I've always had a relationship with the Chapel Hills Mall, that 1.2 million-square-foot temple of commerce. I basically grew up in it.
My mother walked its hallways after-hours for exercise while I did homework on a bench. I used to steal football cards from the K-Mart that's now a movie theater. I'd get dropped off and spend hours reading at the Borders that's now nothing.
My first attempt at employment was as a 14-year-old trying to impress Chick-fil-A. My high-school lunch hours were spent with friends bombing down Briargate Boulevard to hit the food court. Once, a friend and I stole his mom's ATM card and withdrew $300 from a mall terminal to blow on a Nintendo 64. We got caught when I approached a security guard and asked why the machine refused to dispense more money. I still miss the ice arena.
The mall isn't what it used to be. Because the industry is being obliterated by the Internet and changing consumer tastes, store closures are everywhere. The food court has half what it used to, spaces like the one that used to hold a Sbarro — which declared bankruptcy for the second time in March — are just sheetrock. Orange Julius is now a jewelry store. So is a former Taco Bell. It seems like everything that used to be in the mall is now a jewelry, shoe or import store.
The part of the industry not propped up by expensive stores for rich people is screwed. The spending power of the middle class is basically gone, so J.C. Penney and Sears are disappearing, too. But the extremes are doing great. If you're broke, Family Dollar Store is happy to take your meager money and sell you stuff you need. If you're stacked, Nordstrom is even happier to take your money and sell you stuff nobody needs. Both have doubled in value in recent years.
"Within 10 to 15 years, the typical U.S. mall, unless it is completely reinvented, will be a historical anachronism," the New Yorker quoted Rick Caruso, CEO of real-estate giant Caruso Affiliated, as saying last January at the National Retail Federation's annual convention. "[It will be] a 60-year aberration that no longer meets the public's needs, the retailers' needs, or the community's needs."
It was with all this in mind that I undertook a mission. I would wait until after Black Friday and spend an entire Saturday embedded in the Chapel Hills Mall, open to close. It was a whole world to me as a kid, a place to flex what little adulthood I had managed and pretend that staring at girls is better than talking to them.
What was it now?
9:08 a.m. There's a surprising amount of people at the mall for nine in the morning on a Saturday. I walk in the doors past an Auntie Anne's manager dourly eating a pretzel. Think about that: How many pretzels has this dude eaten? I'm betting enough to live, not enough to set himself on fire to "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want."
The stall vendors look bored, but I like the guy at the piercing booth with giant, stretched-out holes in his ears. I believe him.
9:22 a.m. Holy shit, RadioShack is still in business.
9:23 a.m. You can smell Bath & Body Works from several lifetimes away before it comes into view. The store is open, unlike its zesty neighbor Victoria's Secret, which still has metal gates over the entrance. One elderly man walking the mall in cargo shorts eyes all that frilly pink behind bars for a second before jerking his eyes away.
I SEE YOU, SIR — AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, GOD SEES YOU.
9:34 a.m. We have our first Christmas song: "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" — and it's losing the vibe to Subway, which is ass-deep in some Destiny's Child: "The shoes on my feet, I bought it / The clothes I'm wearing, I bought it."
9:37 a.m. There's a certain look that Southern policemen escorting football coaches after the game have — that wide-brimmed state-trooper thing — and this mall security guard has it. He's unlocking the movie theater, which Cinemark remade into a 13-screen space holding 2,800 people. Dig the "Big D Experience" — which does not seem to involve lube.
9:40 a.m. Inside Pet City, a blue Macaw flaps its wings while a young employee in a purple shirt records the bird on her phone. "Look how funny he looks," she says. She puts the smartphone too close and the smarter parrot clacks it with his beak. It's a depressing sight until the bird climbs into her hair and flaps in her face. If that parrot were really committed, he'd create a Facebook group called The Zero Percent and start planning the revolution. But flapping will do.
9:51 a.m. Naked Edge Cutlery's stubborn insistence on existence would make some sense if real life ever required throwing stars. If throwing stars were an integral part of paying taxes, or driving to the gas station, or fighting indigent squirrels, then Naked Edge would make sense. Regardless, says one employee, throwing stars are one of their top sellers. NINJAS RIDE OR DIE.
Is there anything more American than buying a useless, expensive weapon?
9:55 a.m. Black cameras watch from the ceilings.
I wonder how long it will be until Paul Blart asks why I seem to live here now.
10:51 a.m. On any other day, a train driving down a mall hallway might seem weird, but this is Christmastime. The engineer is a red-haired man wearing elf ears. The cars are mostly empty, except for an excited little girl and a sullen thirty-something man hunched over in the back. The train goes around and around, passing person after person, store after store.
