Random Reflections on Malls and Department Stores

Monday’s Wall Street Journal ran an article (read it here) noting the waning days of the department store as anchor in the American shopping mall: “Mall Owners Push Out Department Stores: Fast-fashion chains, restaurants, specialty stores do a better job of driving mall sales and drawing shoppers.”

Today’s post is nothing more than a random, jumbled collection of memories associated with shopping malls and department stores. It doesn’t feel like my usual kind of post, if I even have a “usual” kind of post, but it’s what I feel compelled to write about today. I appreciate your forbearance 🙂

So . . .

I am old enough to remember a time before shopping malls, at least before what I think of as “shopping malls”—that enclosed-under-one-roof collection of stores anchored at each of its opposite ends by a pair of major department stores. When I was very little, shopping meant going downtown. We’d leave the car in a parking structure and—

(Aside: My husband just noted that when he was a kid, his city didn’t even have any parking structures, which prompted me to wonder when the idea of parking ramps really took hold. With a quick Google search, I found a 2009 NPR article about a museum exhibit on the history of the parking garage. In case you also are interested in and easily sidetracked by such arcana 🙂 )

—we’d walk a block to the big department store. And big is what it was! At least six or seven stories. The shoe department, the toy department, the luggage department, the children’s department. Men’s clothing, women’s clothing. Hats. Gloves. Jewelry. Sporting goods. The hair salon. The photography studio. The candy counters. Just huge.

On the top story was the restaurant that took up nearly the entire floor. Tall windows all around. Where dressed-up ladies who lunch would go to eat chicken salad on china plates after a morning spent shopping on the lower levels.

I rather liked department stores. I remember breakfast with Santa and, of course, visiting Santa in the toy department fairyland at Christmas. And speaking of Christmas, I remember my parents taking us to see the department store windows every year at Rike’s in Dayton, Ohio. Magical!

I can’t remember how old I was when I visited my first shopping mall. Under age 10, I believe. I had entered my dog in the Alpo Dog Food dog show at a local grocery store, and when she advanced to the state level (a completely surprising and mysterious victory, which brought me a trophy and a transistor radio that I used for listening to Cincinnati Reds games), my mom drove us to the Eastland Mall in Columbus, Ohio, where the competition was held. According to Wikipedia, that mall was built in 1968, so it was sometime after that, probably 1969 or 1970.

By the early 1970s we had a mall much closer to home. And I thought it was wonderful! As a girl who grew up dreading the slushy slog from store to store in bitter cold during winter shopping trips, I loved that once inside the mall you could stash your coat in a locker! (Some malls still have a few of these; look for them.) And you could walk around from store to store in just your street clothes! All the shopping you needed to do, you could do under one roof.

One memory of that mall stands out because it was such a weird concept: the pay toilet. Anyone else remember this anomaly? Sometime in the early 1970s several shopping mall owners installed locks on their (previously free) restroom doors, so that entering a stall required depositing a dime to open the door. Right. Great idea. People who might never otherwise consider themselves “political” made a point of holding open (and otherwise sabotaging) the stall doors so that others could enter and exercise their basic human rights free of charge.

Pay toilets didn’t last too long.

Huh, I just checked Wikipedia’s entry on pay toilets and discovered that they are actually still a thing in many places around the world. I don’t think I’ve seen one in America in 40+ years. Because, really, charging someone to use the bathroom seems un-American, doesn’t it? However, there must be some call for pay toilets even now because there’s a company in Indianapolis that manufactures restroom security locks.

I moved to Milwaukee in the early 1980s, and one of my first jobs here was (no kidding) selling carpet (in the “carpet department” 🙂 ) at Gimbels Department Store in the old and now-abandoned Northridge Mall. (See an OnMilwaukee article with eerie photos of Northridge as of 2012 here.)

(Further aside: Have you seen the photos of “dead malls”? I did a Google Images search for “abandoned malls” and found all these pictures. There are lots of abandoned malls in the United States and around the world. An interesting collective artifact of a moment in retail history, I guess.)

My position in Gimbels’ carpet department was a seasonal Christmas job. As you might guess, there’s no mad rush to buy and install carpet during the Christmas holidays. I mostly worked evenings and weekends to spell the department’s main employee, with this part-time job added on top of my job as a receptionist at a downtown brokerage firm.

Some (very!) random memories of that job:

  • The series of “bing” tones I’d always heard broadcast in department stores were actually codes. Especially exciting was the code that meant shoplifters had been spotted. Workers from various departments would zip around to fill each other in on developments.
  • The mom and her adult son I always saw shopping together (and considered in passing to have a strange relationship because of it) were actually the store detectives.
  • The boyfriend of a co-worker had a job in New York’s Empire State Building, which to me seemed like the height of sophisticated adulthood.
  • The employment office was super impressed that I knew my Social Security number off the top of my head (only because it had been my college student ID number) when I filled out my paperwork.
  • The McDonald’s across the hall from Gimbels, where I sometimes took my dinner break, had the best-tasting fries ever, because they had so many customers that they pretty much sold every batch of potatoes immediately as it came out of the grease. No sitting around under heat lamps. (Plus McDonald’s used to cook their fries in beef tallow, which sounds awful but sure tasted good.)

