Monday, March 22, 2004

The other day I took my daughter Laura and two of her friends to Mall St Matthews to do important mall stuff, such as checking out boys, being checked out by boys, shopping for Britney-inspired fashions, and, for me, soul evisceration. If Saint Matthew had known this mall loomed on the horizon, he would have had second thoughts about getting into that whole gospel-writing business. The place is a neon shrine to despair, crowded with stylish, beautiful people with deeply unhappy expressions on their meticulously moisturized faces.

Of course (perhaps owing in part to my sunny mall disposition), the girls ditched me immediately upon arrival. So I wandered around and distracted myself with the mall's special blend of luxury and misery. Every female was dressed in some variation of the Britney look, including little bitty girls whose parents should know better, middle-aged women who obviously do not own mirrors, and every age in between. I fully expect to see septuagenarian mall-walkers wearing low-riding chinos and spaghetti-strap halters one of these days. All the males wore clothing approximately six sizes too large, giving the appearance that Shaquille O'Neal had borrowed their clothes and given them back. Or maybe they've heard about the obesity epidemic in America and are just buying for the size they'll be after a few more months eating in the food court.

After a bit of people-watching and subsequent eye-rolling, I check the time. I'd promised the girls one hour of mall time. Five minutes have gone by. Dejected, I trudge in the direction of the one mall store I can abide, the lone sanctuary in this cornucopia of dreck: the bookstore. Because the mall gods have tacked on new stores over the years, the building has become a snaking, meandering mess and I now move in the direction of the bookstore, like a partially digested rat through a python, passing store after store with $200 sneakers, ear-and-other-place piercing opportunities, soft-porn rap videos, and emollients and exfoliants extracted from rainforests located in countries unidentifiable to their customers outside the cosmetics context. Finally, I turn the corner where the bookstore has been for twenty years, step inside, and realize I am standing in a Guess Jeans store. I think "oops," step back outside, rub my eyes, and stare: The bookstore is gone. Let me repeat: The bookstore is gone!

I shake off the notion that there is no bookstore in the mall and decide that, like all retailers, a major conglomerate probably bought them out, expanded their inventory and they now have their own giant wing somewhere else in the mall. On the way to the "You Are Here" mall directory sign, I begin to relish the idea of the newly expanded bookstore and wonder what they'll have, now that they've undoubtedly branched out beyond their usual six-dozen picture book titles on Nine Eleven and their Wall o' Harry Potter. Maybe they even have German poets now. I could go for some Rilke to help extinguish the burning rash I've developed from the mall crabs.

At the mall directory, I breathe a sigh of relief when I spot "Books, Cards, and Gifts" as a category in the list of stores. Scanning down the list, I see Spencer's Gifts, Carlton Cards, The Discovery Channel Store, Shit 'n' Stuff, Hallmark Cards, Just Stink In A Can, and the UK Wildcat Christmas Ornaments kiosk. I begin to panic. I read the list again. I begin to face facts: There is no bookstore in the mall.

There is no bookstore in the mall!

Stunned, I begin to wander aimlessly around the mall, wondering how this could be. Ever since I was a kid, the mall bookstore – crappy as it always is; halfway between a real bookstore and not a bookstore at all, *but at least halfway there* – has been the mall's one redeeming merchant, the one place inside the mall where I could make time speed back up to its normal pace and whiff the aroma of something unperfumed. Shaking my head, I hurry past Abercrombie and Aeropostale and other A-themed merchants in a futile search for a B Dalton. Nothing. No Waldenbooks. Not even a Christian bookstore full of zombies with greasy comb tracks in their hair who laugh out loud at "Garfield." Finally, I have walked past every ridiculous shop in Mall St. Matthews: every shrine to American opulence and greed, every taunting tease to Al Qaeda; I have seen enough pierced navels and smelled enough Cinnabons and gagged on enough scented candles and averted my eye from enough text-messaging hipsters and scurried from enough manicures and pedicures to send the Osameter's needle spinning out of control. I have Sbarroed, Lorded, Taylored, Williamsed, Sanomaed, Chick-Fil-Aed, JC Pennied, Victoria's Secreted (OK, twice. Slowly.), and Pottery Barned. And I have not seen one single book, magazine, or newspaper. Not even an audio book. Not even an overpriced, plastic-coated, Lemony Snicket bookmark. Nothing. I wanted to weep.

Instead, I found Laura at the video store. "Do you realize there is no bookstore in the mall anymore?"

"Um, thanks, Dad, for that update. Maybe you could buy a movie based on a book?" She gets her sense of humor from me.

"I'm not kidding," I say. "There really is no bookstore in the mall anymore! Do you realize what that says about our society?"

She says, "Dad. Maybe you should drive to Borders? It's got, like, six billion books and it's, like, a block from here?" She actually has that upward inflection in her voice. Clearly, she pities me in a way that oversteps the bounds of normal father/daughter relations.

So I took her advice, while mentally adding the mall to the List of Places I Will Never Go Unless Dragged By Rabid Wolverines, along with McDonald's, Wal-Mart, any event that requires dressing up like a character from a movie, Cracker Barrel, the God Dome, Chuck E. Cheese, NASCAR, Israel, Palestine, and any musical performance involving bagpipes.

On the plus side, they sell beer at the Tumbleweed in the food court. Bring your own book.