Urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson once wrote, “The Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have a great wall, the British have immaculate lawns, the Germans have castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have grand churches. And Americans have shopping centres.”
A bit of a stretch? Check out Tyee writer Christopher Cheung’s latest essay if you need some convincing. It’s a review of Meet Me at the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by American architecture critic Alexandra Lange, a deep dive into how this invention became a backdrop of our lives.
Malls are weird. They’re sites of the ordinary and the extreme, where many facets of our everyday lives play out by the fountains and in the food courts.
We’re wondering what role malls played in your life.
We want to hear about those first dates sipping Orange Julius and those first jobs folding underwear. What was your local mall as a kid? Your destination mall as a teen? The mall that you begrudgingly visited to get your insurance renewed or to buy a present for a marriage you knew would never work out? Who was there with you? What dramas unfolded? What did you eat? Does it have surprising decorations, perhaps a naked Roman goddess?
We’re collecting mall memories for a reader-driven summer feature on the malls of your lives. Think of it as an affectionate look back to the “before times,” years before the pandemic took hold and gathering in crowded indoor spaces proved to be a bad idea. Bonus points for pictures with a strong sense of place.
Please send your entry to Tyee senior editor Jackie Wong, with the subject line “Mall memories.”
Send in your stories by the end of day Sunday, July 31.
Keep it snappy, 300 words max. Entries may be edited.
Need some inspiration? Here are a few mall memories from our team.
The fabled ’80s
Hey kids, gather round and let me tell you about the days when malls ruled supreme.
Growing up in the Kootenays, we’d heard tales of the underground malls in Vancouver. I pictured a splendiferous vision like Aladdin’s Cave, except instead of caskets of jewels and gold coins, there were stirrup pants, cow-print desert boots, neon and tartan everything as far as the eye could see.
The reality of Pacific Centre Mall, although not quite as fairy tale as I’d pictured it, was still pretty darn good. The stores — Le Chateau, Suzi Creamcheese (which always made me think of venereal disease) and Reitmans — were wadded with the height of ’80s fashions.
But it wasn’t just about the stores or the food court. The mall was the first place you could go on your own as a teenager. Although usually it was with a pack of girlfriends, where you’d hunt down cute boys and try on pants. Or hunt down pants and try on cute boys. Malls were freedom, independence, coolness. Everything that the big city had to offer.
The summer of 1984, I spent my entire two months of earnings in a blast of shopping mania at West Edmonton Mall, at the time the largest mall in the world. I can still remember the clothes that I bought.
When I think of iconic films like Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which centred the action in these retail palaces, some whiff of the mall’s starry splendour returns, wafting in with the fragrance of Orange Julius and McDonald’s french fries. — Dorothy Woodend
Get in, loser. We’re going shopping
At the myriad shoe stores in Toronto’s Sherway Gardens in the Etobicoke neighbourhood, my mother regularly goes, “Oh, these are gorgeous,” to a pair of shoes that are nearly the exact same style and silhouette as five other pairs she owns — in only a slightly lighter shade of black. The following day, she treks back to return the item. The shoes that once represented possibilities have become symbols of her free will. For her, it wasn’t “to buy or not to buy.” It was “to keep or not to keep.”
Sure, we’d occasionally spend a chaotic Saturday afternoon discount shopping after her Sears shift at an outlet mall in Mississauga. But Sherway Gardens, only 10 minutes away by bus, was a go-to for my mom. Something about the large windows, bright halls and sparrows flying around the high open ceiling of its iconic food court was what the people wanted — nay, needed. I couldn’t — and still can’t — go there without seeing at least one person I know from Etobicoke.
Today, nearly two decades after Sherway Gardens had its cameo in the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls, Cactus Clubs and Peloton stores stand in the spots where I got my first job, where I was fired from another job, and where I got my eyebrows waxed for the first time. The Etobicoke kids who used to window shop have been replaced by rich white folks who live in nearby condos. Worse, they’re actually shopping.
Still, I go there with my mom once in a while. We share a coffee and we gossip. Until Sherway Gardens becomes a condo itself, I’ll appreciate the money and time spent there. And now, when I buy something and return it within 24 hours, I find myself thinking, Ooh, I get it now. We may get old, but the rush of the mall doesn’t. — Sarah Krichel
Driving in cars with boys
My North Vancouver high school was built in the Eisenhower era. By the time I was a student there in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the political landscape that shaped the school’s first years remained part of the atmosphere. The school was known for its successful senior football team, whose members would blast Daft Punk in the hallway from boomboxes in their lockers while we changed classes. Even if you were like me, in the jazz band and clad in hemp necklaces, you were still a product of that world. Eventually someone would wrap you up in a letterman jacket on Halloween night when it got too cold as everyone was chucking mighty mites and Roman candles across a patch of forest.
I spent many gormless Saturday afternoons in Grade 9 at the local Capilano Mall, where I’d spend my babysitting wages on an Orange Julius from the food court to drink while I cruised around, bell bottom jeans sweeping the floor. My friend and I would go in on a two-for-one deal on novelty nail polish whose colour corresponded with its scent. Later that night, the neighbour whose children I took care of would grab my hands, nails blueberry-scented blue, and say “Honey, what is that?”
When we got our driver’s licenses a few years later, we’d build entire days around trips to malls in neighbouring suburbs. There’s something terrifying about a teenage boy at the wheel, too fast and out of control. But they were always the ones driving. A crowded car would pull up, I’d crawl in, and we were off, Metallica or Pearl Jam or Green Day or maybe that Harvey Danger single blaring, hurtling recklessly towards Metrotown for no reason at all. I don’t remember buying anything. We’d walk around, get back in the car and go home with little in common but our proximity at the time, content to be part of something. — Jackie Wong
To contribute to a reader-driven Tyee story about life at the mall, share your mall memories (300 words max) by email. Deadline is July 31, and submissions will be subject to an editing process.
We can’t wait to read your mall stories and share them with our readers.
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