Visiting West Town Mall as a 37-Year-Old Man

This is a post I wrote in a note on my phone back in September after visiting Knoxville’s locally famous West Town Mall while trying to kill some time on a Saturday afternoon. 

The American shopping mall concept is a fascinating topic for me. Historians believe the modern American shopping mall evolved from covered bazaars in the Middle East and has an unofficial origin in 1798 Paris (the Passage du Caire). An American version appeared in 1828 in Providence, Rhode Island – a shopping “arcade” that would eventually give way to the suburban shopping center in the mid-20th century. Major department stores eventually served as cornerstones for shopping centers after World War II and by the mid-50s the first malls that resemble what we know today began popping up. 

Southdale Center, Edina, MN

In fact, the first indoor mall in America was the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota. Opened in 1956, the Southdale Center was built by storefront designer Victor Gruen in response to a new phenomenon in American culture. America’s economy was on the rise and president Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act made it possible for Americans to continue working in the big city while living and raising their families in the quieter, more-affordable suburbs. Quiet and more affordable though they may have been, the ‘burbs lacked a social element for its residents. 

American Architect, Victor Gruen

Gruen’s Southdale Center would act as a shopping hub, of course, but more importantly it was intended to be a gathering place for suburbanites looking to mingle and make connections outside of their homes. And it thrived! In the 1970s, malls were boasting movie theaters and food courts and by the 1980s the mall was the centralized hangout for teenagers and young adults alike.

Growing up in the 90s, I was fortunate to be able to take advantage of getting to visit and hang out at three nearby malls – Kingsport’s Fort Henry Mall, the Bristol Mall and the Mall at Johnson City. In middle school, we would have our parents drop us off at the main entrance and we’d wander aimlessly throughout department stores like Sears, JCPenney and Proffits, drop a bunch of quarters at the arcade Tilt, sample new music at Blockbuster Music, pretend to understand sex jokes at Spencer Gifts, act too mature to enjoy it but secretly love combing the aisles of KB Toys and maybe enjoy a slice of heaven from Great American Cookie Company. 

If you were in Kingsport, you could pop into Mojo to find modern-rock band merchandise (eventually moved to the Mall at Johnson City and replaced by a similar store called Rock Revolution). In Bristol you could flip through hippy posters, pot jokes and hemp clothes at Misty Mountain Designs and at one point in Johnson City you could race remote-control boats and play indoor putt-putt.

The malls continued to evolve as we aged but even through my high school years, the mall was the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night. Unfortunately, it was during these years that the American shopping mall was edging closer to its downfall. By the time I graduated college, the Bristol Mall was a shell of its former self with only a small handful of stores remaining open. The Fort Henry Mall was beginning to do the same. I got to interview the owners of the Fort Henry Mall (converted to Kingsport Town Center by then) in 2008 and they had big plans for how they were going to turn it around. Their plan included an open-air breezeway in the center of the mall and an expanded food court. They said the American mall was dying because kids don’t hang out there anymore and their absence was a result of kids’ spending habits shifting from clothes to food. 

I don’t think it takes an economic expert or a child psychologist to see the true reason malls are falling by the wayside. In-person shopping is still a booming industry but the youth of the last 20 years have made online shopping the preferred method. The social aspect of the shopping mall has been replaced by virtual connections online as well. The suburbanite needs of the 1950s are still suburbanite needs, they’re just being met in very different ways.

Regardless, while the Fort Henry Mall has downgraded itself to a walking track for the elderly and the Bristol Mall is now a Hard Rock Casino, the Mall at Johnson City has continued to thrive, as has its shopping mall peer in Knoxville, the West Town Mall. My family and I would visit West Town Mall once a year, usually around the holidays, to do some of our Christmas shopping. While it had a lot of the same stores we had back home, it was a much larger mall and had many more modern stores we didn’t have access to otherwise. It was always a treat because in my young eyes it was the biggest mall in the world and I used to love witnessing the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping at a busy mall.

But boy has that changed. 

When I moved to Knoxville in 2009, I was excited to get to live so close to the West Town Mall that I could go every other day if I wanted. This novelty wore off in record time, however. I think it’s a combination of me having experienced bigger, better malls over the years, my close proximity to the mall making it less special and your humble narrator aging into a grouchy shopper who hates fighting crowds of people just to buy new underwear. I think it took me two visits to the West Town Mall before I hated it and to this day I only visit it if I have to.

Katie recently asked me to scram while she had some girl time at the house so I busied myself with trips to Wal-Mart, McKay’s, a few record stores and, you guessed it, the West Town Mall. I figured I hate the place because I’m usually on a mission when I go there so I may enjoy myself if I take my time, park in the back, people watch, observe and just stroll. As it turns out, my feelings on this monstrosity have not changed. I will now close this post with a list of random observations from this visit to the West Town Mall.

  • The fundamental mall shops of yore are now no more than overpriced flea markets. Large department stores like Dillards, JCPenny and Belk used to be the anchors in the shopping mall and the stores’ ownership and staff took pride in that fact. These shops in present-day West Town Mall are now disheveled, unorganized and boast a great collection of broken shelving, flickering lights and stained carpet.
  • Spencer Gifts used to be cool enough simply by selling penis-shaped cups, pot leaf necklaces and blacklights but these days they’re keeping their edge by playing uncensored trap music. I stood in the store with about eight or ten other white people while listening to a rapper mumble about “bitches” and “fucking” and proudly being too high to stay awake. The goods offered by the store, however, have not changed in my nearly 38 years of life. They will likely stay open forever as long as teenagers think alcoholism and pictures of bongs are funny.
  • When I was 16, I drove a black 1995 Honda Accord. I changed clothes frequently and would often throw what I had changed out of into the trunk, usually right on top of the spare tire. At one point, I had so many dirty clothes in the trunk that I could go on a week’s vacation and not wear the same thing twice. The content of the GAP’s men’s section could now fit into that trunk.
  • Geek culture has become mainstream culture and when something becomes mainstream, it ceases to be niche. There is now nothing geeky about geek culture. You can’t boast about your nerdiness while sporting a $30 Star Wars t-shirt you bought at Dillards. You literally had to walk past the Ralph Lauren section to get there.
  • If you’re in your 30s, it’s time to admit that Rick and Morty is only medium-funny at best. 
  • I usually love shopping at Lucky. They currently have bad-ass t-shirts with images of Iggy Pop, the Stooges, Joan Jett and even David Bowie. They were all $40. Seems unnecessary and very non-punk but I guess they’re assuming if you’re old enough to know who these artists are, you probably have a well-established career and retirement plan, thus you should be able to afford a $40 t-shirt.
  • Hot Topic still plays the same Alkaline Trio songs they played when I first frequented their store 20+ years ago. I wasn’t mad about it.
  • A frequently abused and greatly under-appreciated hero to all is the man who graciously stands in front of the Chinese restaurant in every food court in America holding a tray of sesame chicken on a toothpick for your cost-free enjoyment. I would turn in almost every American holiday if we could get a special day dedicated to the guys who do this for us every day.

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