by James Tate Hill
Perhaps because your electrician grandfather helped to wire the mall, perhaps because every Friday or Saturday evening of your childhood your parents took you there after dining at Shoney’s or Ponderosa, you always felt a strong connection to the Charleston Town Center. When it opened in 1983, it was the largest downtown-based mall on the Eastern Seaboard. To you, the mall was the Eastern Seaboard. Well into your teens, you had dreams in which entire corridors of the Town Center lay behind hidden passageways, countless stores yet to be discovered.
As you grew up, the Town Center seemed to intuit your evolving interests, closing the second, redundant Kay-Bee Toys and opening a Babbage’s video game store, shuttering the arcade on the third-floor food court and opening a Saturday Matinee/Record Town across from American Eagle. In the early 1990s, however, after the burnout of your optic nerves, the Town Center begins its mad dash toward obsolescence. To a blind man, the shopping mall is a different sort of labyrinth.
For its first decade, the Town Center’s most picturesque feature was the giant fountain spanning all three levels. Starting on the third floor, a waterfall, five feet wide, cascaded over a ledge, past the second-floor elevator, creating a breeze you could feel from the railing outside the Lady Foot Locker. The waterfall ended in a wide basin on the edge of Center Court. When you were small, your mother handed you pennies each time you passed the fountain, explaining how wishes worked. Without exception, you wished for super powers: the super speed of the Flash, the power to fly, the ability to create matter out of thin air a la the Green Lantern. A few months before you turn seventeen, you toss a pocketful of change into the same fountain and wish for something you once had.
What you miss most after losing your sight, more than individual tasks like driving or reading, is the sense of possibility. For better or worse, there are substitutes for getting places. There are alternatives to printed text. It’s the times you have to make a selection—when presented with a menu, while shopping for CDs or groceries, while standing at a wall of colorful rectangles in a video store—when you most feel the world has shrunk beyond recognition.
Coming of age in 1980s West Virginia, the mall was a portal to the rest of the world, wider and brighter than the screen of your television. The New York and California of sitcoms seemed as fictional as Middle Earth, but the mall was every fantasy come to life and stacked on a million shelves. The stores changed, but three words on the mall’s luminescent directory remained reassuringly constant: YOU ARE HERE. And here was anywhere you wanted to be.
Wandering the Town Center after you become visually impaired, you feel like George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, after he tells Clarence he wished he were never born and Bedford Falls is still Bedford Falls but somehow not the Bedford Falls he has always known. The entire mall seems trapped behind a store window, the glass frosted over. You navigate the aisles of Waldenbooks, where you’ve spent so many hours over the years they could have charged you rent. Making sure no one is nearby, you bring a few books close enough to your face to decipher the titles, run your thumb across the puffy lettering of dust jackets. In Camelot Music, remembering the location of genres, you deduce where you are in the alphabet from the first album cover you recognize. One evening you buy an R.E.M. CD you don’t particularly want just to remember what it feels like to buy something you’ve picked out. Clothes are easier to browse, and dressing rooms provide privacy to take out your new magnifier and read the price tag. But for you, buying things never was the point of the mall. Its pleasures were in exploring the maze, in imagining near and distant futures in the ever-changing contents of store windows. Now all the stores sell are colors and shapes.
Around the turn of the new century, the Town Center’s decline catches up to that of your eyes. After seventeen years as one of the four original anchor stores, Montgomery Ward goes out of business. A few years later, its space is filled by an insurance agency. By decade’s end, half the food court becomes state governmental offices. The seventy-foot-tall Christmas tree whose peak rose above the third-floor railing each December is replaced by a Starbucks kiosk. The line for coffee, shoppers mixed with state employees on their lunch break, stretches to the carpeted area that is no longer a fountain. In West Virginia, as in many other states, the rise of big-box retailers siphons business from the once-mighty malls the same way malls once killed thriving downtowns. In 2017, the venerable Sears, another of the founding anchors, announces it will close.
You are here, the directories still say, but you aren’t who you used to be. You are here, but here is somewhere else.
James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2015), winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Literary Hub, Writer’s Digest, Story Quarterly, Waxwing, and The Museum of Americana, among others. Fiction Editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle, he lives in North Carolina with his wife. Find out more at jamestatehill.com or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 4 · November 2018
Header image by Daniel X. O’Neil