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    A Bit Deeper

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    If millennials have killed brick-and-mortar retail, the Silent Generation is picking at its carcass. Or so one might be tempted to opine when entering Mall St. Matthews on a Thursday morning at 7 a.m., stores shuttered, sale signs fluttering apocalyptically in darkened Bath & Body Works windows. The only people roaming the mall are the mall walkers, a largely homogeneous group of retirees tramping past Claire’s and Chico’s without even stopping to window-shop.

    As it turns out, retail is not dead yet (Black Friday sales at physical stores last year increased 4 percent, according to First Data Insights), and mall walking has existed even longer than the millennial generation. A regular I encounter near El Nopal says he’s been walking the malls for upwards of 25 years. “Mall walking” first entered the Oxford English Dictionary via a 1985 New York Times article, a full decade before the release of Gen X favorite Mallrats. Malls across the country are being retrofitted as medical centers, office buildings and even churches, but mall walking doesn’t fit neatly into this trend, because, well, it’s free.

    I enter near the food court, behind an elderly speedster who drapes her coat, among others, across an unoccupied chair, and begin my counter-clockwise circuit. Whether I’m surrounded by the unobscured trappings of late capitalism or a premonition of its eventual demise, the ambiance is at first one of melancholy. (Victor Gruen, the mid-century inventor of the American mall, eventually denounced the monster he had created, calling suburban shopping malls “bastard developments.”) Hollister’s aggressive music is silent, giving way to the sad hum of vending machines. The ride-on animals of the Animal World kiosk are corralled and motionless, not deployed by children as weapons of pedestrian terror. The racks at Forever 21 give the disorienting appearance of infinity when not speckled with shoppers, a profusion of signs advertising “Our most epic sale” dangling uselessly before locked doors. I think of Ling Ma’s 2018 satirical novel Severance, which places a post-apocalyptic survivor camp in a Midwestern mall, repurposing a bygone L’Occitane for the protagonist’s bedroom.

    More mall walkers appear around every corner, some of them wearing athletic wear, most in jeans and sweaters. One brings her own walker, and I spot a few repurposing the Mall Racers rental strollers for the same utility. Kenneth Welsh, who looks to be in his 80s and is hard of hearing, tells me he usually gets to the mall as soon as the doors open at 7, completing a two-lap route before heading home, usually about an hour later. “Depends on who you run into,” says his friend Linda.

    Everyone seems to know everyone else. Welsh says he walks for the exercise as much as the socializing. Groups used to meet for coffee after their walks at a Panera Bread that has since closed, he tells me. Now nothing is open before mall hours, not even Starbucks. Linda walks year-round. “If you don’t show up, the regular people want to know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “We keep track of each other.”

    As my route passes a bubbling fountain, melancholy gives way to meditation. The dim lighting imbues this bastion of consumption with something like religious reverence. I feel relaxed and invigorated, and as I amble past a closed-up Cinnabon, almost positive I can still smell it, I consider that a pre-workday walk might be the life hack I’ve been seeking. Haven’t I read of the fabled daily perambulations of geniuses throughout history, from Aristotle to Steve Jobs?

    In the food court, a group has gathered around a table. There are hugs, happy-new-year greetings, discussions of the news. And there is coffee and a box of pastries, evidently brought in from the outside. It strikes me that I’ve stumbled upon not a dystopia but a makeshift utopia, a community based around a common interest in vascular health and, perhaps, the same pursuit of mental stimulation as certain philosophers and CEOs.

    As I exit past the Chinese Gourmet Express, I can’t help but think that perhaps mall walking has partially redeemed Gruen’s “bastard developments,” the early-morning wraiths of Mall St. Matthews not so much picking at a carcass as reanimating a dream of suburban affinity.

     

    This originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “A Walk in the Mall.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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