The third season of “Stranger Things,” set in 1985, begins with the gang — who now range in age from 14 to 18 — at their local mall. They hit up the movie theater to watch “Day of the Dead,” exchange insults with one character’s sister who’s hanging out with her friends and work at an ice-cream parlor with a totally absurd ship theme.
It’s charming, but not unique. You can find a dozen scenes like it in teen movies from the ’80s and ’90s — from “Mallrats” to “Clueless” to “Weird Science.”
If you came of age in the suburbs between the ’80s and the early 2000s, you’ve probably got plenty of your own memories of making mischief with your childhood pals at the mall.
And for many of us, those are good memories. Malls were a place where you could feel independent but still safe. They offered tables where you could eat junk food that cost a few dollars with your friends for as long as you wanted. You could get your ears pierced at Claire’s for $20. You could buy CDs and loudly, obnoxiously discuss their merits to the chagrin of older patrons. Malls might as well have been made for teens.
Which is why it’s so sad that malls are now becoming a thing of the past.
As of 2017, Time reported there were only 1,100 malls still in operation in America. Credit Suisse estimated that 25 percent of those were at risk of closing in the next five years.
Photojournalists like Seph Lawless are already chronicling abandoned “dead malls” as though they’re ancient ruins.
Before anyone grows too nostalgic, it’s worth remembering that malls were never totally beloved. One character begins the new season of “Stranger Things” by pitching a piece to her local newspaper on how the new mall is destroying small-town America.
But the subsequent death of malls hasn’t led to a resurgence of mom and pop businesses. It just means that people are buying more online. A poll taken by United Parcel Service in 2016 found that shoppers they surveyed were making 51 percent of their purchases online.
And this April, CNBC reported that the total market share of “non-store,” or online, US retail sales was “higher than general merchandise sales for the first time in history.”
It’s hard to convince people to leave their house when something could be delivered to them nearly instantly. The perks of shopping at a mall — running into friends, or picking up a book that you saw in the window at Borders (RIP) or grabbing a cookie at the food court — are impossible to justify in terms of cost and efficiency. All you can say about them is that they were fun.
But wasn’t that worth something?
Just a decade or two ago, kids nurtured their independence and their identities at America’s greatest shopping complexes. Now helicopter parenting and an outsize hysteria over safety has left very little refuge for teens needing an escape.
All that’s left behind are dead malls. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has introduced a proposal called the American Mall Act, which would spend $6 billion trying to find new purposes for the abandoned buildings. But in the meantime, many “dead malls” are being turned into warehouses for companies like Amazon. CNBC wrote in January that at least 24 now-vacant malls have been converted into industrial centers.
People may be happy that warehouses are creating jobs in communities that previously relied upon malls to provide them. However, robotically stacking boxes for a company like Amazon seems far less enjoyable than the mall jobs teens used to work at — even if some of those jobs, as depicted on “Stranger Things,” required wearing hilariously dumb hats.
As it is, we’re heading towards a world where the main place teens will have to congregate is on their phones. And, while that might be a hidden universe that their parents can’t access, it won’t make for a very compelling future TV show.
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