by KEITH EASTHOUSE
BILL KOWINSKI HAS UNFINISHED BUSINESS.
That's not to say he hasn't moved on. He's working on a book -- make that two. OK, one of them is about shopping malls, sort of a sequel. But the other has nothing to do with that subject; it's about the future, about where we might be headed as a civilization. (Among the possibilities: "the Star Trek scenario," where we've mastered technology; and "the Blade Runner scenario," where technology's mastered us.)
The Arcata resident has written lots of stuff over the years -- magazine pieces, mostly -- that have had nothing to do with shopping malls. Still, there's no getting away from it; he's been stereotyped. He's the mall-man. That bugs him. But what bugs him more is not that he's a victim of his own success; that he could live with. It's that he's a victim of his own failure; or rather the publishing world's failure to give his book -- his first and only published book -- the support it arguably deserves.
The Malling of America is, indisputably, a sprawling, unique work; no one to this day -- 17 years after its publication -- has explored the shopping mall phenomenon so thoroughly and with such accessible prose. If you read it, you'll learn the tricks of the shopping mall industry: how the mall environment -- like television -- simultaneously lulls and stimulates; how light and space and scale combine to encourage people to buy; how teenagers in particular are shaped by malls to become, in Kowinski's words, "lifelong shoppers just like everybody else."
The book is the opposite of pedantic. Based on Kowinski's travels to shopping malls across the country, it is lively reportage filled with memorable characters and vivid descriptions. It's also funny.
The book does more than entertain. It takes risks, makes bold interpretations and offers arresting glimpses of the future.
Intrigued? Well, read on then. And perhaps buy the book -- that, finally, isn't so difficult anymore. But be forewarned. If you really think about what Kowinski is saying, you may end up unsettled. For he is taking aim at the capitalist system itself, at the insatiable consumer culture that we're all a part of and that -- whether we like to think about it or not -- is polluting the environment and rapidly depleting the planet's resources.
The extent to which consumerism is what America is all about was revealed, Kowinski says, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when politicians of all stripes urged Americans to go out and buy as a way to return the country to normalcy. "Going to the mall and spending became a patriotic expression," he wrote last fall. "As we face a future fraught with change and dangers," he continued, "we find ourselves captives as well as beneficiaries of (an) immense selling machine. How we consciously face the challenges it presents will determine that future."
AN INFLUENTIAL FAILURE
It's a book that immediately sounds familiar. The Malling of America. Was it on the radio a while back? TV? Maybe it was in the New York Times Book Review? Or on the shelf of some bookstore? Perhaps it was way back in college -- maybe that "sosh" (sociology) class? Or "mass comm" (mass communications)?
It should be no surprise that the book evokes both puzzlement and recognition. It is one of those rare birds in the publishing world: a financial failure that has nevertheless had a lasting impact. An academic recently described Malling as "a superb but regrettably out-of-print book." The truth is the book barely got into print: the publisher, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to Kowinski, chose not to support it when it hit the streets in 1985. A book tour was announced and then cancelled. No money was made available for advertising or promotion. Kowinski was forced to plug the book on his own. He went on the road for more than a year doing speaking engagements. He granted interviews. It eventually got reviewed by just about every major newspaper in the country, including a full-page in the Times Book Review. The reviews were mixed. A buzz was created, but the volume wasn't loud enough to persuade publishers to come to the rescue. "The book apparently sold well in certain places, but never got into most stores or stayed there long if it did," Kowinski wrote in an afterword to the new edition. "That meant the book was not a financial success for the publisher. Which meant that no paperback publisher was willing to take a chance on it."
