One Nation Under Goods

Read Time:
2m 49sec

Malls and the Seductions of
American Shopping.

By James J. Farrell. Smithsonian.
329 pp. $24.95

People shop a lot but don’t think about it much. They might discuss when they’ll have time or money to buy something, but they rarely reflect on what they’re buying and why. Perhaps we should all think a little more about these larger issues as we blow our disposable income on novelties and luxuries. James J. Farrell, a professor of history at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, convincingly argues that our incessant pursuit of more stuff, masterfully encouraged by malls, is eating away at the good life.

It all started innocently enough. After cars were invented and cities got congested, the suburbs were born, and developers had to give suburban residents a place to buy what they needed. Thus was born the shopping center. But the suburban separation of work, shopping, and home—elements that were mostly integrated in the city—permanently changed American culture. Once we all shopped together in big, highly organized, well-marketed settings, we could see what others were buying and what it was possible to have. Aided by the growing influence of the media, our culture of consumerism was born.

But at what cost? Certainly not just the money we shell out for things. Our kids are bombarded by media messages telling them what they should buy, and they learn to value new purchases more than the simple pleasures of childhood. Our teenagers go to the mall to hang out and socialize, which can be a welcome distraction for kids with so many questions about life. “But sometimes,” writes Farrell, “shopping centers seem to suggest that distraction is the purpose of life, and that questions of consumption . . . are life’s big questions.”

Farrell spends plenty of time analyzing the contemporary mall: the history, the architecture, the retail design, the merchandising, even the escalators and the greenery. Most interesting are the developments that bespeak our cultural values. We value fun, so malls now have movie theaters, places to eat, even amusement parks. We value luxury, so malls use more glass and marble to surround their tantalizing mix of aspirational and affordable retail. We value escape, so now we have Rainforest Cafe and other themed venues.

But the malling of America has also alienated us. On the nation’s retail floors, millions of sales clerks, underpaid and uninvolved, need only scan a UPC code to complete a sale. The human interaction once involved in a purchase is virtually gone. Through the magic of plastic, meanwhile, the question has changed from “Can I afford it?” to “Do I want it?”

Farrell also confronts readers with the harm American consumerism wreaks around the world. Overseas sweatshops employ children to churn out cheap goods; sprawling shopping centers damage the environment. With the media starting to pay more attention to these effects, Farrell believes that “the era of oblivious shopping is coming to an end.”

I’m not so sure. Retailers are geniuses at sanitizing what they sell, and Americans enjoy their obliviousness. The injustices deserve our attention, but what’s equally wrenching is the notion that we’re looking for that next purchase, the one that’s certain to make us happy.

—Margaret Webb Pressler

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