The mall used to have a Babbages upstairs and an Electronics Boutique (later EB Games) downstairs. There was also a Funcoland across the street. Due to a series of buy-outs and mergers, each of these is now a GameStop. So now we have two identical stores in the mall and a third across the street. To me, this is stupid. To succeed at selling any type of media, you need a large library. Why split that library into three parts within the same region? It's endlessly frustrating. Sometimes, I'll show up at GameStop A looking for a game. When they don't have it, they tell me to check GameStops B and C. They won't even look up whether or not the game is in stock at either of the other locations. In this day and age, how can it be impossible to do this? Obviously, they just want me to spend more time in GameStop stores, as more time in stores means more potential for them to make a buck. This is company policy; GameStop employees are not bad people (several of my friends have found themselves working there at one point or another), but part of their job is to refuse to let me know if other area GameStops have something in stock. After all, encouraging customers to waste their time is the right thing to do if there's a profit. Sadly, this is hardly the only example of GameStop shitting on its customers.
Try to buy a new game at GameStop, and they'll pester you to get it used instead. Even when you explain that the game is a gift, they'll try to convince you that giving somebody a used present isn't an egregious faux pas. I once went to GameStop seeking a DS game for my sister's birthday. When I asked for it at the counter, I was handed a used cartridge. When I asked for a new one, I was given a different cartridge. When I asked the man behind the counter if he had any unopened, factory-sealed, "no way this has ever been used" versions of the game, and not just loose cartridges, he gave me a funny look and hesitated before asking if it really mattered. I cut my losses and went to Best Buy for the game.
Try to sell GameStop a game still sealed in cellophane, and they'll accuse you of having stolen it. It doesn't matter if the game hasn't been sold new in years. I once tried to sell back Max Payne 2, which I had purchased new for no more than $1.50 a year ago and never opened. They weren't having it.
GameStop's worst offense occurred when I went into one a couple years ago with a bag full of PS2 games I did not want. There were probably 15 to 20 in total. I just wanted to see if any would fetch more than $10 or so. I put the bag on the counter and asked, "Can I see how much these are worth?" The GameStop employee immediately began to ring the games up, one after the other, without telling me the value of any of them. A second employee started taking the games out of the cases and preparing them for markup. These games were still mine. They were still my property. All I had asked for were some price checks. Yet here was a decent-sized chunk of my gaming collection being processed for resale right before my eyes. Adding insult to larceny, the employee taking out the discs had been in the midst of a meal from Burger King. Chicken fry grease and all, hands just working the game cases. She even put her dipping sauce on top of one stack of my games, spilling a dollop or two right on the cover, not giving even the slightest shit. It was horrible. It was like watching somebody kick your dog without understanding that it is wrong to do so - you can't get mad at them for not knowing any better, but still, you're just crushed witnessing it. When the games had been tallied, the man behind the counter said, "Sixty-four dollars. You want cash or store credit?" I told him to hold on a minute. I wasn't sure I wanted to sell all these games, or even more than a few, for that matter. Many were old favorites, and to get rid of most of them for less than $5 seemed depressing. But the guy made a big deal out of the fact that they had already been scanned into the system. Instead of asking which ones I wanted to sell, he asked which ones I wanted to keep. In his mind, they belonged to GameStop now, and he was doing me a favor by letting me choose a few to keep. In the end, I sold about a dozen games for $44 or so - less than the price of one new one. The guy was upset I had taken so many back (really, kept so many, as "taking back" implies that they had left my possession in the first place), but I had still only sold 2 or 3 that I really wanted to part with. I felt taken advantage of. Violated, in a way. When I later recounted the story to my GameStop employee friend, asking why the guy wouldn't just tell me the prices of the games before attempting to steal them from me, he shrugged it off and said it was just company policy. Of course.
