Shopping Alone

When Owing Mills Mall opened in 1986, it was conceived as the cultural hub of a new Maryland suburb. Politicians cracked open champagne bottles on its sparkling brass banisters, and pink and turquoise feathers sprinkled the mass of shoppers that had assembled for opening day. By December 2015, however, the mall was practically dead. “It’s depressing,” one of the few seasonal shoppers told The New York Times. “This place used to be packed. And [on] Christmas, the lines were out the door.”

Owing Mills Mall is only one example of a nationwide trend. For nearly a decade, shopping malls have been dying. In fact, there’s website dedicated to documenting the phenomenon: The failure of regional malls has been attributed to a number of factors—local demographic shifts, the collapse of the real estate market in 2008, and the decline of department chains that have traditionally served as malls’ financial anchors. But the bigger story here isn’t about malls per se. It’s about the decline of brick and mortar shopping, which has continued well beyond the recovery of the real-estate market. It’s the reason why malls’ department stores are struggling in the first place.

Increasingly, brick and mortar storefronts are being replaced by online shopping venues, like Just three years ago, in 2015, experts felt that online shopping had only a minimal effect on traditional retail. Then, in August 2016, Macy’s announced it would close 100 stores by 2018, 15 percent of its store base at the time. Sears followed in January 2017, announcing that it was closing over a hundred stores by April. Then came JC Penney, closing 140 stores. Economists worried about the loss of jobs; between October and April 2017, 89,000 workers were laid off, more than the total workforce of America’s coal sector. At the same time, e-commerce exploded, its annual growth rising from 30 billion dollars a year between 2010 and 2014, to 40 billion between 2014 and 2017. “That is the tipping point, right there,” Barbara Denham, senior economist at Reis, said. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, agreed. “E-commerce is putting extreme pressure on brick and mortar. This really feels like a watershed moment.”

When Owing Mills Mall finally closed in 2016, business and community leaders began discussing what to do with the empty lot. Howard Brown,  a local real estate developer, suggested the space be turned into multifamily housing surrounding a main street. “The last thing it wants to be is boxes facing boxes” he told the Baltimore Sun, referring to a suggestion that a new strip mall take its place. “That’s passe.”

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It’s not news that technology is fundamentally reshaping the way we live our lives. But when it comes to the loss of retail stores, we need to consider how a shift from shopping in person to browsing online affects the way we connect with society around us. In some senses, malls never were great places for social bonding, as a recent video-essay from Vox claims. Vox assessed the loss of the shopping mall as a place where people can meet and express themselves outside of work, school, or home—an environment social theorists call a “third space.” Malls make poor third spaces, Vox says, because they don’t give enough opportunity for people to sit and talk uninterrupted. Also, the primary activity is shopping, which is more accessible to the rich than the poor. In short, shopping makes for a weak basis for a community center.

For regional and suburban malls, their assessment is correct. A mall thirty minutes from the center of town can’t really function as place to foster community. But for urban centers like New York City, brick and mortar shopping is one of the few places that city dwellers can be reminded of the tenuous bonds that hold us together. It may not be much, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. As with everything else, when assessing retail’s role in social life, context matters.

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Cities induce a sort of paradoxical claustrophobia. On the one hand, they concentrate masses of people together, drawing them in from all over the country. But at the same time, the rituals of city life are such that we rarely encounter people except as fellow commuters—basically, as obstacles to be maneuvered around. The crowd is in a hurry, and everyone is expected to facilitate interpersonal interactions as efficiently as possible. In literature, Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd” captures how mechanical interactions between commuters on a city street are:

[T]hose who went by had a satisfied business-like demeanor, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on.   

Poe had in mind the street of nineteenth-century London, but the picture is familiar to anyone who has done the morning downtown commute. The flow of human traffic on the city’s sidewalks—or subways—has a dehumanizing effect on the people who make it up. Far from being a site of encountering others, the street is place where we try as hard as possible to avoid each other.

