PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Nothing We Need But Everything We Want: Object Lessons' 'Shopping Mall'

Commerce and community blend together in this bittersweet reflection of suburban malls.

Shopping Mall

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Price: $14.95
Author: Matthew Newton
Length: 176 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-09

The 35th anniversary of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) has been cause for reflection across a wide band of commentators and critics. While there were only a handful of thinkpieces on the movie, the way the film captured a cultural moment and a place -- the mall in the early '80s -- is worthy of reflection. In a Variety article marking the anniversary, screenwriter Cameron Crowe recalls Amy Heckerling, who directed the movie, telling him how much she liked that Crowe’s book was centered around the mall. She aspired to make the mall an even more central character in the movie because it was at the center of social life for teenagers.

Matthew Newton’s Shopping Mall reflects Heckerling’s understanding through his memories of how the mall was central to his life, from childhood forward. Where Fast Times at Ridgemont High was filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, also renowned for the song “Valley Girl” and the film of the same name, the inspiration for Newton’s shopping mall is the Monroeville Mall in suburban Pittsburgh, his hometown. That mall is famous in its own right, as the setting for Dawn of the Living Dead (1978), George Romero’s scathing critique of American culture and capitalism. Newton’s take on the mall, while not denying Romero’s view of shoppers as mindless zombies, focuses more on the place of shopping malls in the development of post-war suburban communities across the United States.

Newton intersperses personal narrative into a history of shopping malls and their shifting role in American life. Malls have become a favorite child of ruin porn photographers, often focusing on the bleak, empty atriums that were once home to bright, colorful displays of merchandise, advertisements, and people. Decaying, inoperative escalators are also a popular theme. The photos use a post-apocalyptic framing that imparts a feeling that some aspect of life as we know it are now dead. Newton cannot avoid engaging in the discourse of change and decay, but it's not the focus of his story.

Newton’s mother worked at Gimbels department store in the Monroeville Mall, and his cinematic descriptions of his childhood experiences there offer compelling evidence of the mall’s impact on his life: a four-year-old child, up well past his bedtime, sits in the family Plymouth Duster in the mall parking lot while his dad listens to the Pittsburgh Pirates game on the car radio and his sister roller skates in circles between the car and the employee entrance, waiting for Mom. Time at the mall was not only about waiting for Mom to finish her shift. The family spent leisure time at the mall as well. Newton writes, “Our family was happy at the mall. Part wonderland and part bazaar, it was a place that had nothing we truly needed yet everything we wanted” (28). Later, the mall became a destination for spending time with friends or daydreaming about what his adult life might look like, based on the styles, fashions, and possibilities surrounding him.

Intertwined with Newton’s personal reflections are historical snippets that create a long view of the shopping mall. Early in the book, he travels to Edina, Minnesota to visit Southdale Mall, the first fully-enclosed shopping mall in the United States. Architect Victor Gruen, who designed Southdale and pioneered the popularity of malls, had the ambition for “marrying community and commerce” (11). Newton’s trip to Southdale is the beginning of his quest to discover if Gruen’s malls were ever able to achieve this marriage, or were, as Gruen eventually saw them, more like a “‘gigantic shopping machine’ with few redeeming qualities” (15).

Newton recognizes that in the long view, commerce took precedence over community. Yet his own stories ward off the cynicism that might mark a retrospective view. His assertion is spot-on when he argues that wanting to spend time at the mall was not “necessarily enthusiasm for shopping, but for inhabiting an environment both familiar and enticing -- a place that transcended commerce and offered asylum to suburbia’s driftless youth” (82). He is among millions who found the mall to be a comfortable third place, where driftlessness could be transformed to distraction. Many readers will relate to the first glimpses of independence that Newton sampled in the mall, whether at the video game arcade, the food court, or the multiplex movie theater.

Shopping Mall is part of the Object Lessons series, a collection of compact books designed to explore the hidden lives of ordinary things. Newton succeeds in parsing out the different histories of the mall, from both personal and societal perspectives. Considering the dramatic cultural changes since the Monroeville Mall opened nearly 50 years ago, Newton notes that shopping malls have become “faded monuments to the aspirations of post-Second World War Americans” (130). The mall, like so many other taken-for-granted parts of the built environment, holds memory and nostalgia for millions of suburbanites and shoppers.

By leaving a trail of bittersweet crumbs of nostalgia, Newton spares the reader from the doom that others have cast over this cultural change. Rather than focusing on a dystopia of self-absorbed individuals doing their shopping and finding entertainment online, we are able to warmly recall the shopping mall and the lifeways in which it played a central roll, not only for consumption but also for construction of self and community.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.