Monday, December 13, 2010

A Brief History of Shopping Malls

I've watched the handmade movement grow over the last half dozen years, online and at markets and festivals. I've been a customer and a seller. While I realize that this avenue of business has been around for millennia, something feels different now.

I've started to wonder if traditional malls full of mass-produced goods will continue to grow as strongly as they have been. Has handmade come far enough to really challenge the way we shop?

Then I started to wonder exactly where the concept of shopping malls came from. How did they become the standard? Malls have been around as long as I can remember, but I was sure they had to be relatively new in terms of the way shops interact with the public. I figured, maybe post WWII, or maybe even turn of the century origins.

So when I read that the first mall dates back to Damascus in the 7th century, I realized the idea is much, much older than I'd considered. Beyond early bazaar-style markets in the Middle East, more contemporary mall-type complexes developed in Russia and England in the late 1700s.

The suburban mall concept as we know it first appeared in Seattle in 1950. Northgate Center was an open-air complex of 80 shops. The development of malls in the latter half of the century was highly influenced by both the growth of suburbs and widespread use of automobiles.

Contemporary malls (like West Edmonton and Metrotown here in Western Canada) have been further influenced by teenage and young adult culture, serving as social hubs, slowly reshaping the way several generations shopped and consumed. Large retail and fast-food franchises grew to dominate this model through demographics trained to access goods at these locations. Popular culture frequently utilizes mall settings in film and television.

So the new development isn't malls, per se, it's mass production and the big box retail concept that so many of us have become disillusioned with. Products that sit like identical dominos stacked on fluorescent-lit shelving.

Bazaars full of unique boutiques, an eclectic place where goods come to the public - that's cool. A cookie-cutter arrangement of the same franchise over and over. Hmmm. Is that what we're rejecting when we steer clear of malls?

I can't wait to see what the post-recession landscape looks like. Will handmade businesses come out stronger than ever, having had a chance to thrive?