Brian Ulrich’s “Dark Stores, Ghostboxes, and Dead Malls”

Brian Ulrich's photo of Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois
Brian Ulrich's photo of Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois

I exchanged a few emails recently with photographer Brian Ulrich, who has been working on a Guggenheim scholarship to travel the United States and take pictures of vacant retail spaces and dead malls before they hit the wrecking ball.

He has a compelling sample of his work up at his website, Not If But When, which also contains sets from other projects exploring retail and pop culture. His photos are stark and dramatic, and although we’ve seen some of these very scenes before we were taken with the way Brian’s high-contrast photos capture the lonely misery of these sites.

Although I realize a superficial reading of features like these may focus on the disposability of American consumer culture, I think there’s something very genuinely sad about the loss of these important social spaces, which is a big part of why we created Labelscar in the first place. A more serious look at what we’ve lost is sometimes the first step towards realizing why we want to save it in the future, so it’s hard not to be excited about works like this or the release of the new documentary “Malls R Us” (which I plan to see when I can).

Brian’s also planning for the work to culminate in a book of his work some time in the near future. Check out what he has so far; I think most Labelscar readers will be impressed. There is also an upcoming exhibition of “Dark Stores, Ghostboxes, and Dead Malls” at San Francisco’s Robert Koch Gallery from September 10th-October 31st, for anyone on the west coast.

New York Times on Rethinking the Mall

The recent economic downturn has sparked a wave of retail bankruptcies, and with it press interest in the phenomenon of distressed shopping malls (as evidenced in the Wall Street Journal piece that mentioned us a few weeks ago, and a recent New York Times blog piece that did the same). Last week the New York times ran a feature on some grand new development/redevelopment ideas debuted at this year’s International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, which they gave decidedly mixed (to be polite) marks to:

I saw very big, very ambitious projects designed with an eye to ROI more than consumer need/enjoyment, including one from a Japanese architecture firm proposing four and a half acres consisting of ballpark, retail and dining along with an array of “extreme” attractions (exactly what was “extreme” about them was left to the imagination). A Turkish mall project mixed a stadium, tri-level sports lifestyle center, Olympic swimming pool and 25,000 square meters of retail. I was excited by an entry that seemed to propose a new purpose for abandoned big-box retail until I discovered the idea was merely to transform the store into a massive digital billboard — a mediocre solution for say, an abandoned store in Union Square, and a totally inappropriate one for an exurban mall.

Fitzgerald Associates Architects' Wilson Yard
Fitzgerald Associates Architects' Wilson Yard

The article does highlight some large format retail design concepts that the author thought were meritous, including Fitzgerald Associates’ Wilson Yard (pictured above), Retail to the People, and CommArts “Crossroads City.” While some of these ideas do relate to things we’ve seen awhile–large format retail turning back into town centers and away from spaces that are purely self-contained shopping palaces–others do touch on some interesting concepts that I think strike at the heart of why large-scale retail developments are increasingly challenged:

Malls will not only generate sales, they will “grow food, create crafts, manufacture products, generate energy, and provide education.” As an antidote to time spent online, argue the CommArts folks, the mall becomes a social center, a “spectacle of hands-on demos, lectures, performances, classes, tastings, parties, and shows.” Further, the national sameness we now experience (Gap? Check. Victoria’s Secret? Check.) will morph into something more one-off, more local, more cause-oriented.

Some of this reads a bit too much like a utopian ideal of where malls will go, but I think there’s a core truth here: if you can get all the crap you actually need online, why show up at a mall? For community, connectedness, to see your neighbors and experience your community. In some suburban areas, malls and shopping centers are the best places to do this and it’s something we’ve been losing with the rise of big box centers. If we can find ways to cycle in more uses like these that draw people in and excite them, then there may be a future for large format retail development after all.

If you can’t tell, this is the stuff that gets me really juiced up. I love malls primarily because I grew up with these types of feeling about them, and the thought of them dying makes me sad. I hope we’re able to update their function effectively enough to make them better than they ever were.

