Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Fulfilling Fantasies in Megamall-land

Up North, in Minnesota, this fall they’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first covered, one weather shopping mall—Southdale, in Edina, an upscale suburb of Minneapolis. In a region where winters are so long and fierce they practically obliterate spring and fall, it’s no small blessing to shop without terminal shivers.

Up farther north, in Edmonton, Alberta, they’re putting the final touches on the world’s largest covered megamall, modestly described by its reticent owners, the Triple Five Corporation, as a wonder of the world. Its wonders are a 365-day-a-year swimming beach (Albertans measure their natural swim days in weeks!), an ice-skating rink that makes the one at Rockefeller Center look like a neighborhood hose job and 119 eating (burp) establishments.

It was begun in 1981 in three phases (the third, with a full-size replica of the Santa Maria and four submarines—to ogle a pen full of sharks the proper way, underwater, and safely—was finished in 1985), and Triple Five has just topped off its three-ring circus of a layer cake with a slather of superfrosting—the Fantasy-land Hotel.

Tired of the Interblah décor of the postwar generation of interstate motels? Has Triple Five dreamt up something for you—theme rooms, for $135 a nocturnal trip. There’s a Roman floor (so far the most popular, maybe because the circular waterbed triggers imperial fantasies.) There’s also a Hollywood floor, replete with Deco glitz: a Polynesian floor for those who opt for a catamaran bed to slumber on away from home: and most astonishing of all, a Truck Stop, for the thoroughly jaded.

You’ve got to see the Truck Stop to believe it could exist. You and your fellow fantasee sleep on the rear deck of a flatbed truck (to my jouncing hand, it seemed only slightly more resilient than the real, unmattressed thing). To keep you and your friend company, there’s a 1930s Texaco hand-pumping style gasoline tank to the rear of your right taillight, and a red, amber, green stoplight beam of your left taillight.

My Triple Five informant could not tell me whether these amenities had any function other than decoration for the night’s proceedings. Actually, the larger-than-life-size polyurethane policeman permanently frozen in the posture of blowing his whistle as he hovers meanly over your private Jacuzzi could hardly engender in me a spirit of carefree joy. I guess it depends on what you’re into.

The net effect of the theme rooms (you can sleep straight, if you prefer, in executive suites, plain or fancy) is of a low-order orgy, sort of a VCR-era rumpus room for roamers. All the theme rooms are supplied with ceiling mirrors, but, otherwise, erotic amenities seem to be minimal, as befits a family-oriented mega mall.

This is no Japanese love hotel, or even a Madonna Inn in Southern California. It’s the way Walt Disney would have slept, had he been as perennially and pervasively cold as those Albertans and their tourist visitors.

Checking out the theme rooms (I’m too much of a cheapskate to spend more than my $35 Canadian at Ambassador Best Western in downtown Edmonton), I did some elevator sociology on those who had checked in. A pleasantly fatigued looking young couple from Great Falls, Montana, sleepily informed me they were switching from Roman to Polynesian, to see how the other fantasists sleep, I guess.

Taking the elevator up on my inspection mission, my Otismates were the morning cleanup crew. I asked them if cleaning theme rooms was any harder than making up regular hotel work. As one, their eyes rolled skyward as they moaned, “The Mirrors!” If you haven’t messed up an overhead mirror in Fantasyland, you haven’t gotten all your $135 worth.

I am not the world’s greatest lover of the Disneyland tradition. Indeed, it’s only because a Connoisseur editor held a metaphorical gun to my head for a story on the ideal American Dream Home that I have committed both Anaheim and EPCOT Center. But I have to admit that I went to sneer at West Edmonton and found myself smiling with enjoyment.

There’s an unconscionable level of expensive kitsch degrading its interiors (take those sensational Ming vases in their plastic protective cases for a start, or the New Orleans / Bourbon Street waxworks figures of a harlequin and jazz saxophonist, the latter improbably attired in bib overalls).

