Across the ’70s and ’80s, America was shopping mall-mad. The hub of day-to-day life, you might remember the mall as the post-school hangout spot of your teens, the go-to pit stop for a bite to eat or even a place to enjoy some entertainment. As online shopping and skyrocketing rents strip malls bare today, these 40 photos will send you back to the Stranger Things era when shopping malls were new, offered you everything and were definitely not just for errand-running.
20. Identical designs
So what did shopping malls of the ’70s and ’80s have in common? Well, everything! Cameraman Michael Galinsky made it his mission to sneak snapshots of shoppers in malls across America throughout the 1980s. When he looked back at the photos, it was the “creeping loss of regional difference” that stood out to him the most. Strolling around one of Missouri’s shopping meccas, Galinsky was stunned by its eerie similarity to a mall in Washington.
“It was hard to tell from the images where they were taken,” Galinsky wrote on his 2011 Kickstarter crowdfunding web page. Each ’80s mall’s near-identical stores were arranged around assemblages of fountains, false plants and food courts where “even the ‘restaurants’… were the same,” Galinsky claimed. This photo-list will showcase these features, some of which feel familiar to the modern mall-goer, while others, falling out of fashion, linger only in these nostalgic shots that remind us of what’s missing from malls today.
19. Enough plants to pack a greenhouse
Blooming from every ’70s mall were the growing touches of greenery added to bring a stroke of the outside into this new indoor shopping destination. While green spaces are no stranger to malls today, shopping centers of the ’70s took it much further. Where long arcades were lined with palm trees and large potted plants and shrubbery spilled out onto escalators, it seems the only thing separating the mall from the garden center was that you couldn’t buy the plants.
But it isn’t just the fake foliage falling from balconies and staircases that helped the late-20th century emulate a woodland wilderness. According to website Business Insider, Minnesota’s Southdale Center – America’s very first shopping mall, which opened in 1956 – had, among its artificial trees, a huge 21-foot aviary bursting with birds to listen to while shoppers browsed.
18. Winding down by a water feature
Adding to the outdoors aesthetic of shopping malls at this time were the grand water features that could be found splashing about their corridors. Twinkling springs and soaring fountains, like the tropical scene displayed at California’s Topanga Plaza mall photographed here in 1970, were characteristic of shopping complexes throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Staring up at the towering cascades of water remains a treasured memory of those who spent their childhoods in the shopping malls of this era. You can wave goodbye to coin-tossing into waterfalls with your kids today, though, as cost-cutting made sure that the decorative features were among the first things to disappear from our malls.
17. Foraging around the food court
Shoppers could slump into a seat at the mighty food court and tuck into any of the treats now at their fingertips from the frozen snacks of Dippin’ Dots to a cinnamon roll courtesy of Cinnabon. Pioneer of the food court James. W. Rouse “wanted to create what he saw as community picnics,” his communications director once said to trade magazine Shopping Centers Today. And with their tree-skirted seating and central fountains, dining at the courts would certainly have felt alfresco.
While we’re still enjoying the delectable delicacies of the fast-food outlet decades later, a lot of the popular eats from the era have now found themselves out-of-date. Shoppers of the ’80s would slurp on Orange Julius’ foaming mix of orange juice and egg whites while indulging in more than 100 topping choices at 1 Potato 2 that frankly put today’s sacred sour cream, chives and cheese combination to shame.
16. Anyone and everyone could shop
The mall provided America’s ever-expanding suburban population with a centralized spot to shop, sit, slow down and socialize. Of course, shopping was nothing new to consumerist America by the ’70s, but only once the shopping mall launched could people mull over their purchases sheltered from the elements.
Perusing air-conditioned shops in warmer months and centrally heated stores in the winter, enclosed malls offered Americans comfortable shopping and, for many, the only convenient option to shop at all. Connecting suburbia with all that inner-city retail had to offer, the mall revolutionized shopping for the American residents who were out of range of the shopping meccas at every state’s metropolis.
15. Shopping at Service Merchandise
You might once have picked out a ring with your partner at a Service Merchandise or browsed its collection of household goods as you moved into your first place. With over 400 shops selling quality jewelry and home furnishings, Service Merchandise was ’70s America’s chief chain of catalog showrooms and a late-20th century shopping mall staple.
While the chain maintains a functioning website, its catalog showroom approach went with the death of its final store in 2002. Gone are the days of flicking through hefty catalogs for items that staff would pick for you from a warehouse outback. Now we actually have to walk around stores and find items ourselves. Generation Z don’t know what they’re missing.