A new edition? Well, not in a traditional sense. After almost two decades, Kowinski has not managed to persuade a publishing house to give the book new life. Instead, just as he did when he went on tour at his own expense, Kowinski is doing the job himself. After a long and bitter battle with the original publisher, Kowinski now owns all rights to the book. That has given him the freedom to go an entirely new route, one that would have been impossible before the advent of the Internet: "print on demand." A new trend in book publishing, print-on-demand publishers print books as they are ordered, rather than en masse ahead of time. That way there is no obligation on the part of the publishing house to refund booksellers for unsold books. Print-on-demand books are obtainable through the standard online sources; Malling, for example, is listed with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, among others. There are about half-a-dozen print-on-demand publishers, including Malling's publisher, the Xlibris Corp. It is too early to know what the demand will be like for the book, as the new edition only recently became available. But Kowinski is hopeful.
"I did this because it wasn't available anymore," he said recently. "I wanted to give it a chance to live again. Now, because of this print-on-demand system, it will be available forever."
The new edition contains a 24-page preface "updating the mall world into the 21st century," as the bookjacket puts it. There's also a six-chapter section recounting the book's strange history. Otherwise, aside from a few minor things here and there, it remains unchanged from the original version.
Does that make it outdated? The book, after all, was written before the Internet. But Kowinski notes that so far the Internet "accounts for at most 1 percent of retail sales." In comparison, shopping malls account for more than half of such purchases. He also says that there were roughly twice as many shopping centers in 2000 as there were in 1983 and that 94 percent of the American population over the age of 18 visits shopping centers at least once a month. "It is still the most dominant American social activity outside home, school or work," Kowinski says in the preface.
Kowinski, fiftyish with close-cropped gray hair, has lived in Arcata about half-a-dozen years. He came here with his partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso, an associate professor at Humboldt State.
He did not talk in detail about local retail issues, such as Arcata's ban on new fast-food chain restaurants or a proposed ordinance before the Eureka City Council restricting "big box" stores. He did have this to say, however, in a recent e-mail communication:
"When I got here, the first thing I noticed about Eureka was that (Highway) 101 goes directly through the downtown. In Greensburg, Pa., my hometown, they decided to not allow the new highway to go through downtown, so they built the Route 30 bypass. Pretty soon people were using it to bypass Greensburg's downtown altogether, and all the major retail died. Eureka apparently made the opposite decision -- and it didn't make any difference. Major department stores still left the downtown. Why? Well, that's what the book is about: How the highway, suburbia and television conspired to make the shopping mall the most efficient selling machine and the new social center -- the capitals of a new reality, the cathedrals of consumption."
In a wide-ranging interview from his Arcata home, Kowinski talked about Malling, the writer's life, present projects and possible futures.
How did you come to write Malling?
I noticed that the younger brother of one of my best friends was always hanging out in the local shopping mall. I compared that with my experience with his brother where we would hang out in town or at a (local diner). That piqued my interest. I began to think of shopping malls as an environment. So I thought "well, this is something new," and put it down on a list of story ideas.
Originally, you wrote a magazine piece on shopping malls. Why did you decide to make it into a book?
There was more to tell. It still hadn't been done.
What else was there to tell?
That's a good question. It was one of those things that had a lot of stories to it. I realized that this was a way to write a book about America, and that it was a new way to look at American culture, American people. It appealed to me in lots of different ways. It was a big canvas.
In the afterword to the new edition, you talk about the process of writing the book and about how you struggled with a rewrite.
Literature saved me. If I hadn't found Moby Dick and started thinking in literary terms, I never would have done (the rewrite). To me in that book Melville channeled Shakespeare. It's so Shakespearian, even the language. But what was he going to do, turn a manuscript into his publisher titled "Ahab and the Whale: A Tragedy in Four Acts"? They would have said "turn it into a novel." So you have to work with the form you're in. I started thinking of it as a literary challenge. That made it possible to write.
I suppose the one unfulfilled feeling about the book is that I hope that someday someone will look at it as a literary work. I don't even care if they decide it's a bad literary book. It's always been looked at in terms of the content. And I worked very hard to make it a good piece of writing, to have a lot of music.
Why did the publisher bail on the book?
I learned a couple of possible contributing reasons later. I've never had any proof of either of these. One of them was that at the time the book came out, it was really the beginning of the major bookstore chains kind of taking over and they were pretty much all in shopping malls in those days. Apparently there was a fear at the publishing house, or a belief, that the bookstores in the malls were going to resist stocking the book or pushing it because they were in malls and they didn't want to criticize the place where they were.
