Before we left on vacation, we went down to Des Moines so that Heidi could get new glasses. It had been quite a while since she’d gotten new ones and she had a new prescription in hand that had changed enough from what she was wearing that it was clearly time for an update. We don’t have any one-hour optical places here in Ames and she really wanted to have new glasses before we headed west. It’s not a terribly long drive down to Des Moines from here and Lens Crafters, which is in Merle Hay Mall, is on the north side of Des Moines so it’s pretty convenient. Despite our history with my day-long attempt to get glasses there last year, we were willing to give them another whirl.
Merle Hay Mall is one of those places that has changed so much over the years that going into it now, I barely recognize it. When I was in college and my folks had resorted to just giving us money for Christmas vs. stuff that they weren’t sure we wanted, we would always take a day between Christmas and New Years’ Day and go down to Merle Hay Mall to spend Christmas money. I probably mostly bought Barbra Streisand CDs because at that time, I was pretty intent on buying up all her old albums, but it was always a fun trip despite being teased mercilessly by my siblings for actually purchasing the Yentl soundtrack. The mall was always really busy and was full of all the chain stores you would expect from that time period – most of which have gone belly up now.
So when I compare the Merle Hay Mall of today to the Merle Hay Mall of the early 90s, there really is no comparison. The mall was not very busy at all and there are so many empty storefronts. It’s also anchored now – like so many malls are these days it seems – by Target. Sure there’s still a Sears, which to me is the ultimate mall anchor, and a Younkers, but it’ll never feel like a Target anchor is in line with what I expect from a mall anchor store. There are also no more music stores or book stores in the mall, which were always the stores I frequented most often.
I can’t help but feel a little bit bad for Merle Hay Mall, and really, for malls in general. It just doesn’t seem like the idea of a shopping mall is congruent with 21st century thinking. It is massively more convenient to go online and order from a virtually limitless inventory vs. fighting traffic and other people to go to a mall that might but probably won’t carry what you’re looking for. And for it being a Friday night, there sure weren’t any kids hanging out at the mall. What a far cry from the adoring throngs that watched Tiffany on her mall tours in the late 80s!
I say I feel bad, but really, I’m not that crazy about malls any longer either. I am in them for about 2 minutes before getting the “mall glaze” that just makes me want to get out instantly. And there’s really no store I’m tempted to go into. Now that music stores and book stores are a dying breed, I’m mostly just along for the ride. I do kind of wish I could go back in time and visit a mall in the 60s or 70s, when malls were getting their start and serious money was being dumped into their construction and upkeep. But wait – you can! All you really have to do is watch Dawn of the Dead to get a good glimpse at what a mall in my childhood was like. The scene where they loot the mall is pretty much as close to a time machine as we’re going to get, at least as far as retro malls go.
Fortunately (or maybe not?), I didn’t see any of these folks at Merle Hay Mall.
Probably the only mall that has fallen further in my mind is Old Capitol Mall in Iowa City. Once a bustling center of student activity, it’s now pretty much become an extension of the university, housing most university offices. Fondly referred to as Iowa City’s Great Covered Sidewalk, it’s a mere shadow of its former self.
So are malls dead? I don’t know. They’re trying to jump start our mall here in Ames after several false starts over the last few years. That area of town feels like it has been blighted pretty badly. Younkers and JC Penney are the only anchors left. However, a Kohl’s and a TJ Maxx are being constructed out there so perhaps there’s hope. All I can say is that if they get rid of the dollar theater, there will be some harsh words.