But the Triple Five (four Iranian rug merchants and their octogenarian father) knows how to peddle to every taste. I’m not even going to pause to praise the Siberian tiger (and cub), the amazing flotilla of peacocks, the dolphin enclave, the general aviary and the aquaria awash with exotic fish, including red-bellied piranhas.

Instead, I want to report how wiped out I was by a case, museum quality, of semiprecious minerals and gems, where I learned, entranced, that aluminum was not isolated until 1825, after Napoleon III funded research looking towards lightweight armour for his troops; that at first it was so costly a metal to extract that it was displayed next to the Crown Jewels at the Paris Expo of 1855; and that not until 1888 was the cheap electrolytical method of refining it devised. All of this arcane info garnished with intrinsically delicious art works, like a piece of 8,000-year-old pottery made from aluminum-bearing clays. What a way to run a shopping mall!

When departing the PR precincts of the mall, my eye caught the back door with the enticing legend (to an Eskimo art nut like myself) for “Northern Images.” I fell by their front door to kibitz with owner Mrs. Kathy Butler, who had gotten onto the Eskimo art business when her husband was posted north of the 60th parallel in Yellowknife, Northwest Territory. She has a score of Inuit women in Inuvik engaged in the cottage (igloo?) industry of making parkas. She sold 4,000 of them in 1985. Her shop is a veritable museum of high quality Amerind crafts.

Curious about the scuttlebutt I had picked up about West Edmonton being a gawkers’ rather than a shoppers’ paradise, I asked her if she was making money.

“Absolutely. And I’ve been here since Phase I. Sales were flat in Eskimo art from 1977 to 1981, but not just here in the mall, everywhere. The economy started picking up in spring ’81 on our mail orders, and we have done very well ever since we opened in the mall.”

Still, I noticed that her $499.95 parkas were marked down to $199.95. There’s been only one anchor defection: Safeway just pulled out of Phase I, reputedly to build a superstore of its own three blocks away.

The first thing I visited (apart from the Marketplace Chapel, which gets 100 non-denominational worshippers a day) was a Toyota Superstore, a full-fledged auto agency next to the Santa Maria Lagoon. I asked 30ish manager Rich Koch how things were going. “Differently,” he smiled amiably. “We get more traffic in a day here than we get in a month on the three regular car agencies we have outside.

“You have to ‘qualify’ customers faster here, find out which ones are Americans (who can’t buy), which are hot prospects. You never pre-qualify a customer. An 18-year-old walked in here yesterday and bought a Sentra for $38,000 cash. You can never tell from their looks. You have to question them to find out if they’re ready.

“We do about 30 sales a month, which is nothing compared to our regular locations, but it’s abuilding. My boss dickered with Triple Five for a year and a half before making this commitment. And even though we’ve had a complete turnover in sales staff (six full-time) in our first six months, we’re here to stay.”

Triple Five are prodigious dickerers—for tenants who pay a mix of percentage of gross sales plus rentals, each tenant working out his own deal. And Triple Five are notorious as well for getting generous concessions from the public sector.

Downtown merchants moan that 1985’s three million visitors to the $1 billion mall decimated center city retail business. Triple Five replies that their $5 million tourism enhancement budget (more than the entire state of Alberta) is creating new business for their Eighth Wonder of the World.

Eighth or not, these five mega-merchandisers are beguiling wonders in their own right. They’ve been described in their frenetic negotiating style as the Marx Brothers of retail selling. And their octogenarian father has been known to poke a disciplinary cane at loiterers who are not engaged in enough hyping his boys’ bottom line.

He patrols the mall, kibitzing at construction and undoubtedly dreaming up new fantasies. Let the folks in Bloomington, Minnesota, who are fantasizing about a megamall of their own (where the football Vikings’ pre-Metrodome stadium was razed), be warned that they will have their hands full when Triple Five stakes its claim south of the border, down Minneapolis way.

From Welcomat: After Dark, December 23, 1986

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