Of course GameStop wants to buy as many of your games as possible. Of course they want to sell you used ones instead of new ones. After all, fifty percent of GameStop's revenue comes from the sale of used games. Half! GameStop will buy your game for three dollars and sell it for seventeen. I understand that, obviously, the middle man needs to make a profit for any middle man to exist. But in this modern era, why does a middle man need to exist? Why do GameStop's customers allow it to make 400% profit on many used games? If I'm looking to buy and somebody else is looking to sell, let's meet halfway and make a $10 exchange. In the aforementioned scenario, we both save $7. With sites like Craigslist and eBay existing, how in the world does GameStop stay afloat when they're blatantly (seriously, they don't even try to hide it - they can't) marking up their used games by ten to twenty dollars apiece? I suppose the answer is the dreaded word "monopoly." Again, there used to be three different competing used game retailers in the area. Now there's just one three-headed monster. I swear, anyone could make a killing (for a little while) by just setting up their own used video game store nearby, provided they had a moderate catalogue. I'm not going to explore the legality or financial stability of it, but how could a small business not succeed by advertising "Used Games: We pay 150% what GameStop will on all games, and sell them for 2/3 the price!" or something somewhat similar?
I hate the way GameStop treats both its customers and its merchandise. I hate that people enable GameStop by trading with them for twenty cents on the dollar. I hate that GameStop has bought out virtually every competitor outside of the Internet. But I can't bring myself to hate GameStop. After all, where else can you stumble upon NHL Hitz 20-02 for $2.99?
Even those of us reading books don't need to buy them. Thanks to sites like Project Gutenberg we can easily find all kinds of classic and contemporary novels, for free, online. The public library, while no longer in vogue, is also always an Internet-free option. And books, far more than DVDs or video games, are frequently passed around and given away upon completion. "You haven't read that book yet? I finished it yesterday; you can have my copy."
So in a world where book-readers are diminishing in number and book-buying seems unnecessary, how does Borders thrive? On a very small but key demographic: the upper class. Books have been rebranded as luxury items. Reading, while always a hobby that leaned toward intellectuals, has now more than ever become the hip thing to do if you've got a degree and plenty of time. And why not? The ability to leisurely read a book is a status symbol in and of itself. It says, "I have both the money to spend on something that is otherwise free, and also the free time to read something for several hours." The fact that bookstores such as Borders now sell coffee, thus prompting customers to "sit back and stay a while" only furthers the image of the modern book-reader as an upscale individual. Blue collar America lacks the sophistication to enjoy books, the money to buy them, and the time to read them, the mentality is.
And that mentality is how Borders stays in business. Call it nothing more than a stereotype that book-buyers are college-educated, liberal-minded, and hoity toity. But ask yourself, is this not the exact image of the customers bookstores strive for? The coffee shop youth? The saviors of Darfur and Tibet? Adults without children? The exception, of course, is when an enormous fad is made over a teen-oriented book series. At these times, Borders will rebrand itself momentarily as "Your Neighborhood Harry Potter Headquarters" or "The Go-To Place For Everything Twilight." But hey, that's just business.
Man, Burger King has some amazing advertisements, specifically in the all-important category of television. Over the past ten years, we've seen Shaq put some little kid on a poster while dressed like Shaft. We've seen an enormous chicken tackling extreme sports. We've seen Whopper Jr. throwing a ripper, only to have his dad come home and go apeshit at Junior's friend, Spicy Chicken sandwich, for hitting on his daughter (somehow, a human). We've seen a group of men throw a minivan off of an overpass into an awaiting dump truck being hauled by some sort of brute who is lured into movement by a burger held just out of his reach on a shovel by an attractive woman. We have even seen Darius "Hootie" Rucker lazily strum "Big Rock Candy Mountain" while describing in great detail the "Fantasy Ranch," a place where cheddar paves the streets, Dallas cheerleaders give you shaves, french fries grow like weeds, and streams of bacon ranch dressing flow right up to your knees. And we've seen all of this thanks to Burger King.