There may have been more personal reasons as well (having to do with the editor of the book, whom Kowinski did not get along with). I failed to thank her in my acknowledgements (Kowinski learned from a book agent later that his editor had been incensed by a similar omission in another book).
What kind of influence has the book had?
The remarkable thing is that it's still going on. I have had no less that six television documentaries that I've been interviewed for; the last one was about a year ago for the BBC. The book is generally considered the definitive work on the subject. It's cited in scholarly works on all kinds of subjects that somehow pertain. It was right away used in courses and still is at every level starting with junior high school. (Not long ago) I got an e-mail from a film student in New York who's doing a documentary project who wanted to interview me. (About six weeks ago) I got an e-mail from a high school student, a fan mail. She's doing a paper on me. (Also recently) I did an interview with a newspaper reporter in Chicago who's doing a story on theaters in shopping malls.
Tell us about the chapter "Kids in the Mall: Growing up Enclosed."
It's been included among the most teachable essays of the last 50 years. It's been anthologized and reprinted to this day. I just gave (someone reprint) permission. (Kowinski estimated that he's given reprint permission a total of about 40 times over the years.) It still resonates with kids.
To what extent has cyberspace replaced the mall as a place for kids to hang out?
It's impossible to quantify that. (Hanging out at the mall was) probably more widespread before computers. When video games were all in the malls, the arcades were always a big draw. It became a place for kids to see each other and meet. Who knows? Kids can get acquainted on line but they still want to meet. The mall is a public place that's big enough with enough stuff to do. It's still a rite of passage.
What are you working on these days?
I've got a 25,000-word start on a kind of sequel. When the BBC interviewed me about a year ago they took me out to the Mall of America, which is in Minnesota. And I spent a couple of days there in the area and a couple of days just being in the mall. What was interesting to me was that I was interested. For years after I did the book I couldn't even walk into a shopping mall without getting totally phobic. I had just had enough.
(At the Mall of America) I was fascinated. It all sort of came back. I saw how they did the mall kinds of things, about lighting and space and scale that has developed into a sort of shopping mall technology. They did brand new things as well. Under this huge dome there's this huge amusement park. It's got live trees. It was amazing. It got me thinking again.
The sequel will be more evaluative. It will talk about the mall's place in a broader sense of where it is and where it's going. It's going to be called Shopopolis: Rise and Fall.
What else are you up to?
There's another project that I've got a start on, The Soul of the Future. It's become an obsession. I've been working on it on and off for years. I started noticing a few years ago that all the movies about the future were apocalyptic to some extent. With good reason. There've been all kinds of danger signs for years. So I started looking for scenarios of a hopeful future that might give some sense of how to proceed. The two apocalyptic scenarios are the Blade Runner scenario, where technology has taken over, and the Mad Max scenario, which is about a post-nuclear world where there's no technology anymore, or very little, and society has broken down. So I thought "what are the scenarios that would correspond to those two that would be more hopeful?" The one where technology was ascendant was fairly obvious to me -- Star Trek. But what about the non-technological scenario? (When asked if he was a Trekkie, Kowinski said, "I've seen all of the original Kirk series episodes and all of the Next Generation Picard episodes several times each, ditto the feature films.")
At this point in the interview, things got pretty dense. Suffice to say that Kowinski is looking at a Native American ritual called the ghost dance which has to do with returning the Earth to the condition it was in prior to the European invasion. He's also immersed himself in the work of the late Paul Shepard, a human ecologist who argued that people's true humanity lies in the natural world, which shaped us over the eons, not the historical world, which has existed for less than 10,000 years.
"Once you look at it from that perspective," Kowinski said, "then the future has a little more hope, actually. We don't have to give up technology and we don't have to go back to prehistoric times. We don't have to start living in caves again. We can start thinking about ways to create a sustainable future."
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