I grew up in New Jersey, in the days of malls. We had two options: the shitty affordable one with Hot Topic, and the high-end one with the big fountain. Almost always, we went with the former, especially if it was just a few of us dirtbag kids with all of eight bucks between us. It was a social space, and we rarely had a consumer agenda. But from my childhood up through my 30s, I did have a tradition of shopping hard one day a year — a day much too close to Christmas, when I’d hit the mall alone and buy every last gift I planned to give in a manic whirlwind.
Maybe that sounds stressful to you, and I can’t really disagree. Maybe I like the stress, the crowds, the rising panic of the approaching holiday and the cheerful recycled music. When I moved to L.A., the Christmas shopping day became more intense, and it felt like I’d joined the big leagues. More stores! Crazier parking garages! Trolleys and restaurants and movie theaters! I love the open-air design of Westfield Century City and the amusement park tackiness of the Grove. I love getting lost in the Glendale Galleria, for some reason?
Capitalism is a drag, but the temples of commerce are shiny wonders. It’s a treat to surrender yourself, and wander.
This year, unfortunately, the responsible thing to do — although these places are still open — is stay away. You don’t want to contract COVID-19 under any circumstances, but catching it at Urban Outfitters is a very unappetizing prospect. As a result, many will be going fully digital in picking out presents for friends and family. Even if I didn’t take issue with the way this benefits Amazon, already the obvious winner of the pandemic, I have a problem here: I hate ordering this stuff online. I’m terrible at it. I’m too reliant on the drift and discovery that comes with a sprawling physical space, front-table promotions and sales racks and human beings who can guide you to the ideal purchase. The internet, offering infinite choice and little direction, is paralyzing. Give me limits. Give me shelves full of things that I have to pick up with my hands.
Anyway, not gonna happen. I’ll have to knuckle down and click around the web for a whole weekend until I find something suitable to order for each of my loved ones. (And won’t have the pleasure of seeing my parents and siblings unwrap their surprises in person.) The question that popped into my head as a result was this: How do I recapture some of the magic of mall shopping while calculating shipping costs and delivery dates on my couch?
For an answer, I turned to Twitter’s reigning mall expert — the anonymous comedy writer behind @americanamemes, an account devoted to topical yet niche memes about the Americana at Brand, a walled city of a mall in Glendale, California. Since the start of the pandemic, he’s given homebound Angelenos a taste of the mall experience they’re missing. No matter what it takes.
The Americana’s rogue brand rep (who lives near it and genuinely prizes its hokey artifice above the designs of other L.A. malls) had an impressively thorough plan for recapturing the aura of your favorite shopping pavilions. “First off, something I personally love,” he writes in a DM, “is that there are a ton of online walkthroughs of malls on YouTube! It’s obviously not like being there, but it scratches the itch a bit.”
He pointed me toward one such tour of the Americana — and there are plenty of others shot when Christmas lights and decorations were up in years past. “Also, YouTube has tons of videos of the Americana fountain,” he added. For the uninitiated, this is no ordinary fountain full of loose change: It’s an array of powerful jets that synchronize blasts of illuminated water to beloved songs, the dazzling showpiece of the plaza.
Once you’ve got the visual aesthetic locked in, says the Americana’s meme ambassador, it’s time to create the right sound. “On Spotify, people have created playlists from the music that you’d hear in specific retail stores,” he tells me. “Like H&M, Gap and Forever 21. So you can bring the vibe and atmosphere of the store to your home. And you get to hear what ‘the kids’ are listening to!”
I can personally confirm that after months of binging the same sad songs on the home stereo, it certainly does the ears good to hear a smooth, funky jam from an artist who goes by [checks notes] “Biig Piig.” I’m old, all right, and being isolated from the youth culture this whole year has only aged me faster. Finally, I have the sonic palette for browsing T-shirts.
Lastly, and perhaps most urgently, you have to satisfy the senses of taste and smell, which fiercely connect us to an environment: “You can get takeout from most of your mall favorites,” our aficionado reminds us, “like the Cheesecake Factory, Din Tai Fung and even Wetzel’s Pretzels (which is essential to the mall experience)!”
I happen to think that soup dumplings never travel well — believe me, I’ve tried it — but a buttery pretzel that you can warm up in your own kitchen might be just the boost you need to finish off your Secret Santa list. Shopping is tiring whether you’re on foot or ass, and you shouldn’t deny yourself the little rewards that get you from one hour to the next. Don’t sleep on the cookie packages from Mrs. Fields, either.
Behind all this, however, is the dream that one day that brick-and-mortar stores will be “normal” again. On that score, the Americana at Brand Memes creator is cautiously optimistic. When I ask what someone should buy the person in their life who’s really pining for it, he suggested a shopaholic’s delight: “Maybe the best gift would be getting someone a gift card to a mall-specific store (Spencer’s, Orange Julius, Wetzel’s) in hopes that in 2021 we’ll be able to go to the mall?”
If so, you can count on seeing us both there. I’ll be the one dancing with the golden statue in the fountain.