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Essay

A Pall on the Mall

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008

Shopocalypse now!

We're living at what may be the beginning of the end of mallworld as we know it: Certain Circuit City locations are marked for death here and there, and certain Ann Taylor Lofts are not responding to the corporate chemo, and the vacant Hecht's box is still a forlorn husk at Westfield Wheaton Shopping Centre, its parking lot filled with empty school buses. Across the land, it's heebie-jeebie vibes in the homogenous habitat. Bennigan's, Sharper Image, Bombay Co., Linens 'N Things, RIP. It's a series of harbingers. It's the end of things 'N things.

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A Wilsons Leather store, a Disney Store, a Zales; a Gap here, a Home Depot there. Club Libby Lu is shutting down all its tween boutiques (farewell, belly-shirted glitter imps!) and, look, o'er yonder food court, it's the equivalent of a smash-and-grab at Whitehall Jewelers' going-out-of-business sale at the Westfield Montgomery (at all the locations). The sales people at Saks Fifth Avenue in Tysons Galleria (a little taste of Dubai on the Dulles) give you a knowing look, a look that says don't buy it today, come back and buy it in two days.

The Great American Fire Sale has finally taken its toll. The mall is a triage center. Hey, JCPenney, can you hear us, big guy? Blink twice, friend, give us a sign. Eddie Bauer? Buddy? How many fingers are we holding up? J. Jill, you with us, girl? Abercrombie, dude, you look a little peaked, the abs are going soft or something. And the shoe stores! The long faces therein, like refugees. With the T-Pain up as loud as it will go. Seeming as if there is no worse fate in the world than trying to sell a brand-new pair of Air Jordans.

* * *

We are a people who've felt everything you can feel in a mall: We have been teenagers in a mall, long enough to become grumpy adults in the mall. (It's been 26 years since Frank Zappa's daughter had that "Valley Girl" hit, which name-checked the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which was torn down so long ago nobody remembers it anymore. She's 41 now.) We fell in love in malls. We brought our babies to the mall, to play. We had soaring satisfaction and buyer's remorse in malls. We went deeply into debt in the mall. We went to the mall whenever there was nothing else to do.

Yet it's hard to feel sorry for mallworld, because it kept expanding until market forces intervened. By then there was a box-store feeling to life just about anywhere, everywhere.

We are a people who've grown accustomed to the dire warnings from retailers that Christmas -- in any year -- was going to be a tough one, and that instead of making hundreds of billions of dollars in sales, retailers would only make . . . hundreds of billions of dollars in sales.

Every year we spent more, and every year it never seemed to be good enough. We recognize now that this tended to be an abusive relationship, the dysfunctional family dynamic, like a Christmas comedy, only sad.

Economy: You never get me what I want.

Consumer: What? I buy you everything you ask for! Every year!


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