But they don't only excel on the TV-front. In fact, as our society heads boldly and rapidly into a commercial-free TV age, I think BK will prosper. Burger King has released three video games for the Xbox 360. They have released a cologne called BK Flame. They have created a 75-page pdf about the "Angus Diet" written by the fictional nutrition expert "Dr. Angus." They've done just fine on the viral front too, giving us both the Day Without a Whopper and the Subservient Chicken.
Never underestimate the power of commercials. Before the new millennium began, I was a Mickey D's guy, through and through. Now, when I think of grabbing some fast food, it's BK that comes to mind. What happened? When it comes to the quality of food, McDonald's got no worse, and Burger King barely improved. Their prices have stayed comparably consistent. What it all comes down to is one brand beating the snot out of the other in the marketing realm. When I first saw Hootie regaling me with promises of tumbleweeds of bacon, I immediately wanted a Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch. It was that easy. I tried it, I loved it, and, lo and behold, McDonald's has never earned me back with any chicken commercials of their own. Olympic medalists preferring McDonald's chicken to their medals? It just doesn't compare to the Big Buckin' Chicken, or even his cousin, Big Huckin'. For ten years, I have always been able to count on Burger King to entertain and amuse me with each and every television snippet. From McDonald's, I've come to expect nothing more than misguided attempts at portraying urban culture.
So I'd like to thank Burger King for really "getting it" when it comes to advertisements over the past ten years. But I'd also like to warn them. After ten years of futility, McDonald's appears to finally be coming around. Their recent "Give me back that Filet-O-Fish!" ad was an instant classic, and certainly the best thing to come from either corporation in years. In fact, it was so great, that like the Hootie ad of years gone by, it made me actually order something I'd not otherwise get - in this case, a fast food fish sandwich. It didn't floor me, but imagine if it had! At the very least, now I'll never settle for the BK Big Fish should I get a hankerin' for some cod with a McDonald's nearby. At least, not until Burger King floors us all with another great commercial. Advertising: one of the beautiful by-products of capitalism. God bless America, all 50 billion pounds of it.
For me, the memories evoked by Yankee Candles are those of winter power outages. My mom always had a plethora of candles on hand, and whenever a blizzard knocked some power lines out of commission, we'd head straight for the cabinet which held them all. Spreading them out mainly in the kitchen and living room, we'd light them all. From a practical standpoint, I can't really say why; a dozen spread out candles made for more of a fire hazard than a lighting fixture. Besides, we always also had an assortment of flashlights handy. I guess more than anything we did it for the tranquility. There's something about a small flame flickering about on a wick, slowly melting away an enormous amount of wax, that is just so utterly beautiful and hypnotizing. Even staring at a wall or ceiling and watching shadows dance sporadically due to the patternless nature of fire could occupy me for ten or twenty minutes, if the power had been out long enough. The smells were indescribable - not because they were so otherworldly or anything, but because they were always a hodgepodge mixture of five or ten different fragrances.
Losing electricity for more than a few hours always makes me pensive about man's place in the world. The majority of my waking hours in the winter time are spent staring at some sort of screen or reading words under artificial light. Lose electricity, and there's very little for me to do. I sit, and I think. I reflect on how much I take electricity for granted and imagine no one must have stayed up very late in the time of our forefathers. Hell, half the world today has no electricity. Sometimes if it's still snowing pretty hard, I'll just walk outside and stand there, right in the middle of it. If you've never just stood in the middle of a heavy snowfall, you need to do so. All around you, the snow muffles all sounds coming from every direction. There's a total and beautiful silence. The moonlight reflects all the more so from the snow, and it's as bright as twilight outside, even in the middle of the night. Hunger and sleepiness notwithstanding, I could walk around on nights like those for hours.
So yeah, that's Yankee Candle in a nutshell. (Also optional: nutshell in a Yankee Candle.)
