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Strobe lights beamed flashes of neon green and pink across the floor, under a sea of roller coasters sailing through the sky. The floor was sticky with candy and the air thick with robust laughter, punctuated by screams of pleasure. Nearby, children were getting their smiling faces painted into tigers. But I wasn’t at an amusement park, or even a local carnival. I was standing in the largest mall in the Unites States of America. And I was there to shop.
Mall of America isn’t exactly my ideal vacation. Growing up right near one of the largest shopping centers in New York City, I’m not the biggest fan of malls. (It takes too long to find what you’re looking for in a normally sized shopping center — so why would I torture myself with a much, much larger version?) But on a dare from a friend who had just accepted a position at the midwestern supermall, I boarded a plane from New York and prepared to immerse myself deep outside of my comfort zone. I'd be entertaining myself, having all my meals, and even sleeping within the mall compound.
Ask anyone who’s visited Times Square within the last decade: It can be terrifying to spend an exaggerated amount of time inside a big tourism experiences. And on this trip, that’s exactly what I’d be doing. I'd be living within Minnesota's own Times Square and soothing myself with the white noise of the hustling masses.
Mall of America is probably best known for its crazy amusement park: the record-holding zip line, the gaming center, and the Spongebob Squarepants coaster with the heroically steep incline. It's a major draw for the 40 million tourists who visit annually. But I noticed right away that this place is more than that. It's an ant farm of locals congregating in their chosen groups; a microcosm of America at large.
During my long weekend at the Mall of America — 72 hours without ever leaving its quarters — I spent more time than I'd like to admit tucked behind shadows, eating fast food salad and sipping on Caribou Coffee, the Midwest's triumphant response to Starbucks. I dared to be antisocial in the epicenter of this great meeting space, the rotunda overlooking Nickelodeon Universe.
But above all else I was here to engage in retail therapy. Ahead of my trip I had focused that goal by making a list of items I’d usually go to my local mall to buy: jeans, a soft t-shirt, and a gift.
But above all else I was here to engage in retail therapy.I set out to buy all three within the 520 shops housed in Mall of America — a task that sounded vaguely impossible due to the sheer volume of options.
I expected miles and miles of big-name retailers and familiar department stores. But the more I explored, the more I came across tiny, local emporiums that highlighted nearby cultures and residents. Take, for example, Rybicki Cheese, purveyor of fine cheese and Green bay Packers merchandise. Or, Love From Minnesota, where "freezing my nuts off" t-shirts are always on tap.
The jeans on my list? I achieved that goal pretty much immediately, grabbing two pairs of classic Levis from a larger-than-standard store; you just can’t go wrong with Levis. On my search for the perfect tee, though, I must have weaved in and out of dozens of shops, ruffling fabric between my fingers and finding some excuse not to buy the standard shirt that looked exactly like 50 other shirts I own. Too rough, too flimsy, too expensive, too cheap.
I ended up at Hammermade, a men's shirt shop specializing in limited-edition button downs, ties, and pocket squares; it came highly recommended from my local friend and several travelers who had recently stopped by MoA.
The native shop keeper saw me for the visitor I was, and took the opportunity to not only ask where I was from, but also tell me about the history of the shop, what to do at the mall, and pass along some food recommendations. Not before selling me my new favorite t-shirt, though: A simple, soft dark blue one featuring the names of over 1,000 lakes within the shape of the great state of Minnesota. It’s the kind of souvenir you wear home from the airport, like Mickey ears from Disneyland.
After crossing these items off my list, the next two days were a blur of walking (An indoor walking trail extends to 6 miles if you want to use the 4.2 million square-foot mall for exercise), salty and sweet mall snacks, and a lot of Caribou Coffee. I made friends with stingrays at the very elaborate Sea Life Aquarium. I watched a small wedding party arrive at the Chapel of Love. I photographed my way through a shimmering hall of mirrors where teens come to take selfies in the DayGlow lighting. I enjoyed a relaxing 90-minute massage at the Radisson Blu, a hotel located within the mall.
But somewhere between a Caribou Caramel High Rise and Campfire Mocha, I started falling madly, truly, deeply in love with the off-hours crews and everyday workers hidden between cash registers, high counters, and cleanup accoutrements. I became more acutely aware of the staircases of shy, flirting teens, and the gaggles of moms congregating under bright department store lights for a few hours of company, babies in tow.
Stare too long at the roller coasters or the massive candy shops and you might miss the details, like the men and women who sell little pieces of Minnesota, modestly, next to big-name retailers and department stores.
If you happen to be enjoying a meal as the mall is closing, you might be lucky enough to walk through the completely dark amusement park, weaving under silent ride tracks void of screaming children, replaced instead by jovial workers filling their last few moments of labor with a little fun, a welcome juxtaposition to the daytime hustle of pint-sized patrons high on ICEEs. This is the community behind the mall. The people who, like the Hammermade shopkeeper, know Minneapolis like the back of their hands and still use the mall as a meeting place. The people who remain when the travelers go back to the airport. There’s a village inside this shopping center, and each storefront, a sort of home.
Now that I had connected to Minnesota as more than just a giant mall, the trip was personal. I still had to find one really great parting souvenir before heading back home. How to translate those teen and moms and jovial workers and native shopkeepers into one item, though?
The answer came on my very last day, at a trip to The Afternoon, an everyday gift shop of handmade trinkets and boutique gifts. I was drawn in by the scent before I noticed the glass jars themselves: a makeshift shelf of unassuming little candles named for, and inspired by books. In this Book Lovers' Soy Candle collection from local Minneapolis shop Frostbeard Studios, you can find fantastical fragrances like Book Cellar, Oxford Library, and Sherlock's Study. I went home with Le Cirque Des Reves, a reference to Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, a whimsical story about magic and mystery. In this case, magic and mystery smells like caramel corn, a crackling bonfire, and enigma — and for me, Mall of America.
With a direct shuttle from Minneapolis – St. Paul Airport and its own executive conference center, Mall of America bills itself as a tourism destination in one stop — no need for visitors to inconvenience themselves by leaving the vicinity once they've arrived. But stare too long at the roller coasters or the massive candy shops and you might miss the details, like the men and women who sell little pieces of Minnesota, modestly, next to big-name retailers and department stores. Peppered throughout a tourist destination filled with guests, they are the backbone. If you think malls are dying, and the largest mall in America can’t possibly be thriving, just look at the village they've made out of a tourist hub.
I walked away with some great new clothes, sure, and the lesson that mall shopping doesn’t have to be horrible. But the best thing I brought home was the satisfying reassurance that behind the big, touristy crazy, you can find local culture — the real America. It’s there, offering up souvenirs for you to cherish long after your shopping trip.