When they got too old to hang out in their own back yards or the park around the corner, Loudoun teenagers used to graduate to supermarket parking lots, mini-mart gas stations, maybe the neighborhood diner and, lately, the nearest Starbucks.
Then the mall at Dulles Town Center opened, and suddenly, parking lots are so yesterday.
"We were, like, so bored," said Joanie Sullivan, 14, a ninth-grader at Calvary Temple School in Sterling. "We'd go to stupid places and hang out 'cause it would, like, take so much time to drive to Tysons or something."
At last, many Loudoun teenagers feel as if they have what their peers in Fairfax have long taken as an inalienable right: an official place to get together. And it has a roof.
"It's more civilized," said Eric Smith, 15, a sophomore at Loudoun Valley High School. "There are corners. There are, like, sections."
Teenagers' almost preternatural attraction to shopping malls is something that Michael Wood explores as vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited in suburban Chicago. Wood has built a business around learning about the shopping and socializing habits of teens for Nike Inc. and other corporations.
Shopping malls have a significant place in the lives of teenagers nationally, Wood said, because "basically, [teenagers] are very limited in what they have to do."
"They're bored, they want to socialize, they want a place to go," he said. "At the same time, the malls, whether they like it or not, are offering them an ideal place to go to see their friends and to shop, which is very appealing to teenagers. . . . When you go to any mall today, the bulk of the stores are aimed at this market."
He said that last year, U.S. teenagers spent $141 billion on clothes, entertainment and compact discs.
It is a market that Lerner Enterprises, the developer of the 554-acre Dulles Town Center, wanted to attract, said Art Fuccillo, project manager for Town Center, which will eventually include an office park and 1,100 homes.
Although mall managers did not want teenagers photographed at the mall, Fuccillo said Lerner is "excited" to have them coming in large numbers. "We encourage them to come and shop and eat and be entertained," he said. "They are a consumer, a very powerful consumer class, and we have stores geared toward them."
The mall is a kid magnet. Umpteen stores are geared toward attracting teens--and their spending money. Just follow the kids in the bell-bottom jeans to find the hippest places: Gadzooks, Hot Topic and Waves Music. There are stores for every phase of a kid's life: Limited Express, for example, is for older kids and teenagers, while Limited Too is for younger kids.
Early one evening last week, a trio of long-haired girls in bell-bottoms and glitter makeup ambled down a corridor in the mall, snapping their chewing gum and giggling.
"Ohmygod, it's not easy on my shopaholic thing, but it's fun here," said Christina Davis, 19, a sophomore at Northern Virginia Community College in Sterling who was with her younger sister and a neighborhood friend. "I'm here a lot."
She fiddled with the necklace of multicolored Smarties candies around her neck and reflected on the expansion of social opportunities. "I come here and chill with my friends in the stores," she said. "I just hang out for hours."
They come by any means available--by bicycle or on foot from nearby neighborhoods, in their own cars or, way uncool, in a parent's vehicle.
About two dozen teenagers, interviewed last week as they strolled through the mall or dined in the mall's airy food court, said they came to see friends, eat and spend money. The money comes either from part-time jobs or their parents' pockets, they said.
Those who hold down jobs--and almost all of those interviewed do, at least during the summer--take pride in having their "own money."
"I've probably spent, like, $250 here so far," said Greg Rudolph, 16, a junior at Loudoun Valley High School. He worked about 36 hours a week this summer in the kitchen at Loudoun Golf and Country Club so he could have money for T-shirts and baggy jeans.
"The reason we come to this mall is they have lots of stores," said Rudolph, who lives in Philomont. "There's lots more stores to choose from."
He was relaxing over pizza and Cokes with friends in the food court after an intense back-to-school shopping spree. The friends, who hang out and bum rides with each other from their neighborhoods in Round Hill, Purcellville and Philomont, are in unanimous agreement on a couple of things.
One, they are completely psyched to have a new hangout, and two, the new place has awesome shopping.
Eric Bigwarfe, a friend of Rudolph's who also worked in the country club's kitchen and is in his last year at a private high school called the Young Adults Project in Leesburg, had shopping bags brimming with new clothes. Some of his latest purchases were already on his back. He conceded that his parents had supplemented his earnings so that he could buy all this loot.
"See, I got this jacket," said Bigwarfe, 16, as he pulled on the fabric of a windbreaker. "It's Ecko. It's phat." Translation: pretty hot.
He showed off his baggie cargo pants. Store: Gadzooks, "where the coolest stuff is."
The lone girl at the table, Lindsey Childs, 15, a junior at Loudoun Valley, held down a $6-an-hour summer job at a mini-mart in Round Hill this summer so she could have the money she wanted for clothes and compact discs. She used some of her earnings--plus her mother's Hecht's card--to buy $300 or so worth of school clothes.
"I bought, like, all clothes, jeans and tops and stuff," said Childs, who got a lift to the mall with her stepbrother, Kevin Creedy, 20, a freshman at NOVA.
The worst part about the new mall, several teenagers confided, is that everyone can see you being dropped off by a parent or another relative.
Bryanna Mantilla, 15, a sophomore at Potomac Falls High School, was spared that embarrassment last week. She got a ride with Chris Tandy, 18, a May graduate of Potomac Falls who is now enrolled at NOVA.
Mantilla, who recently moved to Loudoun from Olney, said she doesn't really like the suburbs--or malls, for that matter. But they are a necessary evil, she said, in the pursuit of a social life. "I don't really like malls, but I just see so many people here every day," said Mantilla, who has a job in one of the mall's kiosks.
Norma McKenny, 41, who lives and works near the mall, said she feels a certain ambivalence about her children--Cliff, 12, and Jennie, 15--beginning to use the mall as a meeting place. But on the whole, she said, it will be better for them to be close to home.
"There's not a lot for them to do these days," she said. "Organized sports was about all they had before to have some interaction after school with their friends." At the mall, she said, "they can gather at the movie theater. When they go to Tysons they don't know anybody. Here they'll be able to see their friends. It'll be a social event for them."
Dozens of teenagers who attend Loudoun County public schools were in the mall at the end of the first day of classes last week. Essential purchases had to be made.
After the last bell at Park View High School in Sterling, Yusef White and a friend high-tailed it to the mall. Well, actually White's aunt dropped them off, leaving instructions--and money--from his mother to buy jeans and a new pair of boots.
White, 14, a sophomore, said he had found what he wanted: a pair of "lugs" for $69.99. But before he committed himself to the purchase, he wanted to do a little window-shopping and make some price comparisons. White said he mixes errands with social visits during his trips to the mall: A lot of his friends have jobs there.
"It's a huge development," White said. "It gives you more of a positive place to hang out instead of just doing nothing."