cardigan, hands clasped, blue eyes, the shock of white hair. It was him, but he looked like a different person. It was the first time I saw my grandfather as more than a father, husband and grandfather; he was a friend, companion and mall patron. My grandfather was suddenly cool; he was hanging out at the mall with his friends. 

The shopping malls of my youth- Sherway Gardens, Square One, Cloverdale- were pleasure palaces, a place to meet up with friends, challenge a stranger to a game of Karate Champ, indulge in a glass of Orange Julius; a place where I’d wait for my girlfriend (my first) to finish her shift at Le Chateau so that I could surprise her with a heart-shaped cookie from Mrs. Fields. Thirty years ago, malls weren’t just for shopping. Malls were where young people socialized, fell in love, and hung around in like delinquents. For young people in the suburbs, the mall was the centre of our world.

Visiting a shopping mall today is a completely different experience. If the original concept of a mall was based on ‘mass consumer experience’, these days malls are only going after a specific type of consumer- the very rich ones. Sherway Gardens called their recent renovation ‘a move to affordable luxury’. Sitting with my son, I could see shoppers were dressed to the nines; young fathers pushed high end strollers; young kids were dressed better than me on my wedding day; young women’s arms were weighed down with bags from Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom’s. I was suddenly conscious of the salt stains on my son’s jacket; the rip in my jeans. 

Usually, I can’t stand malls. I avoid the larger ones at all costs (I prefer to shop local). However, the one great thing about them is that you can leave them. If you want something— you can visit a mall and be back home in a relatively short period of time; you can leave consumer culture behind. In these days of online shopping, one can’t escape the 21st century ‘shopping mall’. The mall is at our fingertips, in our lap, or in the palm of our hands. Amazon is our new mall. Online retailers come to you. When we want to watch a movie, there’s Netflix. In my day, the mall was our Facebook and Instagram (remember the old photo booths?). A young kid today doesn’t need a food court to hang out with their friends. 

In case you missed it, the Orangeville Mall is about to go through some major changes. Many of the stores have closed up shop; many that remain have received eviction notices. In thinking about the mall, and its place in this community, I decided to ask people for stories about their experiences in the Orangeville Mall. One woman told me that she loved the dinosaur nuggets from Zellers and the spaghetti with sauce that tasted like ketchup. A friend told me that she and her girlfriends would go on ‘swiping sprees’ at Zellers; the Orangeville Mall was where her mother caught her smoking for the first time. A resident told me about the time The Young and Restless stars came to town. He said: “The line-ups to see them were bigger than those for Santa Claus”. Sadly, most people I reached out to didn’t have any stories to share. For a place that takes up so much physical space (183,000 square feet, to be exact) the Orangeville Mall has failed to capture the imaginative space of this community. The Orangeville Mall is dying. You can see it in the blank store signs that hang like scars, the desiccated planters, the empty space; patrons walk through the stores like vultures picking at a dead carcass. 

These days, dying malls are being repurposed. They’re being used as community spaces, medical centers, arts spaces, classrooms, farmer’s markets. I hope the developers are asking themselves: How can a ‘new’ Orangeville Mall better serve the specific needs of this community? Wishful thinking, I know. The Orangeville Mall could be something for people of all ages to get excited about. 

On my way out, I decided to take one last stab at finding an interesting story about the place. I spotted the cleaning lady dusting the gumball machines. I walked up to her and asked her if she had a story to share. She looked at me: “Damn right, I do — but not about this place!” As she walked away, I looked over at the candy vending machines. I found a quarter and turned the knob; I thought about my grandfather. I opened the little flap and palmed me a handful of Tootsie Tarts.  As I left, I caught the sign on the door: Thank You for Shopping at the Orangeville Mall. It read like a death knell. 

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