Photographing the Decline of the American Shopping Center
After camping out with, fighting, and trampling our fellow humans this morning to claim deeply discounted items at stores around the country, let us remember that everything is meaningless and eventually dies. Even our favorite places to shop.
Nick DiMaio has been documenting America's aging shopping centers since 2005. Author of The Caldor Rainbow, a blog named after the logo of his favorite local chain growing up in Connecticut, he's amassed an impressive collection of images and recollections of the decaying suburban malls and plazas that we loved and built decades ago.
As shoppers and developers continue to move away from such places, aging or defunct strip malls and big box stores have become easier and easier for DiMaio to find. We chatted with him via email to talk about his interest in the history of shopping centers and to find out what he learned from years of traveling to and photographing them:
How did you become interested in documenting old shopping centers?
It all began with a small digital pocket camera I received for Christmas in 2005. I had always wanted to photograph a few places around the state but I didn’t want to go the film route. I was interested in retail culture, with a particular focus on dead or dying stores. The original site I focused on was the Caldor on the Berlin Turnpike, a place I frequented in my childhood but had become blighted in what was an otherwise active plaza.
A former Caldor store at Newington Fair in Newington, Connecticut, 2006.
Later that year, a few major trends in retail propelled me to explore other chains like Kmart and Toys ‘R’ Us, who had begun a wave of closings. It didn’t take long for my scope to broaden, moving onto other chains, and soon other states while meeting other like-minded, mostly internet-connected, dead retail enthusiasts.
What about these places makes them so interesting to you?
Growing up in the 1990s, I have a lot of memories of going to malls and the chain stores that dominated most plazas at the time, especially Caldor but also Bradlees and to a lesser extent Ames. All three competed with each other the way Walmart and Target do now.
Between the three, Caldor always seemed to get most of my family’s money and by extension it won me over as a fun place to be dragged to as a kid. Caldor had some design quirks that I still remember today, including its brown motif. The quirk that inspired my blog the most was its iconic, earth-toned “rainbow” logo which I never knew at the time resembled a “C.” I later learned more about the rainbow, how it started and how it remained on some of the last few Caldor locations until their bitter end.
Toys 'R' Us; Clay, New York, 2007
Is there a specific retail chain you're drawn to?
Aside from Caldor, Toys 'R' Us, which was a very different place for me as a kid than it is now. One of the locations that stuck with me as the most odd was the Danbury, Connecticut, location which reflected a bygone era for the chain, a look that included a colorful curtain with an almost Noah’s Ark appearance.
Much of my devotion to the blog had gone into discovering and capturing more of those rainbow-striped Toys 'R' Us stores after the chain closed a good number of locations in 2006. Since then, fellow enthusiasts and I set out to find the remaining ones in places like Woburn, Massachusetts, Youngstown, Ohio and Clay, New York.
A vacant Bradlees at the Manchester Parkade, 2007.
Of all the shopping centers you've photographed, which one fascinates you the most?
The most fascinating sites for me to visit are the vacant or nearly dead ones, mainly from a photographer’s perspective because their neglect allows me to do my work with very little interruption. The Manchester Parkade is particularly interesting to me, it was a local destination in the 50s and 60s before the development of I-84 in Manchester. By the late 1990s, it had gone through major changes; most of its smaller shops at the time had migrated to Buckland Hills. It had become decrepit and completely empty by the early 2000s.
Once that happened, it was really a playground to discover and photograph. I ventured out there one freezing February morning after a fellow blogger wrote about it. Immediately, I became obsessed with the place. Since then, I've traveled out of the state to find similar places, mostly to find vacant Caldors, Bradlees and Ames stores to photograph. These were places most people took for granted when they were open but miss now that they’re gone as if the stores were a part of their family. For myself and others, Caldor is one of those chains that, since closing, make consumers feel warm and nostalgic, something people won't feel for Walmart when its day comes (if it ever does).
Inside Hampshire Mall in Hadley, Massachusetts, 2007.
Is there a specific architectural style or store concept you like finding the most?
I often look at photographs and postcards of older shopping centers and malls and feel as if I missed out on their extravagance and the pride architects were placing in these kinds of buildings so many people now disregard. That’s not to say fashion doesn’t go into the look of today's malls but the feeling isn’t quite the same as the heydays of 1960s and 1970s.
Amenities like fountains and sculptures have mostly been scaled down or scrapped all together as they’ve faced their inevitable maintenance challenges. Now, open spaces in shopping centers are seen as underutilized areas that should instead encourage more spending; overzealous and loud ads, kiosks with pushy salespeople where a sculpture or an exhibit or even an exotic bird (even I found this strange, but was commonplace in the 60s and 70s) was the main attraction. There's a culture now of (especially in enclosed malls) shopping centers only being places for spending money. Other than lounging with a coffee, people think that if you’re not buying something, why should you even come to the mall?
A recently built Target in Torrington, Connecticut, 2007.
Do you find yourself looking at newer shopping facilities differently the more you learn about the malls and plazas that came before them?
I’m always on the lookout for retail stores that haven’t changed their look or committed to a “vintage” aesthetic. It always surprises me when developers or retailers appear to think things were better looking back in the day. It's why we see more ‘retro’ or ‘mod’ styling incorporated into store redesigns (like the original Quincy, Massachusetts Dunkin Donuts) and even the products they sell.
Are there trends in retail design today that you find promising or concerning?
As a native New Englander I always had a difficult time understanding the outdoor “streetscape” mall fad of the 2000s, which replaced the smaller, enclosed community malls from the '60s and '70s. As I studied retail trends a little more closely, I began to see it from a developer’s perspective: an outdoor shopping center means less burdensome upkeep. But as a consumer, a fully enclosed mall still seems better for winter months.
As for the rise of online shopping, tangible goods in actual storefronts will always be here because people enjoy browsing in stores. The internet, while contributing to the decline of malls, will also strengthen and challenge the street level shopping scene. The physical shopping experience at the mall will never be replicated by sitting in front of a computer, but the internet will have many advantages.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
All images courtesy Nick DiMaio.