Every so often, the food court will be just full of people, and lines will form in front of every eatery aside from Arby's. These are the times I go to Arby's. And every time, I am reminded why there is never a line at Arby's: the food is horrible. They've somehow managed to screw up the roast beef sandwich. It's cheese and beef and bread - how hard is it to make a decent-tasting combination of those three ingredients? Every time I get in line at Arby's, I sort of convince myself that the food is not as bad as I remember it being. Yet every time, it is. Their curly fries are soggy. Their barbecue sauce is terrible. Their mozzarella sticks are dry and flavorless.
Arby's also features one of the world's biggest disparities between the way the food looks on the menu and the way the food looks on your plate. on paper, the cheeze is yellowish orange and of a perfect melty viscosity and the roast beef cold cuts are a hearty pinkish brown. In reality, the cheese is a pale yellow liquid and the meat is thin and grayish. Right off the bat, when you see your food emerge from its bag and wrapper, you're regretting "thinking Arby's."
Still, I continue to try it out every now and again. Maybe I'm forgiving. Maybe I'm hopeful. Maybe I'm stubborn, and just cannot accept that a roast beef sandwich can taste so bad. Whatever the reason, I give Arby's chance after chance to impress me. Since it's still around, I guess everyone else does, too.
I have never been one for fitting rooms. I suppose most guys aren't. Generally, I know what I want, in terms of color and style, and do not need to stare at a mirror from three separate angles while contemplating a purchase. Unless size is an issue - and it rarely is - there's no need for me to see myself wearing something in order to justify buying it. In my experience, women are totally different. They'll bring six pairs of jeans into a fitting room with the intention of just buying one, or sometimes none at all. In general, women shop; men buy.
So there I was, in the middle of a fitting room, wearing a brown pair of shorts. Suddenly, my girlfriend knocked on the door and asked what I had picked out. While trying to describe the shorts I currently wore, I used the word "chocolate." My girlfriend squealed with excitement. What a fun color, she said. I must have looked so cute, she said. I had to let her see them on me, she said, and right away. I opened the door and she reacted with a look of minor disappointment. It was sort of like the look you see on a person's face when they have forgotten where exactly they have parked their car and then notice it about a hundred fifty feet further away than they thought it was. "Well, I do like them," she said, "but that's much more of a sepia than a chocolate." Of course. Anyway, one bout of using the fitting room and having my fabric color vocabulary criticized was enough for me for the day. Unwilling to try anything else on, I bought the shorts and left the store in a haste. I wore them once the following school year.
And, yeah, that's the first and last Banana Republic purchase I have ever made. I wonder why. It's not because the clothing isn't my style. After all, the retailer is essentially just an upscale Gap, and their threads are pretty crisp and classy for the most part. It's not because it's too pricey. I mean, yes, $25 is a bit much to pay for a plain white cotton tee, but I've seen far worse. It's not because the store's name is a pejorative reference to the turmoil-filled nations of Central America. In fact, if there is any real reason for my lack of a second purchase, it is probably a certain sales associate.
It was spirit week, senior year. More specifically, the day before dress-up day. For some reason, I really wanted to participate in dress-up day. Our theme was the wild west. I had my get-up all picked out and ready to go. All that was missing was a cowboy hat. So, at the eleventh hour, I scrambled to the mall to look in every store I could think of for a simple cowboy hat. No luck anywhere. My next-to-last resort was Banana Republic. I figured I'd find nothing. I knew they primarily sold "business casual" and "urban chic" items, and that my quest for a country style cowboy hat was likely to turn up nothing. Nonetheless, I went inside and looked for one. A sales associate walked up to me immediately (the store was empty) and asked if she could help me find anything. I asked if Banana Republic sold any cowboy hats. What followed was an epic look of disgust I will never forget.
