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It's out with slightly worn, in with the newly built

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


Every time I set foot in Jacobson's in Old Hyde Park Village, I expected to be immediately discovered for who and what I was and shown the door. My wallet was too thin, my clothes too casual, my dress size too large for the starved, flat-chested look that Jacobson's, like every other high-end department store, featured.

I went back to Jacobson's at week's end. I finally felt like I belonged. For I was no longer in Jacobson's. I was in a discount warehouse. Glass display cases stood empty. The elegant mannequins had disappeared. Everything was marked down at least 40 percent. Big yellow and black signs barked the price cuts. Even the French perfumes are on markdown.

I had no desire to buy.

The scene was too depressing.

I was witnessing the death of a store, the result of bankruptcy, and possibly the beginning of the end of another shopping mall.

Shopping malls are as disposable as rusty bicycles. All that's required is a mall that is newer, bigger, and better, and trouble begins.

The trouble in Hyde Park's case comes from International Plaza, near the airport. The new mall is also bearing down on nearby WestShore Plaza.

It's happened before.

All that's left of Tampa Bay Center is Sears.

Clearwater Mall is dark, but for a store that sells tires.

Floriland Mall in north Tampa long ago was reduced to a flea market.

This process has always seemed wasteful and distorted. It's one thing to discard a broken-down bike. But thousands of square feet of concrete, glass, wiring, plumbing -- to see it shuttered is to be reminded of abandoned tenements in New York, and is to be reminded of the shortsighted thinking of the people who build the stores and run them. They never bother to answer the question: Do we really need another mall?

This is not a question with an answer. The mall business moves to its own logic.

Malls open, they get upstaged, they close, they languish unused, they become eyesores, left behind like a pile of uncollected trash.

"I don't think (developers and retailers) go to bed feeling bad about it," said Kenneth Stone, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, who has studied this phenomenon. Developers and big department stores have an identical mind-set. "You either grow or you die," Stone said. "You end up with too many stores competing for too few people."

This makes no economic sense. But I find myself looking at it from a new perspective. We discard malls the way we change clothes and cars. We never have enough of what's new, and everything we possess is disposable, forgettable.

Don't get me wrong. I love to shop. I love it too much. I own too many handbags, too many pairs of shoes, too many pairs of earrings. A wise woman would dump all but the most basic of this stuff and simplify her life. But I resist and want more.

Always, something in the shop window makes me sigh with longing. So I buy. The closet gets only more crowded, and before I know it, much of its contents are like those abandoned malls: unused and just taking up space.

I find last year's styles, or worse yet, last year's size. The colors seem dull, the buttons loose. If I look closely enough, I'll find some stain the dry cleaner missed. If I stand in front of the closet long enough, I'll come up with a hundred reasons to go to the mall again in search of something newer, bigger, better. The stores count on this, that I will act on my impulses and forget that whatever I go shopping for under these circumstances has nothing to do with need.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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