14. Book hunting at B. Dalton Booksellers
Not only do we mourn the existence of Service Merchandise among our malls today, but also the beloved B. Dalton Bookseller. At its early-’80s peak, B. Dalton boasted 798 shops and was in the words of Ryan Raffaelli, Harvard Business School professor and researcher of the independent bookstore trade, “literally opening new stores every week throughout the country.”
Bought by bookselling giant Barnes & Noble in 1987, the popular shopping mall chain B. Dalton Bookseller shuttered the last of its shops in early 2010. And so America’s big dogs in the hardcover book business became – like the many others of its kind – history and fell from the line-up of shopping complexes all over the country.
13. Raiding the record store
Shopping malls in the ’70s and ’80s saw music stores that were lined with row upon row of blown-up Bowie portraits and a posing Bon Jovi. But a new voice on the music market soon silenced the sales of the big, black records hiding inside these cardboard covers.The launch of the compact disc – or CD – in 1982 spun record stores out of business and ensured that vinyl retreated from the malls over which it once reigned.
But in 2019 CNBC reported that record sales were set to overtake that of CDs for the first time in over three decades. As new interest sparks and sales of the plastic discs soar, vinyl could be on course to reappear on the shelves of our shopping malls once more.
12. Smoking while shopping
And it isn’t just B. Dalton’s bookshops and vinyl stores that have vanished altogether from our malls: the ability to shop and smoke has also all but evaporated. Lighting up a cigarette while you scouted out the latest merchandise was a luxury banished by the smoking bans that started up in the early ’90s.
Before the bans, customers could puff while they perused around every part of the mall – even its shops – like this couple here who were free to fire one up while they ticked off their shopping lists, perhaps. The thought of customers carelessly pushing back hangers of clothes with lit cigarettes in hand might make you nervous in these fire-conscious times, but 30 years ago it was a shopping mall standard.
11. Hitting the anchor stores
Shoppers of the ’70s and ’80s were seduced by the large department stores that bookended every shopping mall of the era. Drawn to the diversity of goods that they offered, these multiplexes would lure customers into the shopping complex and encourage custom into the inward-facing stores that sat along the corridors between them.
While the likes of Marshall Field’s may now have liquidated, department stores continue to monopolize malls today. Pictured here in the ’80s, Sears still anchors many shopping complexes, selling everything from household tools to wardrobe trends to repairs on electrical appliances. JC Penneys is another ’80s classic that’s still standing and can today be found at the Altamonte mall in Florida, among others.
10. Shopping in the dark
If you find shopping among the shadows of Hollister hard enough, imagine if all your browsing was done in blackout stores. Well that’s what shoppers of the 1970s and 1980s faced when they scanned for the latest bargain at their local dimly-lit mall. Think Hollister-level low lighting everywhere – even in the malls’ central and social spaces.
According to British newspaper the Daily Mail Hollister’s dim lighting lends the store “a casino or VIP club-like feel.” Perhaps this is what designers of America’s dark 1970s malls hoped for, too. It was the disco decade, after all. For whatever reason, perusing in partial darkness came to be popular; it couldn’t be more different from the white-washed malls of today that shine in the abundance of natural light they allow in by design.
9. Out-of-this-world architecture
In the decade that brought you A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars and the final moon-landing mission of the Apollo Program, 1970s shopping malls capitalized on the sci-fi theme that was captivating the American imagination. Among the shadows of the ill-lit corridors were industrial centerpieces featuring sweeping curves, streamlined shapes and infinite horizontal lines that all mimicked the dynamism of the 1970s space craze.
These photographs fly you back to a time when malls looked more like spaceships than they did shopping complexes, as 1970s kid, Jamie, recalled while remembering Michigan’s Fairlane mall on blog ISO50. “The monorail to the Dearborn Hyatt, the waterfall and sculptures, the lightbulb and glass elevators” he recollected, “everything about Fairlane felt like the future in the present to this kid.”
8. Testing-driving gadgets at Sharper Image stores
Shoppers of the ’70 and ’80s could get all their futuristic tech from go-to home gadget retailer Sharper Image. You can probably remember taking a break from all the browsing and reclining back in a massage seat at one of their gizmo-selling stores that could be found throughout shopping malls at this time.
Established in 1977, Sharper Image was every shopping mall’s hoard of home electronics until it closed up shop for the final time in 2008. While you can still scour its online site for the latest gizmos and lifestyle appliances, we’ve waved goodbye to the Sharper Image signage in our shopping malls today.