As it is, the typical urbanite already tends to be concerned with things other than their fellow man on the street. Those who migrate to urban centers are drawn by opportunity—the unique potential for self-realization that a city has to offer. This means that city dwellers are seeking something personal. Community is usually not the first thing on their minds. Between our alienation and our narcissism, feeling a sense of connection with fellow urban dwellers can seem difficult. But not impossible. Even in a city, face-to-face encounters can create moments of connection in unexpected ways. Brick-and-mortar shopping is one of the few forums for such an encounter, especially clothes shopping. Indeed, perhaps no other experience embodies so well the conflict between individualism and community that characterizes city life.

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 I don’t know if others feel this way, but for me, buying clothes is about reinvention. Every several months I survey my wardrobe with dissatisfaction. When this happens, as it did a few months ago, I have the itch to shop. On this recent trip, I took the subway from my apartment down to the H&M in Columbus Circle. Inside the store, each curated clothes section is an invitation to evolve. A male model in a long sleeved, three-button crew neck glances down from a stand; I could do that. Or maybe, a white shirt peppered with navy spots and red corduroy pants. Surrounded by dressing room mirrors, I admired myself in a pair of black jeans and a grey-blue sweater. How right they felt compared to the rumpled clothes piled in the stall’s corner, shed like excess skin. Clothes might not make the man, but damn, they help.

Ultimately, I’ve realized that shopping is very personal. What we wear is important to us, because it can be a powerful way for us to show the world who we are. In brick and mortar stores, this extremely individualistic process is conducted in the presence of dozens of strangers—another example of city claustrophobia. Yet, in these shared, but private moments, there is an unwitting intimacy. All around you, people are trying to figure out how to express themselves, which means that they reveal a great deal more of their personalities than they otherwise would. Once shoppers leave the store with their bundles of clothes, they rejoin the bustle of the street. But for an hour or so, in brick-and mortar shops, strangers stand among each other naked.

When we experience shared moments with people, we see them as something other than commuters. We begin, instead, to recognize them as human. A few months after the last trip, I was back at H&M, looking for something to better suit the summer sun. As I worked my way around the room, I noticed a young man, his thin face framed in black bangs, sifting through a row of business jackets. He was busy, I knew, with the same process of self-definition that I was—deciding if any of the cuts and colors really was “him.” I made my own selections and approached the register, where a man stood chatting animatedly in Hindi to his girlfriend. He was holding up a pair of bright blue shorts, about which she didn’t seem to have a strong opinion, despite his string of questions. We didn’t speak, but I think that was beside the point.

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Learning to bridge the distance in urban society has been a focus of modernist thinkers since the 1800s. Walter Benjamin, one of the ex-pat Germans belonging to the loose philosophical group known as the Frankfurt School, saw the key to connecting with the city’s public in the figure of the flanuer, a creation of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s poem series Le Sleen De Paris (translated in English as The Parisian Prowler) is actually a collection of city vignettes, depicting the absurdities and paradoxes of human interactions in nineteenth-century Paris. Baudelaire was so impressed by the unique social atmosphere in a modern city that he invented a word for it, modernite, the precursor to our own “modernity.”

In order to overcome the alienating bustle of city life, Baudelaire wrote that one must become a flanuer—one who can imbue the anonymous crowd with a sense of meaning and connection. “For the perfect flanuer,” Baudelaire wrote in “The Painter of Modern Life,” an essay published years prior to Le Spleen, “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude… To be away from home, and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home… The lover of universal life enters the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.”

Building off Baudelaire, Benjamin perceived that being at home as “A Man of the Crowd” was essential to creating an urban basis for social connection. But unlike Poe’s titular character, Benjamin’s flanuer possesses Baudelaire’s love of the cityscape. In Benjamin’s words, he sees the crowd as having “a soul of its own.” Unfortunately, however, without discrete moments of humanization, it’s impossible to build genuine connection with an anonymous crowd. In Le Spleen, Baudelaire’s flanuer wanders through Paris, watching people and occasionally talking to them: an old woman, two children, a gentleman, a beggar. In one case, he even fights with them, wrestling a homeless man to determine whether they really are equals. As Bauldelaire makes clear, a flanuer’s—or flanuese’s—ability to find beauty in city life hinges on their real encounters with the crowd. To keep that vision alive, city dwellers must have opportunities to mingle and meet.