The Large Hadron Collider slams particles together in its search for dark matter. Here it would be called Doesn't Matter and you'd find a 14-year-old on her phone when it exploded.
10:54 a.m. Mall traffic has gone from sparse and elderly to busy and young. It's actually just as busy as I remember it being from Christmases past. Excited small children abound and there's skipping.
LOTS AND LOTS OF SKIPPING.
11:09 a.m. The mall as a building makes a lot of sense if you remember that the first one was built in the 1950s as a Cold War bomb shelter. Imagine sitting in a concrete bunker in trepidation of other people, with shitty food options and no cell service... That's the mall!
11:17 a.m. In this grand new world, one of the mall's greatest services is letting you see your stuff IRL. Scout it here, buy it on Amazon. Soon it will be: scout it on Amazon, print it at home after agreeing that you have no legal rights or feelings.
It's a special moment.
11:31 a.m. I'm sitting on a bench, and the hallways are packed so full that it vibrates continually.
A bald security guy wearing plainclothes and a badge stands across from me, speaking into a walkie-talkie.
I feel guilty.
IT WAS ME AT THE ATM. I TOOK THE $300. I JUST WANTED WHAT ALL PEOPLE WANT: MARIO KART 64.
11:35 a.m. It's lunch-time. Chick-fil-A, with icicle lights dangling from its menu, is slammed; Smoothie Paradise & Pretzel, less so.
This shouldn't be surprising. "Smoothie Paradise & Pretzel"? Is that really what the mall crowd is crying out for? The land of Milk and Salty?
Still, I guess it's better than the popcorn store on the floor below. Even the guy working there looks embarrassed.
11:38 a.m. A couple holds hands across and prays over their Chick-fil-A. I don't see any shopping bags. They open their eyes and look straight at me to find me staring.
11:40 a.m. "There used to be more food stuff," a woman mourns. Then a group of nine little girls wearing Burger King hats with antlers prances past.
11:47 a.m. I've started counting girls wearing infinity scarves and Uggs. I'm up to seven.
12 p.m. Spencer's Gifts has been around since 1947, yet its stores exist in a continual and immediate NOW. It's the dumb and funny parts of the Internet made real. You can buy a plush Grumpy Cat here, and you can combine that with a rabbit vibrator. There's nowhere else in the mall catering to bumping uglies, while Spencer's hides body stockings, butt plugs and vibrators in plain site, and... Suddenly, I find Kinetic Sand. It's moist like beach sand, except it tears apart and you can sculpt it into unique and exciting shapes without getting your hands dirty. There's, like, a 68 percent chance I'll come back and buy ALL OF IT.
12:21 p.m. "Ohh, it's about to get cray-cray," says a teen, about the train.
12:24 p.m. Sears still exists, which makes me feel better about the world, but there's nobody in most of it, which doesn't. The tools section is packed with shoppers, which makes me feel better about this world, but the section next to it houses the Kardashian Kollection, which makes me feel better about death.
12:45 p.m. Santa has a pretty healthy view toward the kids on his lap: They'll be gone eventually.
One little girl throws her head down, sobbing on the Fat Man Himself. Santa half-heartedly pokes her, then adds her name to the Kill List.
1:08 p.m. In the paranoid bomb shelter, the bald security guy finally approaches me and my photographer, Elly Stewart, in its food court. "That's a pretty nice camera, young man," he tells her.
"She's with me," I say, and the patriarchal power structure works once again, as he now seems satisfied we're not terrorists.
"You never know about people taking pictures these days," he says, which is odd, because these days, everybody takes pictures. He's also sorry about the "young man" thing.
1:46 p.m. Bob Keys is a cool dude who just wants to ring a bell in front of Sears for the Salvation Army. He's retired, and there as a member of Gleneagle Sertoma, which stands for "SERvice TO MAnkind." He stands with stooped gait, serving mankind by holding a sign that says "ding" on one side and "dong" on the other.
1:54 p.m. A red sign with black lettering is taped to the doors: "ATTENTION, this J.C. Penney Location is PERMANENTLY CLOSED. We are honored to have served the great people of Colorado Springs for 19 years. THANK YOU."
Penney's loved you.
2:52 p.m. Purgatory is either an awful place where the inhabitants wait for eternity or a gift-wrap store. These gift-wrap places are the formerly useful, gaping holes in the infrastructure. The people inside look at you with needy hope.
Missing teeth and the paintings of George W. Bush offer more.
2:56 p.m. When you read this pun the first time, you'll groan; after you read it a dozen times, yule punch a baby reindeer.
3:11 p.m. I'm discomfited by the presence of little women who don't seem to need the things in Victoria's Secret. Perhaps Victoria's Full Disclosure would be a better venue. Luckily, my fiancée has joined me to help bear the burden. I always feel like I have to stay close to her in this store or else people will think I'm going to #YesAllWomen them.