Welcome, Wall Street Journal Readers

Image courtesy Wall Street Journal
Image courtesy Wall Street Journal

Pretty exciting: Labelscar is featured prominently in a story about declining malls on page A1 of today’s Wall Street Journal:

The gradual fade-out of marginal malls has prompted a thriving Web culture dedicated to sharing information about dead or dying properties. Sites such as, and are drawing traffic from mall employees, shoppers and other mall mourners who swap stories, photos and predictions about the status of centers on their way out.

“So sad!” wrote Edith Schilla, 45 years old, of Independence, Ohio, in an April 3 posting on following her visit to a Sears liquidation sale at the Randall Park Mall in North Randall, Ohio. “I was able to peek into the mall and was so overtaken by the vast emptiness,” she wrote, recalling it as previously “so busy.”

Journal readers, welcome aboard, and please do spend some time with the site and contribute to our community! If you’re looking specifically for posts about the “dead malls” mentioned in the article, we have a portion of our site devoted to just that.

That’s Right, Something’s Wrong

Some of you may have noticed something strange happened last night. Surprised us as much as you, since it occurred when we weren’t working on the site. However, we’ve upgraded to a new wordpress installation and it seems our customized theme doesn’t work properly anymore. I’m going to work on it this weekend so it doesn’t look terrible anymore, and in the meantime enjoy this new (temporary) look.

Update 5/9/09, 5:07pm PST: I’ve started rolling out bits and pieces of the new look, though there are likely still a lot of bugs to be discovered. This is actually a much more sophisticated template than the old one, so you’ll notice some differences in how the site functions.

Mall Madness Continues Unabated!

Mall Madness

I swear that I was not a teenaged girl in the ’80s (Tiffany tapes aside…) and didn’t typically make a habit of playing with dolls or anything, but I used to really want a copy of Mall Madness.

Who knew they still *made* this?

There were so many great board games in the ’80s that are now long out of print–Fireball Island was my personal favorite, and I still play it somewhat regularly despite missing half of the pieces–that I’m kind of shocked that this bizarre ode to consumerism has managed to stick around for over twenty years. I always likened the Mall Madness mall to the layout of my favorite local mall, the Gruen-designed Rhode Island Mall, a sign that even then I was more interested in the architecture and social function of the center than to the “shopping” necessarily. Interestingly, this odd little game has actually managed to outlive a sizeable number of its real-life breathren, including the aforementioned Rhode Island Mall which sits around rotting nowadays. Looking at the user comments, it appears I wasn’t the only little dude who wanted this thing:

My family is probably way off the demographic map for this game. My 6 yr old son picked out this game much to my husband’s dissatisfaction (he wanted him to get a nerf target shooter). Well, we all had a total BLAST playing this game!!

If you’re still looking for a Christmas gift for a fellow mall lover, you might want to pick this one up. I’m ashamed to admit I wouldn’t mind playing around with it a little myself… for a few minutes, maybe…

Retail Spaces as Art

Big Box Reuse Cover

Part of our inspiration for originally creating Labelscar was a sense that there’s something vaguely artful (or, as CoolHunting called it, “mundanely beautiful”) about American retail development, but especially shopping malls, even moreso older ones designed by more reknown architects.

Even the least notable items in retail’s discard pile have some potential artistic value, however, as these two exhibitions point out. The first is “EVERYTHING MUST GO,” a Christmas-time temporary exhibition (running from this December 20 through Jan 3, 2009) of 20 young artists. The catch? The exhibition is taking up shop in a vacant space in Birmingham, Alabama’s Century Plaza Mall:

In an American landscape full of abandoned malls, EVERYTHING MUST GO is an attempt, not to revitalize these structures, but to embrace the playful fantasy that the empty mall offers as a social space.

Century Plaza Shopping Mall currently has 30 open stores and over 60 vacant stores. With a total leasable area of 750,000 square feet, less than a fourth is being used. Thousands of similar dead or dying malls can be found throughout America. Meanwhile, new shopping centers continue to be developed, sprawling farther and farther from city centers, where newer facades can be constructed , spent, and discarded. The greater Birmingham area has at least 7 major shopping centers , with more on the way. If the shopping center is the model around which our communities are built, what does the abandoned mall say about our society?

The second is actually an item we’ve been promoting in the sidebar to this blog for well over two years. The site–Big Box Reuse–has now blossomed into a full-fledged book put together by Julia Christensen, who as it turns out is a friend-of-a-friend of ours. As recently featured on NPR, Christensen traveled to communities throughout the United States and examined creative ways that municipalities reused discarded big box structures, which are frequently ill-suited for other purposes. She found a variety of creative re-applications, from schools to an indoor raceway or even a Spam museum:

As superstores abandon buildings in order to move into bigger stores, what will become of the walls that they leave behind? It is within the answer to this question that we are seeing the resourcefulness and creativity of communities dealing with a challenge that isemerging all over the country: the empty big box store. Through travel, the study of community, and exploration of the urban landscape, Julia is researching the way people build their towns, creating the context for their own lives.

If you’re interested, you can buy it from Amazon.

Excuse Me, Sir! May I Ask You a Question?


First off, happy Thanksgiving from Labelscar!  As we all know, today officially ushers in the 2008 holiday shopping season, despite the fact that many stores have been sneaking up holiday decorations here and there since Halloween, or even before that.

Every November and December, we get excited about the prospects of the holiday shopping season, but this one is particularly important as it may make or break some very large-scale retailers.  Sears, for example, is counting on shoppers between now and Christmas to shell out big time, or they’ll be in some serious trouble.  Sears is far from alone, as many other large chains like Circuit City are all feeling the ill effects of the slow economy.  The problems aren’t even confined to retailers either.  General Growth Properties, owners of 200 regional shopping centers in 45 states, announced they were a billion dollars in debt earlier this month and might be having trouble keeping the doors open and the lights on.  We’ll keep a close eye on what’s going on, but in the mean time, make sure you spend your money wisely at your favorite retailers, else they get sunk in ’09.   

As we join the millions out pounding the mall tiles this weekend, we wanted to highlight a growing problem in malls: obnoxious kiosks.  We’ve actually intended to write about them for some time, and we thought the upcoming holiday shopping season combined with an excellent article in the local paper exposing their nonsense was a good opportunity. 

kiosk6.jpgIf you aren’t familiar with the setup, it goes a little something like this.  You’re walking down the concourse of a mall, whistling dixie (or a different appropriately-happy tune), when you pass by a kiosk set up in the middle of the mall with one or two employees eagerly hovering near it.  They might even be crouched or hidden at this point, and that’s fine.  It’ll add suspense.  They’re almost always foreign (and we’ll try to address that in a bit), and before you realize it they’re approaching, wait, invading your personal space.  “Excuse me!” one of them eagerly blurts, as she holds her hand out as if she is going to actually touch you, “I have a question for you!” 

If you’re new to this sales tactic, you might freak out and jump or something.  If you’re a nice enough person you’ll probably also respond and get sucked in for a bit.  At this point, we feel sorry for you. 

If you’re a seasoned veteran to this ploy, as many are, you may simply say “no thanks” and they’ll sometimes go away – but don’t count on it.  I’ve read and experienced personally numerous accounts of super-aggressive sales tactics employed by these individuals, including (but not limited to) following you down the concourse up to 20 feet while repeatedly drilling you with questions and trying different pitches, and even making strange noises like clicking or hissing to get your attention. 

One of these individuals who was selling aromatherapy packs/pillows popped out from somewhere once (I swear he came from the ceiling) and began violently punching his pack/pillow/whatever 6 inches from my face while saying something like “How does it smell?” in some non-standard english accent.  I had to move to get out of the way.  And at a mall in Orange County, California, a man selling those heely-roller wheels that go on kids’ shoes was wearing his product and would quickly zoom around the corner of his cart when he saw someone coming, not only scaring the hell out of the person, but causing a mildly dangerous situation in the process.  No good.

kiosk4.jpgMost of the time I’ve found the best tactic is to ignore these people completely.  They usually give up fastest if you don’t give them any attention at all; sure, they might call after you for a bit – “Sir!  Sir!!  I have a question for you sir!” – but if you don’t make eye contact or pretend to not even notice them they usually find other prey rather quickly.

Others have not been so lucky.  A girl in Madison, Wisconsin came home crying after being sucked in to aggressive sales tactics at a Hair crap kiosk there (see below), and it took her dad 30 minutes to get her money back.  Another woman was having her hands rubbed by a Moroccan man at one of the skin care kiosks and he creepily hit on her, asking for her number.  Yet another woman was accosted by a man at a toy kiosk when he attempted to operate one of the toys on her person without warning, causing her to jump erratically and dangerously into a group of dwarves, killing them.  I may have made that last part up.   

So really, what gives?  Why is this harassment even allowed, and what (if anything) is being done about it? 

In the early days, there were fewer kiosks, existing for a variety of reasons, in malls and none of them seemed to employ these shady sales techniques.  Growing up in the 80s, we remember the days when mall kiosks sold earrings, watches and various foodstuffs, and none of them had people jumping out at you clicking and hissing.  

kiosk3.jpgEarly mall concourses had a variety of non-retail aesthetic accoutrements, including conversation pits with seating, ample foilage including trees of all kinds, and elaborate fountains.  There were even nonstandard features in some malls like aviaries, monorails and hanging gardens.  Wow.  All of these features were the result of an early (mid-century) vision of what malls were supposed to be: community gathering places with an emphasis of place-making within new suburban communities.  Retail was the focus, but early developers sought to build artful, planned masterpieces to give malls a more wholesome sense of place than a sterile place of commerce.  As these malls ‘replaced’ downtowns in suburban fringe areas, developers wanted them to be as aesthetically beautiful as they were functional, because people viewed them as community centers and they provided culture to a vast landscape of bland, suburban sameness.  See Victor Gruen for more on this.

Today, many enclosed malls are sterile, soulless husks of their former selves, where maximized profits per square foot have replaced aesthetics.  As renovations have taken place during the 1990s and more recently, the trees, fountains, and foliage have been removed and replaced with wall-to-wall kiosks in order to meet this end.  In fact, from 1997 to 2003 the amount of retail carts in malls has doubled, from 900 to 1,800.  In addition, these carts can account for 10 percent of an entire mall’s sales, which is more significant than we thought. 

To be fair, many kiosks do not employ these shady techniques and never have.  In fact, kiosk2.jpgmany of the early kiosks, like Piercing Pagoda, Watch Station, Sunglass Hut, as well as many of the modern ones hawking blinky Jesus portraits, computers, real estate, Crocs, pet stuff, belts, toys, jackets, and even Starbucks have never employed obnoxious sales schemes and do the old-fashioned “wait for the customer to come up to you” which seems to work out for them just fine. 

In fact, there are only a small handful of the types of kiosks who do annoy us.  Many of them are really selling the same, or similar, products and operate under the guise of different names, and here’s a list of the most popular offenders:

  1. Dead Sea.  Possibly the worst offender in terms of overall harassment are the Dead Sea people.  They operate under several guises, like Seacret Sea, and sell mostly skin/nail care products marketed to be special because they’re from the Dead Sea.  Often they use beautiful Middle Eastern women as salespeople and will pester both men and women who are walking through the mall.  At least one of the Dead Sea carts is a scam and marketing products actually from Texas, and not the Dead Sea. If you have a Dead Sea kiosk story be sure to share it in the comments.      
  2. Cell Phones.  The cell phone kiosks began popping up like hotcakes about 10 years ago and today, every major cell provider usually has at least one kiosk in every major mall throughout the country.  Many of them don’t actually call out to people walking through the mall, but some of them will.  Personally we’ve been asked if we a.) have a cell phone (who doesn’t?) and b.) whether or not we need to switch plans or upgrade a phone.  The cell phone people have been less annoying lately though, at least to me.  Maybe they finally got the memo that nearly everyone has a cell phone, and most people are locked into contracts and can’t just hop between providers at the drop of a hat.  Also, the cell phone people are not recruited overseas, unlike the others mentioned below. Does anyone still find the cell phone kiosks to be annoying today?
  3. Hair crap.  These kiosks sell everything from curling irons to straightening irons, and extensions; and more disturbingly, they use their demonstration products on everyone without cleaning them.  Sounds real sanitary.
  4. The blanket people.  These clever individuals are usually holding a blanket, purse, sweater, or other soft or texturally pleasing item and they will pop out (again, from the floor or something) and try to get you to touch it. 
  5. Massage stuff.  This one might be the creepiest, because these people will often “demonstrate” their massage toys on you with little to no warning as you walk by.  Try not to fall down or into other shoppers as you either freak out or become lulled by the massage, or both.