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Complaining that technology is keeping us apart is a cliché. But beyond the difficulty of getting family members off their smart-phones at dinner time are the structural shifts taking place in our public spaces. Retail stores are not technology’s only victims. A parallel trend toward atomization can be seen in what Wifi is doing to the café. Cafés have always been havens for writers at work. But the effect of widespread internet access has been to transform them from social spaces to private ones.

One writer for the New York Times dubbed the phenomenon “Laptopistan.” When David Sax came to Atlas café in 2010 to chronicle the culture of laptop use, he found regulars who had sat together in the café every day for years, but had never spoken:

Mr. Tugendhaft has been coming to Atlas nearly every day for three and a half years, but there are many Laptopistanis he has never spoken to. (“Some of them are in the room right now,” he confided in a low voice, eyeing a woman in a jean jacket two tables over.) He has dated fellow Laptopistanis, but not anymore, preferring to keep romance out of the workplace. People tend to keep to themselves, he said, until something breaks the routine: an argument between lovers, news of a subway breakdown, or, most often, some sort of interaction around the power strips.

This picture of workers secluded behind screens is a far cry from the social energy of Friends’ legendary Central Perk or of MacLaren’s Pub in How I Met Your Mother. It collapses the distinction between a workplace and a “third space,” taking the latter’s social opportunities with it.   

Recently, some establishments have started fighting back. Café Grumpy, a Manhattan based coffee house, took the dramatic step of forbidding all laptops on premises. The improved environment apparently sells: a restaurant-café in Vermont, August First, reported a 14 percent increase in revenue after imposing their own laptop ban. And according to reporting from The Guardian, cafés around the world have since followed suit and declared themselves laptop-free zones. Cynics may protest that banning laptops is likely a move motivated by profit. After all, laptop users spend less money and take more more table-time. But I can’t help feeling that, regardless, the counter-trend a good thing. We need places to interact, if we really are going to live together.

You can’t turn back the clock on technology. But, we can find ways to keep public spaces available for us to connect. Because living together is about more than achieving some modernist aesthetic. It’s a prerequisite for forging a city into a patriotic community. When we encounter people as something other than commuters, we learn to see what we have in common and to identify with each others’ needs. In his study of modern life, All that is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman considers the revolutionary movements of Paris, Petersberg, and Berlin. These were cities forged into communities. In the heat of political action, “for one luminous moment, the multitude of solitudes that make up the modern city come together in a new type of encounter, to make a people.” For Berman, the beauty of Benjamin’s “soul of the crowd” is a firm basis for modern politics. But that basis requires public spaces in which it can be born and nourished—where members of a city from drastically different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds can meet face to face.

Ever since the 2016 campaign trail, opinion columns have called for Americans to strengthen their community fabric. A good example is David Brooks’ April 2016 piece, “How Covenants Make Us.” Brooks quotes N.Y.U. professor Marcia Pally that what people really need is “separability amid situatedness”—to feel rooted in their environment while being able to pursue their private dreams. A city’s possibilities for private self-realization are obvious. What needs protecting is an urban basis of community. As Berman provocatively puts it: “What if the multitudes of men and women who are terrorized by modern traffic could learn to confront it together?” Now, that would be something.

Yitzchak Fried received his B.A. in political science from Yeshiva University in May 2017. Since then, he has worked as a high school English teacher, and as a contributing writer at WAX Digital Magazine. While much of his recent work has been interview-based community journalism, he also enjoys writing about culture and progressive politics. To see what issues he's thinking about, follow him on Twitter