Heading to the local mall used to be one of the social highlights of the week even ten years ago, much less 20. There were folks everywhere to satisfy the people-watching and social animal comfort human beings cherish when gathered in shiny, seemingly happy places. There were endless snacks from homemade pretzels-and-mustard to chocolate-cherry shakes and caramel cappuccinos. The window-shopping and bookstore browsing was itself a sub-category of pleasure. Going to the mall also signified upcoming occasions in one’s life. Picking out the latest shirt or swimsuit for an upcoming oceanic trip. Finding the perfect suit or a dress that night finally make one the Rhett Butler of the night or Belle of the Ball.
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At least for a hundred miles in any direction in my vicinity, nowadays most malls are shadows of their former glory. For the first time in more than five years, I went to Charleston Town Center Mall in West Virginia’s capital city a few weeks ago to see Ann Magnuson perform her wonderful “SuRURALism” show, on a West Virginia Music Hall of Fame stage. The locale was revealing. The Hall of Fame occupies two large, abandoned commercial storefronts on the mall’s second floor, retrofitted into appealing spaces showcasing West Virginia’s many notable gifts to popular song. Less appealing was the rest of the mall’s long, empty hallways.
The mall’s second floor was a smidgen more lively than the first. But it was striking to see how many retail outlets from back in the day have — one-two-three-four-five-six-seven! — abandoned the whole idea of the mall. I am responsible, as are you, and any of us who’d rather click open Amazon.com or some other online retailer, seeking to flick a package to our porch by week’s end. In the case of the long-faded glory of the Town Center Mall, the walls tell the story. Vast white lengths of flat panels where windows and doors used to be ghost over the days of a retail block party long since gone.