Sundays were my favorite days to work at Gimbels in the mall. The carpet department was in the basement of the store, wedged into the very corner and bordered on one side by the furniture department and on the other by the (surprisingly very small) electronics department. Sometimes I’d wander over to the electronics department and browse. These were the early days of the Sony Walkman and the RCA VideoDisc, a really odd and short-lived product that essentially was a vinyl LP playing movies instead of music.

But mostly I hung out with Woody Dreyfuss, brother of Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfuss, who worked in the furniture department. Like carpet, furniture is not high on anyone’s shopping list in December, so Woody was similarly not very busy during the holiday shopping season. On Sundays he and I would sit on a couch at the edge of the furniture department and watch the Green Bay Packers game on a television set at the intersecting corner of the (very busy and very crowded) electronics department.

I felt a bit guilty about getting paid to watch the Packers and listen to Woody’s stories about visiting the governor’s mansion while the poor electronics department folks were so overwhelmed. I tried to help out when I could, but I was no good with the computerized cash registers when anyone wanted to do something more complicated than make a purchase (like return one thing but exchange it for another). Over on Woody’s couch, I could easily keep an eye on my department and run over to talk with any customers who wandered past the electronics department into the rug territory. Which were basically none.

In some ways hanging out in the furniture department with Woody mirrored what the entire mall experience was like for me. Comfortable, informal, homey. Because malls were self-contained centers of commerce and community. In fact, “mall culture” was a thing by the late 1970s and early 1980s (see Fast Times at Ridgemont High). My hair stylist and I still laugh over memories of “mall hair.” (See what my search for that term produced on Google Images.)

Having replaced America’s decaying downtowns (see, for example, Wikipedia’s article on 1970s New York City, era of the famous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” New York Daily News headline), malls also become the de facto town square. In the 1972 film The Candidate, Robert Redford holds a campaign rally in a shopping mall. The US Supreme Court ruled that people could exercise their right to free speech in the public common areas of an enclosed shopping mall, i.e., protesting, requesting signatures on petitions, etc.

(There’s way more info out there regarding malls and free speech, if this is of interest to you. See also, for example, this New York Times article from 1994 discussing protection of free speech:

Declaring that shopping malls have replaced the parks and squares that were “traditionally the home of free speech,” the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled today that the malls must allow access to protesters who want to distribute leaflets on social issues.

Although that legal principle has been eroded since then, with many challenges arguing that malls are and should be considered private property, just this week protesters have marched to and held rallies/demonstrations at Mayfair Mall in the Milwaukee metro area.)

When I moved to Milwaukee in the very-early 1980s, the old Gimbels department store downtown on the Milwaukee River appeared not to have been remodeled since at least the 1950s. Walking in through the back entrance off of Michigan Avenue, I felt like I was walking onto the set of Miracle on 34th Street or something.

The old candy department—with its huge, rounded glass-fronted counters—absolutely enchanted me. Once I’d started working for a downtown law firm as a paralegal/legal investigator, I loved shopping at Gimbels. I’d go there on my lunch hour and be instantly transported into another era. They no longer had elevator operators (although another building in downtown Milwaukee had one well into the 1980s, which thrilled me no end every time I went there), but Gimbels elevator doors still had the multiple gates from the old days.

Sadly (to me) just a few years after I moved here, the downtown Gimbels remodeled. Out went the wide, straight aisles; in came “mall” store design: narrow diagonal aisles that seemingly had no logical starting and ending points. I’m sure the idea was a) to cram more merchandise into the available floor space, b) to mimic the more lucrative “mall” shopping experience, and c) to so disorient shoppers that they’d become lost and, in searching for the exit, notice things they wanted to buy.

Gimbels’ remodel didn’t solve whatever problem it was meant to address, presumably low sales. In the mid-1980s Marshall Fields, the famous Chicago department store, bought at least three of the Milwaukee-area Gimbels stores, both the big downtown store and two of its shopping mall anchors. The Northridge Mall and Southridge Mall Gimbels stores were later sold to the Sheboygan, Wisconsin, department store chain H.C. Prange, which was then sold to an Iowa-based retailer, Younkers. At the same time (mid-1980s) that Marshall Fields acquired their Gimbels stores, three other local Gimbels stores, including the one in Mayfair Mall, were sold to Boston Store.

So . . . what? I really need to wrap up this extremely long post. I’m not sure what my point is except to say

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Now, some forty years after they “died,” America’s downtowns appear to be reviving. New York City has certainly come back. There seems to be much more respect for the past. When buildings are “repurposed,” their original character and use often figure prominently in the new design. Check out the TripAdvisor reviews and photos of Marriott’s Residence Inn Downtown Milwaukee, which was once home to the downtown Gimbels. Inside, the building is quite different from its department store predecessor, but to anyone walking down Wisconsin Avenue, Gimbels has never left. Its old ivory-white facade dominates the river at the bend in the street across the bridge just as it always did.

