"[Malls] are toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes, they are the profound equalizers, the perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal . . . ." --Author Joan Didion

The role of the mall in the shaping of America troubles academics like American University's Annabelle Motz, who sees the institution's influence as an equal blend of good and bad.

In a large suburban community, where people don't know their neighbors and entertainment costs are high, says Motz, a sociology professor, malls have become a place for family recreation.

In years past, families would dress in their best and pile into the car for a Saturday afternoon downtown. These days they go to malls, where there are not just stores, but minstrel shows and talking reindeer, antique and woodworking shows, sports-car shows, computer workshops and college bazaars, fashion shows, appearances by cheerleaders and an occasional movie star, self-help clinics and cable televsion demonstrations.

There's a branch of the public library at Fair Oaks, and by early this summer, both that mall and the one at Springfield will have their own branches of the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles.

"Malls provide something for people to do," Motz says. "You can get away on the spur of the moment, walk around, see other people whether you know them or not. It doesn't cost anything to get in. People feel good when they go someplace that looks so busy and successful, even if they themselves are not."

On the other hand, Motz tells a story about a family friend from a foreign country who came to visit. The friend had never been in a large American city before, and suddenly found herself in a department store. "My God," the woman said, "I never realized there was so much one could do without."

To enter a mall is to be swept on a wave of sensory stimulation, say those who study the phenomenon. The people, the piped-in music, the smells, the neon and the glitter and the things, so many things in so many windows to see, to buy, to own. Dollars trickle out even if a large purchase isn't made: a chocolate chip cookie, some sesame sticks, an E.T. lollipop, a slice of pizza, a Coke.

"You go into a mall and you tend to lose perspective about what is important in life," Motz says. "You imagine this is what other people have and you feel shortchanged if you don't have it. Malls are one of the reasons so many people are in debt."

Lori Statzer, 20, a dental assistant from Woodbridge who was shopping at Springfield Mall one day recently to "try out my new Penney's charge card," put it a different way:

"You come here and you see something and you buy it. It's a defense against boredom," Statzer said.