Crowded malls can only hint at better times

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 20, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The malls are different this time: We shop not merely for holiday gifts during our season of religious faith, but as an act of economic faith in our national season of self-doubt.

At Security Mall, navigating Hecht Co. aisles becomes impossible without offensive linemen in front of you throwing cross-body blocks at blue-haired ladies lining up for buys on blenders and grimly holding their ground. The Colts weren't this tough at Memorial Stadium in '58.

At Owings Mills Mall, you need convoys to pierce the Macy's men's apparel area. Hey, buddy, what line do you think you're breaking through? The Russians weren't this tough at Stalingrad in '42.

At Towson Town Center, you find yourself wandering through the endless parking garage into uncharted territory. All these cars, all this climbing: Are we still in Baltimore County? Are we still in that damned recession, or did it blow over while we were looking for a parking space?

There's more than gift-giving at stake when we visit malls this year.

A kind of national self-consciousness has set in, the knowledge that this season represents a barometer of the future. Have we finally turned the corner on our economic blahs, as some figures hint, or are we merely subject to holiday egg nog fantasy?

We bump into friends at the malls now and compare notes on spending habits. Once, we asked: Did you get your mom that nifty economy-size gallon of perfume? Did you get your brother that orthopedic underwear?

Now, like surrogate members of Clinton's economic team, we feel a vested interest in what strangers are buying for other strangers. Their fates seem more than ever tied to our own; the important thing isn't what they're buying, it's how much they're buying, and how one person's act of conspicuous consumption encourages somebody else's.

We question shop owners, who cross their fingers and quote vaguely encouraging figures. We chat up sales people, who have a feel for mood: better than a year ago, they say.

And we question friends: not merely to make small talk, but as an act of taking each other's economic pulses, sticking emotional thermometers into each other's wallets.

And each time we hear of money being spent, we tell ourselves: Hey, maybe things really are turning around, and we whistle bravely past intimidating price tags.

A friend, still hung over from buying binges of the previous decade, says he's borrowing money to buy gifts this year. A year ago, he simply sat out the holidays, wishing everybody well and then ducking out of sight for the duration.

This year, he's still in trouble but says he has this hunch. Last week he listened to Clinton's economic summit on National Public Radio, he says, and those people sounded so smart and so plugged in.

He says he didn't understand half their language, but he liked the fact that they seemed to understand what they were saying. With Bush, it was different.

He kept telling us we were OK, even when he was the last one in America who may have believed it.

For the first time in four years, the friend says, there's a sense that people in charge are paying attention to real problems. So he'll spend a few bucks this year, and maybe the act will build on itself.

That's half the battle, isn't it? We take a chance, spend a little here and there and thus encourage store managers that things are going well and they can hire new help.

The new help finds itself with money, and they begin spending, and a process is set in motion: not just spreading money around, but feeling safe enough to do it.

The last few years, we've lost faith. The bottom dropped out of the phony boom of the '80s, and we stumbled through the holidays with the bad news staring out at us from the front pages of newspapers: Middle-class families were losing ground, the stories said.

The rich were getting obscenely richer, but everybody else was working longer hours, worrying about losing his job, watching his spending power drop.

Around here, the state went deep in debt and laid people off. The real estate market rolled over and coughed, and the people who sell cars for a living discovered entire days of leisure time right there on the showroom floor.

At Hunt Valley, a Macy's shut down and an already struggling mall seemed desolate.

At Harborplace and The Gallery, shopkeepers braced themselves and held on to visions of the thing we used to call the Baltimore renaissance.

Everywhere, people felt the chilling fallout.

The shopping malls are crowded these days, but everybody's still holding their breath and waiting for the numbers to be added up.

It's different this year: not merely buying gifts in a season of religious faith, but trying to have faith in an economy struggling through an endless winter.

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