So, finally, getting back to Monday’s Wall Street Journal article, it appears that the large enclosed mall with its department store anchors is evolving into something else. The huge store with something for everyone is being replaced by smaller niche stores and upscale, interesting food courts, among other things. (UPDATE: I just saw a news report, from either today or yesterday, saying that the empty Boston Store space in Southridge Mall may be turned into apartments.)

In many places, in fact, the self-enclosed mall is morphing into an open-air mini-version of yesterday’s downtowns and neighborhood shopping districts. Like stepping into Heraclitus’s river, you can have (but not have) the same retail experience twice. Commerce is change. Like nature, like life—like reality, itself.

But Americans don’t really cotton to the idea of change for change’s sake. We like to think of change as “progress.” I don’t understand why we do this, but it strikes me that seeing the world this way is dangerous.

It’s why we can’t remember lessons we shouldn’t forget. It’s how we lose our history—think 1960s and ’70s “urban renewal,” with all its accompanying arrogance regarding eminent domain and displacement of businesses and homes usually owned by society’s less privileged members. Most significantly, it’s how we lose sight of the end game. We can’t see the forest for the trees—mistaking causes for effects, symptoms for disease, la même chose for ça change. We live in the “moment” (the here and now) instead of in the “present” (the eternal).

And because we think we know it all, we can make some pretty bad decisions.


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in architecture, Creativity, History, Life, Milwaukee, Popular culture, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Random Reflections on Malls and Department Stores

  1. Sally Cissna says:

    Holy cats, Katie! How does one reply to this wonderful post. Maybe I should blog it…it will be long. I love to hear about the American experience seen through the individual’s eyes. I especially liked the pictures of the abandoned malls. Very spooky! Well done!


  2. Your pictures of Northridge Mall bring back such memories!! That was such a fabulous place in its heyday. Also, you may not have been around here then, but Capital Court (an outdoor mall) was a great place for kids to hang out. At Christmas Boston Store would let kids paint on their windows and there was this exhibit called the Kooky Cookie Factory that made Santa’s cookies. Thanks for the memories and the commentary. Wonderful as always!!! 🙂


    • Thanks, Karen! You know, I just never had a reason to go to Capitol Court, and its location in the middle of the city (and away from the freeways) meant it was also never someplace I even passed by very often. And then it closed and became one of those big box corrals. I wish I’d been able to see Capitol Court. Native Milwaukeeans are always telling stories about going there. I feel left out😄 So thank you for sharing your memories!


  3. trophos says:

    Interesting! Phila’s central mall, The Gallery (one of the first modern malls, from the late 60’s I think – the architect later regretted his innovation), is undergoing massive refurbishing right now to make it more appealing to rich people with disposable income. I’ve got mixed feelings: it’s attached to a train station and smack in the middle of the city, so its food court has always been a place where kids and low-income folks of all ages just hang out all day – and I know the new vision will not include making those people feel comfortable, which bums me out.

    The pay toilet thing made me laugh, for two memories: 1) in Coney Island, under the Wonder Wheel ferris wheel, there are old bathrooms (still operational) with a big sign outside that says THE NO-PAY TOILET RULE DOES NOT APPLY HERE. Apparently NYC used to have a no-pay toilet rule, with restrictions! I think they’re a quarter still, and people have been known to hold them open for each other. 2) In Russia pay toilets are the norm in public places, and they are invariably staffed by grumpy old babushkas. Because I don’t speak Russian, and because Russians never believe that anyone seriously *really* can’t speak Russian (they keep talking at you as if it will suddenly, magically click), and because obviously the context didn’t allow me to have the husband there as translator in those moments, pit stops were probably the single most stressful element of my time in Russia. So those trips could have gone a lot worse!


    • Haha, I love your pay toilet memories! So there definitely still are places even now where you have to pay. Wow, that would be stressful if you were out of change!

      That’s very interesting about Phila’s (I learned that from your blog and feel so smart letting that familiar form just roll off the tongue like I know what I’m talking about😄) mall being redone. When I first moved to Milwaukee, downtown was DEAD on the weekends. Nobody walking around but sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station down north of Chicago. Now OMG it’s so busy! And condos and apartments are going up everywhere. And all the near-downtown neighborhoods are gentrifying. Like you, I have mixed feelings about the displacement of people who were living in those neighborhoods before. Where are they going now that hot yoga and vegan restaurants and Whole Foods have come in?


  4. Rose Didier says:

    Katie, thank you for this post. Not only is it interesting, it has given me a little glimpse inside you! I share many of your memories of indoor malls. My first “mall” experience was an outdoor mall where the stores were not under one roof, Oakbrook Mall in Oakbrook, IL. I had to wait until high school for Yorktown Mall to be built in Lombard, IL before there was an enclosed mall to visit.


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