March 27th, 2007

Retro Malls and Department Store Kitsch

Posted in Food, Heritage and Preservation, Interior Space by Patrick Donovan

Café Sears, Vanier, Quebec

Like many teenagers in suburbia, I spent too much time in shopping malls. Unlike others, there was a purpose to my wandering. My goal was to find the quintessential department store restaurant. This dream restaurant would have a somewhat dated charm: brown and orange wallpaper, faux-traditional 1970s furnishings, waitresses with Marge Simpson hair, Jell-O cube parfaits, and pumped-out muzak with French horns galore. I scoured the Quebec City region’s K-Mart Kafeterias, Woolco Grilles, and the sketchy department stores in St. Roch.

Then, sometime in 1994, I came across the Sears Café at Place Fleur-de-Lys. It exceeded all my expectations. The walls were dark brown, the lighting was muted and I dined enveloped in the sounds of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. The furniture was the finest from Sears’ colonial revival series circa 1975. The menu was unreal: you could eat a “veal steakette” and top it all off with Jell-O parfaits in a variety of colours. The daily special even came with its own retractable plastic lid. My dream had come true. I had reached restaurant nirvana.


Retractable lid

All meals come with retractable plastic lids

A dozen years later, most of the department stores I lunched in as a teenager are either dead or completely renovated. Shopping malls and department stores were not designed to endure as longstanding heritage monuments. Like most things in the suburbs, they are cheaply-built. Their sole aim is to maximize profits—any decoration is meant to seduce and dazzle shoppers into spending more dollars, a strategy commonly known as the Gruen transfer. A healthy shopping mall must therefore evolve with the latest commercial design trends and colour schemes. There is no room for heritage preservation within this type of commercial logic since all design trends go out of fashion for a few decades before being revived.

Even if the casual department store dining experience could be preserved, would preservationists consider it worthy? My guess is yes, but perhaps not as a top priority for most. The field of heritage has become less elitist in recent years. Aesthetics, age, and architectural greatness are no longer the sole criteria–it is now accepted that our collective heritage should cover all eras, design currents, social classes, cultural minorities, shared obsessions, etc. This inevitably includes suburbia. As much as I dislike car-centered suburban sprawl and make a point of doing all my shopping downtown, I am fascinated by malls. To someone like me who grew up in the suburbs during the 1970s and 1980s, kitsch dining at the Sears café evokes something potent from that era. Nevertheless, in a time where things collectively deemed to be of greater value are still being destroyed, standing up for the suburban kitsch of the past is a marginal cause at best.

There are a few people out there interested in preserving and documenting this. My favourite site is probably the mallsofamerica blog. Others, such as deadmalls.com, have a morbid fascination with documenting shopping malls in the throes of death. Then there are the suburban enthusiasts at labelscar, who believe malls are “dynamic, community-building places of great value”—although I don’t agree, I like the fact that someone out there is meticulously cataloguing malls.

stefoy.jpg

Place Ste-Foy in the 1970s. Image by projetsdequebec

I went back to the Sears café for the first time in over a decade last Friday. I wanted to see if anything remained of this 1970s gem. I was amazed. It was still there. It had adapted to the times by shedding its dark brown walls, but there was still something dated about the place that evoked vivid memories of following my mom around malls at age four.

Sears Café, Place Fleur de Lys


Sears Café, Place Fleur de Lys


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3 comments

  1. David Maloney says:

    I remember eating lunch as a child with my grandmother in Eaton’s cafeteria at Eastgate Square in Stoney Creek (Hamilton), Ontario. It was dim, bland and always made me feel trapped. The memories and the feelings that this article has triggered confirms what I was already pretty sure of: outdated suburbia is hell. Let’s open up these malls and throw some condos on top and pretend 1960-1995 was just an urban planner’s bad dream.

    March 28th, 2007 at 12:23 am

  2. Mark says:

    Great post!

    March 28th, 2007 at 9:55 am

  3. Sheeni says:

    Is it still there? I want to see it!

    July 5th, 2008 at 3:12 am