Not mad about the mall: In remembrance of the days when walking around downtown was the way

Malls drive me to the edge. On those occasions when necessity forces me to venture into a department store to buy some essential item, I find myself overwhelmed by acres of space dedicated to gross amounts of stuff nobody needs. I am starting to wonder if, like eye color, the drive to acquire is genetically determined.

The other day, I found myself at the Tucson Mall. As anyone who's been to this particular temple to excess knows, unlike other area malls, this one was specifically designed to make it impossible for people to get from point A to point B with a minimal amount of effort. When you discover department store X doesn't have what you need and you decide to try Y, it's no simple matter to get from one to the other. Instead, you have to wend your way through a labyrinth of shops and a food court dishing out mediocre fare.

Before some avaricious cretin first came up with the less-than-sterling idea of the shopping mall, stores were individual entities housed in cool old buildings in thriving areas known as downtown. In order to get from one store to the other, a shopper (shopper--now there's a word to ponder) had to step outdoors. If you lived in, say, Minnesota, and it happened to be January, you made sure you didn't spend a lot of time dallying: You purchased what you came for and booked for home.

Nowadays, Minnesota is home to a destination mall with the most apt of names: Mall of America. People actually plan their vacations around a trip to this megamonstrosity. You can buy your fill, eat your fill and be entertained all at one convenient location that claims 13,000 parking spaces, a number greater than the population of some places I've lived.

Here's the way the maul, oops, mall describes itself on its Web site: "Mall of America has simply changed the way we shop. It has become the model for combining signature attractions with retail to create an outstanding entertainment venue and is now one of the most visited destinations in the United States."

Excuse me, but what was wrong with the way we used to shop? Before the days of gargantuan emporiums, shopping was simply something you did to buy what you needed. Stores were smaller, because they didn't have to house a huge inventory of crap. Even department stores were relatively human scale.

And no one thought of parking lots, because people walked or took public transportation. (Yes, I understand the words "public" and "transportation" are never used in the same sentence in either Tucson or Arizona, but there are places where public transportation is still a viable option.)

Ironically, it's the larger cities that still maintain a vestige of the way people used to shop. You won't find a mall in Manhattan, for example, but you will find a plethora of neighborhood markets and sidewalk produce stands run by independent greengrocers.

One of my fondest recollections is walking a block to the neighborhood markets. On one street, you could find a druggist, food market, "variety" store (candy, newspapers, soda fountain and illegal betting), dry cleaners, baker, butcher and record shop. Besides providing for people's material needs, these places also served as a kind of informal gathering place. Men would congregate on the street, smoke and talk.

If you walked a block in the other direction, you'd find a bar, a shoe store, a furniture store and a barber. Less than a mile away, there were two fish stores--appropriately, on the river--and a couple of places that sold only fruits and vegetables.

If you ventured across the bridge, you found yourself downtown, where several department stores competed for your dollar, and specialty shops dotted the urban landscape. At the end of the strip (it was only a few blocks long), you could choose between a Jewish deli and a hamburger joint.

No one drove to any of these establishments. The idea of walking a mile or two, or even more, was something people just took for granted. If you had to travel any great distance, you could always take a bus.

See, here's the thing: Unlike impersonal malls that offer nothing but stuff and "signature attractions," the older way of meeting one's material needs also met a social need. When you stepped into your local food market, you knew who owned it, who'd be behind the counter and which brother was about to get married. If the fishmonger suggested cod over haddock because the cod was fresher, you knew he was telling you the truth, because you had established a relationship based on more than just the exchange of money.

The people who baked your bread, did your dry cleaning and sold you olives were the same people you saw at weddings, funerals and other events marking the passages of our lives. But then, our lives weren't spent in malls, and our entertainment was more pleasure than distraction.

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