There are other types, too, and again feel free to tell us about them in the comments. 

kiosk1.jpgSo who operates these kiosks, anyway?  At first glance, many people notice the employees of these carts are foreigners of vague Middle Eastern/North African descent, many of whom speak with varying accents and clearly aren’t American.  In fact, these kiosk operators are specifically and strategically recruited overseas by firms wanting to sell their gadgets and make a quick buck at the malls.  Young Israelis are targeted in particular due to the time off they often take after their required military service, which takes place following high school.  In many cases, they are also working illegally on a tourist visa and have been deported for this.  In addition, others have also been deported for suspected involvement in espionage against the USA.  

This overseas recruitment and illegal activity is perhaps the most surprising and alarming component of this situation, establishing a so-called “Cart Culture” in malls throughout the United States consisting mostly of eager young Middle Eastern men and women seeking to make a relatively significant amount of money when compared to similar options back home.  In fact, many of the Cart Culture participants do stick together and seek housing arrangements and social lives together because of their shared backgrounds.

This situation, too, may also be telling of why the aggressive, annoying business practices are employed by many of these individuals, simply because they are not familiar with our own retail culture.  Of course, the cell phone kiosks, which annoy many people, do not recruit overseas and still practice these aggressive tactics.  However, in many other countries, aggressive sales tactics are used at bazaars, souks and street fairs because that is the cultural norm.  In addition, similar pricing practices as street fairs and souks are utilized at these carts, such as bargaining, which are often employed by the carts. 

kiosk7.jpgAt an American shopping mall, buyers are used to a fixed, visibly marked price on all items for sale as well as having to approach the shopkeeper, or at least enter his store prior to being approached.  Our culture frowns upon cold-selling pitches by retailers in public, and we deem them annoying and uncouth most of the time.  We respect the more culturally appropriate retailers who do not employ aggressive tactics and who instead wait for the shopper to approach before beginning a sales pitch.  We Americans have a place for the “cold sales approach” – in flea markets and at state fairs, and once we’ve entered a specific store, but not ever walking through the main mall concourse. 

But isn’t the purpose of a mall to sell things?  Why are we so bothered by being approached in a mall by a salesperson?  To us, the main mall concourse belongs to the public realm of space and we consider our intentions in that space to be in-transit and not related to a specific retailer or the selling process, unless we go in a store or approach a retailer on our own.  Even though we are inside a mall, a place devoted to selling, being approached in the main concourse space is inappropriate and annoying, akin to being approached while walking down the sidewalk, while driving our cars, or solicited at home by a door-to-door salesman.  To us, the presence of the carts isn’t any more annoying as a billboard on the highway or an advertisement in a store window, but as soon as we are bothered in what we deem is a public space we get upset and feel our personal space has been violated. 

So what can we do to curb this problem?  We don’t think the solution is to lash out at the poor kiosk employee.  For reasons mentioned above, they are entrenched in the Cart Culture, and it wasn’t created by them; they’re just here trying to make some money.  If anything, they’re almost as much of a victim of it as the poor lady who fell on the floor after being surprised by a massage spider.  We think the best thing to do might be to continue writing letters and complaining, and letting mall management know that this type of harassment is not acceptable in our shopping environment and we will take our business elsewhere.  Shopping malls are teetering on thin ice as it is, and the economy isn’t helping things, so our voices are even louder than ever now.  At least one mall, Natick Mall in Massachusetts, forbids aggressive sales tactics. 

Another solution might be to reconsider how the carts are placed in the mall entirely.  Instead of assembling a linear barrage of them along the mall corridors waiting to attack each and every person who walks by, maybe establish a separate area for them and set it up like a bazaar or a fair?  Many state fairs and large conventions have exposition halls filled with vendor stalls separated by rows, and in no way are they unpopular.  If the carts go there, then the people who go to visit them would be inviting themselves to the cold sale and won’t be as disgusted by it as they would just walking through the mall.   

Make sure you leave your opinions on these kiosks/carts, your experiences, and any and other specifics you want to discuss in the comments section.  Keep an eye on them the next time you go to the mall, but maybe watch what you wear.  I think we can get some interesting dialogue going on this topic.