3:20 p.m. "Oh, that smell just made me nauseous," says a shopper in Bath & Body Works. Kudos, keen-nosed stranger. Everybody thinks it, someone said it.
3:31 p.m. Holy shit, RadioShack is still selling portable CD players.
4 p.m. A big purple sign pimps the mall's appeal: "3,000,000 mall visitors each year: Receptive, offline, family-oriented consumers." So, the main thing advertisers should dig is the fact somebody pumped out some kids and then forgot to buy them Internet.
Too bad the Mormons wandering in the wilderness couldn't make a stop for some Orange Julius. Oh, that's right: THERE IS NO ORANGE JULIUS. *tear*
4:28 p.m. What's with Macy's and their creepy mannequins with hard nipples and feet that basically grow into high heels? WHO ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPRESS, MACY'S?
4:49 p.m. Just spotted my first multi-bagged shopper. She was lying down in a seating area, wearing a Snoopy shirt that said, "Wake me when the holidays are over."
5:28 p.m. I'm in Charlotte Russe, a store which seems to cater to the sex industry. Can I get an amen for leotard thongs?
5:41 p.m. In my teen years, Hot Topic was a scary place. The stoners and metal-heads were outsiders, and nobody knew what to do with the sexually active 15-year-olds. It was a mirror for grungy rock culture, with lots of rebellion to keep the kids coming. It's owned by a private equity firm now.
Old Me could tell Young Me that that means the store's a honeypot for those with a buck but no clue. What it really is, though, is living proof that the nerds won the war and culture has shifted big-time.
Hot Topic is now full of Westeros merch, and superhero stuff, and Batman belts, and Internet memes and a bunch of other stuff that, I promise, didn't get you laid in high school. Yeah, you can still get your Nirvana shirt or your anarchy sticker, but you know what really sells? These Pop Vinyl bobbleheads. Elsa from Frozen, and Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast, and Wolverine.
These things were not beloved by the American Eagle kids. The American Eagle kids lost. Speaking as a nerd: fuck yeah.
6:04 p.m. The real tragedy of Chapel Hills is the closure of Borders. That place was a respite from the happiness-sucking fluorescent hallways. Plus, it had coffee. And get this: Now there's no Cinnabon in the mall. There's. No. Cinnabon. In the mall. WHAT KIND OF SOCIETY IS THIS?
6:06 p.m. I'd like to say it's a different crowd, but instead it's a turnover of energy. Things don't actually change in the mall. Instead, the crowd is simply refreshed for a lovely night of window shopping.
6:07 p.m. Adam Levine's face is blazing a creepy stare from his Proactiv poster. I've been here nine hours, and I feel cut off from the world, and compressed by the hollow branding and messaging. It's like living in Manhattan without anything good.
6:12 p.m. We're almost run over by the train.
He's taunting me.
6:22 p.m. I'm sitting in the food court looking at an ad for a Chapel Hills Mall gift card.
It feels so outdated. With the whole economy trending towards niche-ification, it seems a tough sell. Plus, outside of the department stores, there's almost nothing here that's not cheaper online or made better elsewhere. If, say, you buy an Amazon gift card at King Soopers, the whole world of retail is open to you instead of just throwing stars, Kinetic Sand and bobbleheads.
I'm here to witness some statement about consumerism and the holiday shopping addiction, but if it's happening, it's happening quietly. Instead I feel a place struggling to survive and reinvent itself in a time when consumer habits are shifting. People come to the mall because people come to the mall, and they're starting to stop.
7:15 p.m. Elsa. Frozen. Braid. Claire's.
8:22 p.m. The mall gets crazy at night. Train-driver guy has ditched the elf ears, stuck in a Bluetooth earpiece and is driving a train empty save for a wheelchair-bound security guard hanging off the back. True story.
8:47 p.m. The Chapel Hills Mall closes soon.
After my 12 hours, it seems it exists in a continuous state, either on or off. Nothing has appreciably changed since 9 a.m., and nothing about Christmas has made much of an impression.
Except this one thing.
Hours earlier, a choir of around 25 kids from Odyssey Elementary School gathered at the far end of the food court, singing in front of some 200 parents. At first, it was just random songs, but soon a teacher handed out lyrics to the crowd. They were for Christmas songs.
It was a total Grinch moment. My heart started two sizes too small, but you can't push the power of "Hark (the Herald Angels)" aside. We started with "Deck the Halls," and it was sweet, very sweet, a united voice, underscored by bass, a reminder of what can make Christmas great: that people are similar at their cores and there are times of year to celebrate being close to one another. Even in the mall, you couldn't escape the authenticity of this crowd in this food court singing these songs.
Now "Silent Night." All is calm. All is bright.
Go sell that.