My husband needed new shoes, so today we went to the mall I haunted when I was younger, and where I got my first job when I was seventeen. I’ve been back to that mall a few times since I’ve been an adult — in fact, we bought our wedding rings in the very spot where I used to stand, bored, behind the counter — but still, it was weird. it always is.
I loved the mall growing up. It opened when I was in about fifth grade, when it was shiny and new and echo-ey with empty spaces where the promise of new stores would be. My mom would take me to The Limited and buy me wide-whale corduroy pants and crew neck sweaters, decidedly uncool when all the other girls seemed to have moms that would buy them tight jeans and satin jackets.
But as I got older, my mom would drop me — and friends — off on our own. We lived smack in the middle of distance between two of them — Sun Valley was older and a little seedier, but it had an ice rink and a movie theater. (I wound up working there, too.) Stoneridge was newer and fancier, and I guess it just depended on what kind of mood we were in as to where we decided to go. It’s not like we ever really had a purpose — maybe we had enough money to buy some pizza at Sbarro’s and a record at Musicland or a Madness pin at Merry-Go-Round. Pretty much all we did was walk the length of the mall, back and forth, over and over, hoping to run into people we knew or cute new wave boys. For hours.
Of course even though we all loved the mall — despite pretending to be cool we were still all wannabe Valley Girls at heart who loved spraying on expensive perfume and window shopping at Contempo — we all said we hated it. “I’m bored,” one of us would announce. “Wanna go to the mall?” We’d sigh. “Ugh,” we’d answer. “I guess so.” And we’d pile in someone’s car and go, so we could walk and walk. (Had fitbits been invented then, we would have clocked 10,000 steps in one mall trip.)
The summer before my senior year, my dad decreed that he’d had enough of me sleeping ’til noon and then getting up just to go to a cafe where all the other weird kids hung out or walk endlessly around the mall. No, instead I had to go to the mall not to look for cute new wave boys; I had to go to the mall to look for a job.
So I did. I went into one store — Upstart Crow and Company, a bookstore that played George Winston music (that was totally classy in the 1980s) attached to the cafe. I filled out the application, and miracle of miracles, they hired me a week later.
It was a really, really fun job. The head bookstore manager was an older woman with a glass eye who barely spoke English and drank wine in her office. The assistant manager was young and pretty much stoned all the time, and was having an affair with the bar manager. All the east bay mods hung out there and then started working there, and my friend Laura got a job as a waitress, and my friend Bob worked downstairs at Benetton.
But I was surrounded by what I loved — books. No, it wasn’t as cool as working at Musicland or like Stacey and Linda in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but I loved it. After school I would get there and the lighting was always so beautiful, golden reflections from the yellow stained glass section headers on the rich, brown wood and stacks upon stacks of books. If my dad thought that I was going to be making any money at this job he was sadly mistaken — I spent more money on books (and sweaters from Benetton with the employee discount) than I made. I still have quite a few of those books, including my first very own The Portable Dorothy Parker.
I only worked there for a few months, but it felt like an eternity. But the SATs were coming up and my dad told me I needed to study, and “corporate” was really buckling down. The bookstore manager who drank in the office was fired, and on a surprise visit, the head guy told me it looked like a I was wearing a dishrag under my apron and it wasn’t appropriate. (It wasn’t a dishrag — it was a 1960s gogo dress, and I had on black tights so WHATever.) I hated authority, man. (Except my dad, because, well, I had to obey him.) So I quit. And not long after, that beautiful store closed and the company went under, and I still think part of it was because they let teenagers do champagne inventory. (Sunday mornings were fun!)
But I am forever grateful to that job — they hired a surly yet hopeful new wave teenage geek with a dumb haircut to work for them, and it started a lifelong career in books. I lucked out. I think of that job all the time, especially working on Sundays in a bookstore again, and how lovely it was. I worked in about 7 bookstores after that — and two in other malls — but none were as thrilling to me as my first bookstore. I was spoiled right off the bat.
I really did start to hate malls when I got older, and avoided them as best as I could. Now I rarely have a reason to go, so when I do, I kind of like it. Today was like that. It was busy, which I was glad to see after reading those online articles about malls across America being abandoned and torn down. Malls were our youth — and such a standard in the 1970s and 1980s in suburbia. But Stoneridge seems to be growing and expanding. Benetton and Contempo and The Limited are gone, but there are other stores like Forever 21 (which I think is terrible) in their place. Hot Topic is where Aubergine, a high end cooking store, used to be, and Sbarro’s has been replaced by Panda Express. It’s kind of sad in a nostalgic way, but mostly because I miss The Blue Chip Cookie Company. And maybe I miss being young. Now the mall just makes me feel old, like I’ve gone back and am hanging out at my high school, and trying to remember where mine and my friends’ lockers were. Now I think, “What was where Banana Republic is now?” I feel more sad for my fading memory than anything else. (And Blue Chip cookies. They were really good.)
But there were still a bunch of teenagers, just hanging out. They aren’t buying books and records anymore, or Madness pins — now they’re buying cheap makeup bags at H&M and expensive eyeliner at MAC. But still, they’re there. And I was glad to see a girl with pink hair hunkered down and reading a book while eating her lunch, like I did so many times. So things may change, but some good things stay the same.
I didn’t walk back and forth today — I didn’t even make a whole circle. And the whole time I was hoping that I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.