7. Scouting out PCs at Radio Shack
Branded the “biggest name in little computers” by its own commercials, Radio Shack ruled over malls during this period. As success soared throughout the ’70s, the popular electronics store was considered the capital of computing retailers. With 7,300 stores at its peak, and every American home no more than three miles from one of its shops, Radio Shack was once referred to as the “Walmart of Hi-Tech.”
Radio Shack was responsible for the mass-production of the very first personal computer – or PC – and also the earliest satellite TV that could be set up by do-it-yourself-ers. In fact, the treasured tech company was famed for its DIY approach. Think old-school, flat-packed Ikea-style products but for electronics instead of furniture.
6. Listening to live music while you mused
If you weren’t all that interested in shopping, you might have headed to your local mall to catch one of the many live music performances that they would often host. Here a band plays a set for Chicago shoppers at the Lake Meadows shopping center in summer 1973.
Live concerts were customary for malls all year round in this era, but particularly during public holidays and celebrations. Customers who paid a visit to Colorado’s Cinderella City shopping center over Labor Day weekend in 1980 enjoyed a free bluegrass festival in the middle of the mall. Pictured here are Cinderella City shoppers lending an ear to the acoustic sounds of the Sunday River Bluegrass Band before they continued to browse.
5. Playing in the arcade
The video games room was just about every young shopper’s dreamland. Kids would part with dollar after dollar to keep their pinballs pinging and aliens and asteroids exploding thanks to Pinball, Asteroids and Space Invaders. In these glory days of arcade gaming, every mall had its own room full of the quarter-guzzling machines.
But the electronic gaming hall wasn’t just for youngsters. It was also the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for exhausted parents who wanted to get some serious shopping done. In those days, all mom had to do was present a few dollars and point their kid in the direction of the games room to gain hours of childless shopping. These virtual playgrounds were a mall mainstay until household consoles turfed them out and left parents fending for themselves.
4. Spotting mall rats
Not actual rats, of course. We’re talking about the people (largely teens) who would flock to the mall at every opportunity and fritter away hour upon hour. With everything from live music to gaming arcades, it’s easy to see why someone might have spent literally all of their time loitering at the local mall during the ’70s and ’80s.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the gatherings of teens then and now is the absence of tablets, cell phones, or, in fact, any screens among the huddles of faces. And maybe that the teens are now not there at all. Where the mall is no longer considered the social hub, today mall rats are pretty much extinct. You won’t catch mischiefs of millennials lying about the fountain or foraging in the food courts, that’s for sure.
3. Looking for bedding at Linen ‘N Things
Established in New Jersey in 1975, Linen ‘N Things brought late-20th-century shoppers affordable linen, blankets, towels and other textiles for their households. So literally linen and other things. After a number of struggling years, the houseware haven finally folded in 2008, shutting down every one of its 589 shops.
According to news agency Reuters, the bedding experts once branded themselves as the “second-largest specialty retailer of home textiles, housewares and home accessories in North America.” Because of this, Linen ‘N Things was a shopping mall standard throughout the 1980s, equipping American homeowners with all their bath and bedroom linen and other decorative household things.
2. Spotting celebs
And it’s not only retail big-shots to which our malls have said goodbye. Shopping complexes are no longer the hotspot for big-name celebrity appearances that they once were. Throughout the 1980s the mall was the place for VIP stars to promote their next big project, and guest appearances were commonplace. Rock legend Bruce Springsteen is captured here singing to the crowds of Woodfield Mall, Illinois in 1981.
This ritual resumed in the early years of the 21st century, where celebrity names from Britney to Avril Lavigne, pictured here in front of shoppers at Ohio’s Shoppingtown Southpark Mall in 2004, would still appear at malls to advertise their next album. But in our new decade of digital downloads, there are no longer CDs that need promoting and the shopping mall set has pretty much passed on.
1. All the extras
And if the big-name bands playing and the endless arcade-gaming didn’t offer enough entertainment, each mall of this era would have its own special feature that frankly puts the kiddie train choo-choo-ing around our malls today to shame. From playgrounds to carousels, whole movie theatres to even entire roller coasters under their roofs, ’80s malls had it all.
You see in the ’80s shopping malls were destinations. Offering visitors a little something extra, the mall would entertain a family all day long. Nowadays, malls struggle to even keep their stores open, let alone anything else, and even then they are more of a chore, offering us a place to run errands rather than run wild.