One of the wonders of my poorer childhood was our love affair with the mall. My family lived in the mall. I called us Mall Walkers. We didn’t buy much (perhaps food one day, cheap plastic shoes the next, toilet cleaner, a coffee, a pack of large Du Maurier king sized, a bag of milk that, when carried home, left plastic bag marks dented into our hands like a temporary stigmata.) Most mornings, we would gather there. “We” meant aunts, uncles, grandparents and about a half dozen kids. As a family without money, we visited the shrine to it like hopeful disciples. We split our time almost equally between the house of god and the house of inexpensive plastic toys that smelled like Christmas in their newness.
While the parents sat in the food court and coupon swapped, we, the children, were free to walk around the mall. We usually bee-lined for either K-Mart or Woolco, both department stores. K-Mart had three toy aisles and an old fashioned sandwich counter that served “choc on the rocks” – chocolate milk over ice – for fifty cents.
Since fifty cents was a high order some days, we usually skipped K-Mart and all its temptations for Woolco which had, rather than three measly aisles, a full toy section. Up the middle escalator we’d ride (the ride was part of the fun, of course) to the second story of Woolco. Around a corner and straight to the back, where My Little Pony Shrinky-Dinks and Wrestlemania figures were on display, like cardboard sheathed works of art. Well trained critics, we trolled the aisles, examining the art, but never touching (as long as adult clerks were around, anyway.) Our eyes and minds were full of colour, scents, the sound of music not allowed in our conservative Christian household.
The mall was heaven. I mean this literally. When I imagined heaven, I imagined a golden version of Woolco, with diamond encrusted blenders, escalators of silver, and God at the counter, telling us all of it was free. Even choc on the rocks. Drink up, my good children, for you have been saved!
This love of the mall carried over into my teens. The mall was one of my many escapes, along with school and the library. Baby sitting jobs, camp counsellor gigs at the church, a McJob – suddenly I had money when I went to the mall. I became, much like my mother and aunts and grandmother, an expert bargain shopper. Cassette tapes missing their case? They still played. Shirts with a button lost to too many try-ons? I could mend a button in seconds flat. After Christmas, Halloween and all the holidays in between, I scoured the just-out-of-season bin for things I squirrelled away, filling my room with books and dolls and music, precious only to me. I could enter the mall with ten dollars and leave with my arms full.
Even as an adult, I loved the mall. For my birthday, my husband, who grew up in a farm house and understood the value of quality, would take me to the mall and help me bargain hunt. We’d pick up treats and buy overpriced coffee. He’d picked up on my habit of calling it mall walking and almost every year (save the one in which we were homeless and a few where we had other plans) we would visit a mall and tour just for me. At the end of the day, bags of two for one t-shirts and fifty percent off books clamoured for space on my lap as we bussed back to our apartment. I loved it.
I loved it less and less every year.
As a child, we did not go to museums. We did not take day trips to see the wonders of the world. We did not go to the cinema. We did not, usually, go to cultural festivals or performances. We went to church. We went on yearly trips to the beach. Mostly, we went to the mall.
As an adult, I worked as a nanny. Being a nanny has challenges and it has perks. One perk that changed my life was that the children of monied people do not go to malls on quiet days. They go to museums. The family I worked for had memberships; they had memberships to places where history and art and ideas were revered and organized and placed behind glass. Much like my childhood, I was able to walk aisles and look at brilliant things that I could not touch. There were colours and sounds and so many lovely things. The children and I visited museums until we had them memorized. We did art based on what we’d seen. We cooked meals inspired by civilizations. The fact that we couldn’t take the shiny objects home wasn’t sad because no on could. They were in their home, waiting for us to visit again and again.
The more I visited museums, the less I loved malls. The museum gave me everything the mall had, but without the jostling crowds, the garish ads, the push to purchase. Instead of hunting for bargains, I hunted for stories. I found them in the Print Shop at Black Creek Pioneer Village. I found them in the Moore Gallery at the AGO. I found them in the textile section of the ROM. I found them in the 30+ museums and galleries that fill up the city I am lucky enough to call home.
Last week I was Christmas shopping for my niblings when, exhausted, I called my husband.
“I think I’ve fallen out of love with malls.” Hiding in the back of Toys, Toys, Toys, crushed by strollers and listening to Disney teens massacre Little Drummer Boy, I couldn’t keep the sadness from my tone.
“Woah!” He was, after 20 years of knowing me, genuinely surprised.
“Right? What’s happened?” I tried to find the joy in rows of plastic and cardboard, in bargain bin Spongebobs and half priced Barbies.
“Maybe…” I could tell he was thinking because he went silent for almost a full minute. “Maybe now that you have most of what you need, now that you’re free to get the things you want, maybe now you’ve found you don’t want everything anymore?”
My husband, the man with an engineer’s brain and philosopher’s heart, was right. My world had gotten bigger. It had grown and changed and left something I used to love behind. It had happened before with religion and family and even my need to live far up off the ground in apartments. I had left so much behind, but I was clinging to the mall, one of the last bits of nostalgic joy I had, well past the point of actual happiness.
I extricated myself from Toys, Toys, Toys tightly packed aisles and walked out of the Eaton Centre and on to Yonge Street. Preachers and Imams and the newly converted shouted into the air, trying to save my soul. A musician played plastic tubs with broken drumsticks and a masked man did breakdancing for five dollar bills. All around me was art and noise and history.
I dropped a five in his bucket and watched an artist dance. It was the best bargain I’d found all day. Worth it, as the ads used to say, at twice the price.