in praise of suburban shopping malls

“This place makes me sick.” I turn to Connor, surprised at this vehemence. “Physically sick, I mean”, he continues. “It’s the fluorescent lights, I’m sure of it. They affect my eyes. I hate coming here.”

A teenager who hates shopping malls? Intriguing. I love them, always have. I inherited a love of shopping – or might I say power-browsing – from my mother, who in her mid-eighties still loves a trip into town every Saturday afternoon to see what bargains are to be found, have a coffee in a familiar but old-fashioned cafe, and probably head back the following week to return or exchange what she has bought once she’s tried it on in the comfort of her own home. Her wardrobe is to be envied.

I guess that’s why it’s called “shopping” and not “buying”.

I have always lived beside a decent suburban mall, and they have always been a favourite after-work-Thursday and Saturday morning destination. Perhaps I am a woman born after her time, favouring the newer, shinier, climate-controlled, more convenient and yes, more sterile experience of the modern shopping centre to the tired, depressing, wind-swept strip malls of my youth. Free parking, plentiful toilets, no outdoor garments required and a plethora of inoffensive franchise coffee shops: they lure me every time.

I pride myself on knowing which car park to use to get to my most frequented stores. I always plan a side trip to the pet shop on the middle level, in case they have new kittens in. I love a pound shop or $2 shop, for stocking up on ziplock bags, or gift wrap, or hair clips, or liquid ink pens. It reminds me of Hector Grey’s shop on Liffey Street in Dublin when I was growing up. I love a plastic bargain.

People complain about identikit malls. I think that’s part of their beauty. I can walk into a new shopping mall anywhere in the world and orientate myself within minutes. Regular food court on the bottom level or at the extremities of the building. Fancier eating establishments embedded in or near the posher stores. Mainstream brands grouped around the anchor stores: Zara in Ireland will sell more or less the same as Zara in New York, and have the same shop layout. Specialist shops on the top level,where only the dedicated will search for them.

There is a special place in my heart for the famous stores unique to one country: Dunnes and Penneys in Ireland, John Lewis and M&S in the UK, J Crew in the US. To me they are a special treat to be enjoyed and celebrated, knowing you can rely on the undies in M&S, the homeware in John Lewis and the affordable work separates in Dunnes.

And there is always a hidden gem: the incredible salt-beef sandwich place tucked up in the gods in Brent Cross; the charming little craft stalls in Lakeside, the delicious freshly made sandwiches in that dodgy-looking cafe in Blanchardstown, the best fruit and vegetable store I have ever seen in the new extension of Highpoint.

I know the tired strip malls of my youth have invariably morphed into gourmet, organic, hand-sewn, slow movement, locally owned designer streets with more choice than you can shake a stick at, but do they have an ATM for every bank known to man? Shelter from the heat of summer and the storms of winter? A good $2 store or pound shop for stocking up on cheap candles? Free wi-fi? I’ll leave you to your wicker-baskets and sensible market trolleys. You’ll find me a little way out of town where the free parking is.
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