This year, as most of us log onto the Internet to do our Christmas shopping, some of us will hop in the car and drive down the street to go to that once-grand institution of American consumer culture, the shopping mall.
Obviously, malls have seen a dramatic decrease in business since that behemoth Amazon came onto the shopping scene. But if you’re one of the few who plan to make the trek out into the real world, you’ll see that malls are still crowded with harried shoppers this time of year – well, at least that’s the situation here in the Kansas City metro area, where you’ll be forced to navigate a full parking lot just to get into Oak Park Mall in Overland Park.
When I was a teenager, I worked at the AMC Oak Park Mall 6 Theatres, as well as the Oak Park Plaza 6, just across the street. It was always a delight to see shoppers pass by the box office and make the impulse purchase of a movie ticket – a welcome break from the rigors of holiday shopping. The Oak Park Mall Theatres closed on New Year’s Eve 1996, making way for the American Girl doll store, which is now just a place where you go to vote in an election year.
The following year, in 1997, the Great Mall of the Great Plains opened in Olathe. The timing of this opening couldn’t have been worse, as it coincided with the rise of the Internet and online shopping themselves.
If you ever visited the Great Mall, you remember what an eyesore it was, leaving the shopper feeling like being dropped into an episode of “Romper Room.” The garish colors and liberal use of neon lighting gave the entire venue a very ‘90s feel, and the race-track floor design ideas that shoppers never seemed to fully embrace. The entire structure, from its exterior signage and other industrial-esque features jutting sharply out into the skyline, to its late-20th century color scheme of loud, harsh neon everywhere you looked on the inside, trapped the mall in a very specific time in architectural and interior design. The Great Mall has been closed since 2015.
Then again, the same may obviously be said of most malls that remain untouched by renovations – they exist as time capsules, windows into another decade
The now-defunct Metcalf South Mall, which was open from 1967 to 2014, enjoyed a lengthier life, and those who frequented the mall will remember its salmon pink-colored features, midcentury modern fountains, and chrome and mirrored ceilings. Even long after the stores had closed, dedicated mall walkers could still be seen doing laps around each floor of it before it was finally demolished a few years ago.
Still, even in the Digital Age, other malls in the Kansas City metro area – among them, Oak Park Mall and Ward Parkway Shopping Center – have enjoyed a kind of renaissance in the past generation, seeing numbers of shoppers coming back into their stores even as the popularity of online vendors continues to ascend. It shows us that, perhaps, the idea of the mall as social gathering place isn’t yet in its death throes. That’s heartening news for those of us who still love finding a good deal in person – or those of us who just get an errant craving for a soft pretzel now and then.
Happy shopping, and I’ll see you at the mall!