The woman was a thirty-something blonde with her hair up in a tight bun. She wore a pearl necklace over a black turtleneck sweater up top, and a pinstriped gray knee-length skirt. Pointy-toed heels and sophisticated-looking glasses were also part of the ensemble. The whole costume made her seem like an important board member of some gigantic firm, or perhaps an extremely professional real estate agent. It certainly did not say, "I fold clothes for twelve dollars an hour." Anyway, upon hearing my question, this pseudo-CEO just sneered in disgust. She didn't say a word, but her raised and furrowed eyebrows, evident grimace, and flared nostrils said more than enough. "Are you fucking serious?" they asked me, rhetorically. "Cowboy hats? Look around. Fuck, have you seen what I am wearing? Do you even know where you are?" Hammering the blow home was a slow and deliberately condescending shaking of her head, the look of shock and horror staying all the while.
Banana Republic was founded with a "travel and safari" theme just thirty years ago. Safari vests and hats frequented their early inventories, I'm sure. Was I really that unjustified in asking - not even assuming, but just wondering - if there was any chance that cowboy hats were still sold at Banana Republic? Apparently. While the name "Banana Republic" may bring to mind images of a tropical place full of colors and adventure, the store is instead an uninspired sea of grays, blacks, whites, and chocolate sepia browns.
I ended up buying a felt cowboy hat at a costume store for $5. It was a big hit, especially with one kid who had grown up in Texas who was, by default, the biggest cowboy hat aficionado I knew. Best of all, I never even had to try the hat on before buying it.
When I was in middle school, A&F was the top dog when it came to fashion retailers. You could be any kind of person at all, but as long as you wore Abercrombie clothes, you could pass for someone popular. "Preppy" was the best word we could come up with to describe any kid sporting a tee reading "A&F '92" or something somewhat similar. One good friend of mine actually had an entire wardrobe of nothing but Abercrombie. I remember this because one day, for some reason, we were going to wear black t-shirts. He didn't have one. I was shocked by this - who doesn't have a black t-shirt? Apparently, the entire Abercrombie & Fitch line of apparel.
In keeping in line with their mission of "providing high-quality merchandise that compliments the casual classic American lifestyle," - and that's straight from the moose's mouth - the folks at Abercrombie have decided that black is too formal, or at least not casual enough, of a color to use in their apparel. According to one of my friends who worked at A&F in high school, the dress code for employees mandates two things: that the color black not be worn and that flip-flops must be worn. Flip-flops, a must? Yes, she said, even in the dead of winter. Clearly, Abercrombie has taken great measures to ensure that its employees present themselves as lazily and sloppily as possible in order to accurately promote the brand's image of "casual luxury."
I look back on my days of buying Abercrombie products not with an embarrassment, but more of a bewilderment. Why did used-looking jeans sell successfully for double the price of normal jeans from other stores? Why did the concept of being a "name brand" slob catch and stick? Most of all, how does a clothing store succeed when its models are 50-90% naked in every photo on every advertisement? I guess this just once again goes to show the power of the name brand. Clearly, a rose by any other name does not always smell as sweet, particularly when that name is the "Salvation Army." I do have to give Abercrombie & Fitch credit for one thing, though: their clothing was about as comfortable and fitting as clothing gets. You know, for whatever that's worth.
But the American shopping mall is on the decline. More of them are being closed and demolished than opened or built. The same pattern exists within all the malls I’ve been in lately, as there are more and more emptied out stores without “coming soon” signs in front of them. Blame the economy. Blame Wal-Mart. Blame the internet. Malls just aren’t the busy shopping centers they once were. Fifty years from now, they could be as rare and unused as drive-in movie theaters are today.
What follows is the story of a shopping mall. Rather, stories from several of its stores and outlets that together create an anthology of sorts. There will be no specific format for each store, and no particular rhyme or reason for ordering them the way I do. (In this regard, it won’t be very unlike a mall itself.) My hope is that as I explore and recount various outlets one by one, a larger picture will start to come together. That picture will be one not just of a shopping mall, but also of one man’s experiences and observations, past and present, of growing up in middle-class America.