The life and death of a small-town mall
The shopping mall in North Versailles, Pennsylvania, has seen better days. In a small valley just over a long, steep hill, the mall's parking lot spreads out for obviously unnecessary distances, marked only by random trails of weeds.
This was coal country once. Working men and immigrant families, many having just stepped off the boat from Eastern Europe, flocked to southwestern Pennsylvania to blow the tops off its wooded hills and scrape out the black gold inside. After that, it was steel country -- one of the most productive industrial areas in the United States for the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Now, in large part, this is retirement country. Temping country. SSI country, salesclerk country, flea market country.
Officially, the North Versailles mall is open for business, but visitors won't find much to buy. A Christian stationery store offers a variety of embossed birth and death announcements as well as some enameled plaques decorated with proverbs about walking on the beach with God. Further down the mall it seems like the storefronts have been rented as warehouse rather than retail space. In one, dozens of photocopiers stand idle, swaddled in wide sheets of plastic wrap. In another, bales of used clothing sit patiently, perhaps waiting to journey to Mexico or Central America, where, no doubt, many of them were originally assembled for export to the United States.
The only other store doing business in the echoing two-story edifice stands near the front doors. It is not readily apparent what the Glitter Shoppe specializes in. Art supplies, perhaps? Sequined leotards for budding gymnasts or dancers? Neither, in fact, turns out to be the case.
The Glitter Shoppe sells only the screwed-up, misspelled, and otherwise imperfect castoffs of custom engraving and embroidery shops. Lining the store tables is a baffling assortment of initialed throw pillows, hand towels, heart-shaped pendants, and brass ballpoint pens. There are whiskey flasks with names half engraved, then scratched out. A sweatshirt apparently intending to boast the declarative 'Proud Dad' was turned suddenly into a strange imperative when the embroiderer absentmindedly forgot to stitch the U.
The Glitter Shoppe has a discomforting effect on shoppers. It could be that the store lacks ventilation and is warmed during the cooler months by a kerosene heater that emits gaseous waves of hot air. But it's also possible that something subtler is at play. In most stores, amid the oversized displays and advertising jingles, it's easy to forget that actual people made all the items for sale. At the Glitter Shoppe, though, one can't help but see the objects as products of other people's labor. Someone had to screw them up! Someone lost control of his embroidery machine and made a line of thread dots on the back of an otherwise perfectly good custom T-shirt bearing the words '98% Water, 2% Hedonist.' Someone misspelled the word forever on the inside of a silver anniversary band.
Perhaps it makes sense that one can buy the rejected detritus of capitalism in a shopping mall abandoned like so much trash. Abandoned, that is, in a region of the country severely gashed and left to fend for itself as big capital moved on to brighter vistas. In a way, dead malls like the one in North Versailles are similar to the tainted mishaps piled haphazardly inside. Like 'must-have' items that suddenly look like a whole lot of junk, malls minus their designer jeans and lusty-eyed teens come to be seen in a less flattering light. The aura -- the fantasy that once surrounded them -- dissipates, to be replaced by an uncomfortable understanding: Suburban sparkle quickly dies when there's nothing left to buy.
Adapted from Clamor (March/April 2004). Sub-scriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Big Top Newsstand Services, 2729 Mission St., Suite 201, San Francisco, CA 94110; www.clamormagazine.org