Thursday, September 25, 2008

Big Fish Eat Little Fish

At 9:58 in the morning, two middle-aged women in Spandex speed-walk by me, looking at each other, talking in breathy gasps. They are not looking at the stores of Barton Creek Square Mall lining both sides of their exercise path, and they're clutching water bottles, not bags. While not necessarily defiant, it's a subversive act of non-consumerism in the heart of shopper country. Much like everyone else in the mall, they enjoy the consistent, cool comfort of air conditioning.

Stores begin to raise their metal gates, freeing their goods from the prison-like barriers. In the walkway, kiosk clerks unfurl the fabric around their little island of goods, precariously secured by a simple lock and chain. Within a couple of minutes, the mall transitions from a city asleep to a thriving first-world bazaar of corporatism - The Gap, Nordstrom, The Pottery Barn. Like the mall walkers, we are not here to shop. We are here to meet with the mall manager in the mall offices by Sears, labeled simply "office" on a small, square placard. In thirty years of going to the mall, I've never noticed these rooms. Inside, we gather around a conference table, where the manager has provided us with nuts and pretzels, and where she prepares to answer questions from inquisitive students from the local university. She talks logistics - procedures of operations, busy weekends, number of employees, the difficulty of keeping carpet clean. We ask her what hidden dangers lurk for shoppers, and she warns us about going against the will of the escalator, about potted plants being mistaken for seating areas, and leaving trays full of mall food unattended around over-enthusiastic bussers. I ask her about her thoughts on Highland Mall across the city. "Poor Highland Mall," bemoans the manager. She tells us about the lack of development opportunities around Highland and how the area is less affluent. She dances around the topic of crime, carefully choosing her euphemisms with phrases like "security concerns" and "neighborhood perceptions." About the Domain and outdoor malls, she voices her concern about the unbearable outdoors heat. She is clearly proud to be working at this mall. I ask her what her opinions are about the kiosks lining the center of the walkways and whether they're perceived as lower class denizens. She informs us that their leases are short term, and reluctantly admits that while some view them a little less favorably, there is no blatant hierarchy. She loves all of her children equally - especially the lady whose kiosk sells Turkish rugs by the Steve Madden store. "She is very successful," she proudly tells us. We thank her for her time and the professor assures her that they will let her know about design flaws that his students might uncover.

Back in the mall, I somehow find myself in the Apple store browsing through their products, becoming what I had come to observe. After spotting two colleagues in the store doing the same thing, I walk out and head down the Nordstrom wing of the mall, which the mall manager had told us earlier was her favorite. I notice that escalators run both up and down by the Nordstrom whereas by Sears, the escalators only run up stranding shoppers on the upper level. Inside, Nordstrom is spacious, clean, and white. The spotless floors reflect the bright lights, emitting an ambience of antiseptic luxury. Close by, a man sits down at a shiny, black grand piano and delicately taps soft jazz. Nearby at the entrance, a cadre of security personnel assemble. I take this as a cue to leave the store.

Walking down the Nordstrom wing I notice the Steve Madden store and immediately look around for the Turkish rug kiosk. It is right there just as the mall manager had said. I start jotting down basic descriptions of the kiosk, called Zerrin's Gifts. Laid out on a wooden cart are Near Eastern style rugs, jewelry, fabrics, bathmats, and other exotic sundries. A lady walks up to me and asks me what I am doing. I tell her I'm here for field research for my class and I ask her if this is her kiosk. She says that it is. I ask her if she likes working here. "No!" she responds emphatically. "I tired of working here. I tired of working for corporation [Simon Properties]. Big fish always eat little fish." I ask her what she means by that. She tells me that they take all her money through rent, and that during certain holiday months, they raise it up to $12,000. I tell her that the rent seems a bit high. "We are like slaves!" Her tone of voice is an amalgam of sad, whiny, and defeated. "I here for six years. Big fish… they eat little fish." I ask her if she misses Turkey. She tells me that she does and that her life was easier there. I thank the Turkish kiosk lady for talking with me and wish her better luck. As I walk off, I look back and see her sitting on her stool with her chin propped on her hand. According to the mall manager, this is the most successful kiosk in the mall.

Approximately 40 feet from the Turkish kiosk, I wander into Solstice, a store that sells Ray-Bans and other high-end boutique sunglasses. The store is empty except for the clerk who is attentive and welcoming. Without asking, the Solstice clerk tells me about his wares. He brags that the sunglasses they sell have “benefits”, though he doesn't describe what those benefits are. But I am not here to buy sunglasses. I ask him what he thinks about the kiosks. He tells me that it depends on who I work for. I assure him that I do not work for Simon Properties. He leans over the counter and tells me that he hates them. "They lower the quality of the mall," he says. He tells me that there used to be a sunglasses kiosk directly in front of Solstice selling $20 sunglasses until they forced Simon to move them to the other side of the mall. "Unlike those sunglasses, our has benefits," he adds, repeating his opening mantra. He also despises kiosk clerks hawking and feels like stores like his don't have to rely on such crude exhortations. "The cell phone kiosks are the worst because they work on commission. I know because I used to work for one of them." He is very forthright with his distaste for the kiosks. "When I see them hawking, I call security." With a tone of bitterness, the Solstice clerk adds, "Notice how the closer you get to Nordstrom, the kiosks disappear." I tell him that the Nordstrom wing is the mall manager’s favorite section.

No comments: