Taking cameras into the rotting remains of Americas malls
Consider, for a minute, the stores that make up your retail past.
Dan Bell and Erik Pierson feel your pain. The two online video stars are chronicling, to a growing YouTube audience, the decline of stores nationwide.
Good news: Neither has shot anything here.
DON’T BLAME US FOR YOUR DOWNFALL
Pierson specializes in shooting video inside struggling stores. Bell has made a name for himself showing malls in their final stages of demise.
Pierson works in Arizona. Bell has traveled through several states, primarily on the East Coast and in the Midwest, where a glut of shopping center relics can be found.
“I get real diehard fans who are upset about pointing out issues such as Kmart, with them saying, ‘As a shareholder, I don’t appreciate you going around and pointing out all the dirty stuff,’ ” Pierson told The News Tribune in a recent phone interview.
His response: “You should be getting mad at the people at the top of the chain running the business, not me.”
Bell has had similar feedback.
“I’ve had nothing but negative experiences from retail,” he said. “Malls contact me and are livid they are featured, but the reality is, what are they going to do?”
His advice to offended mall owners: “Go look at your Yelp reviews or Google reviews. I’m not showing up to ruin things.”
Before going in and surreptitiously filming, both do their research.
“I was randomly reading New York Times stories on retail,” Pierson said. “... Now I get articles sent to me via Twitter and fans.”
He also checks out the financial reports of stores. That has stopped him from filming sites that might not be doing well where he is, but are doing well elsewhere.
For Bell, preserving malls in digital form, and in quality fashion, is paramount. It’s the least they deserve, he says, as the social epicenter for a generation of teens.
“I think back to the mall from my childhood,” he said, “and there is no record of it. No pictures. All I could find was a little ad from the early 1980s. Nothing left of that mall but memories.”
That still bugs him.
“With all these malls closing, I thought, ‘I should start filming them.’ ”
He did, and the videos became a part of his This is Dan Bell YouTube channel.
RADIOSHACK, ROLLING ACRES
Pierson has asked for permission from some before he shot. His video of his local RadioShack needed employees to cooperate because of the small space.
“Hard to go unnoticed,” he said.
The employees told him to go ahead.
“They were in the process of liquidation,” he said.
So far, it’s the most-viewed video on his site.
“That one caught me off guard,” he said. “I had a lot of childhood memories and was bummed out by the direction they were going.
“It saddened a lot of people. A lot of the comments on that video are, ‘I remember my dad taking me and buying a remote-controlled car and hobbyist things.’ ”
No retailer has directly reached out to Pierson for advice. And yet ...
“I have noticed going back to some of these same stores I film, places like Kmart, and things I’ve pointed out are then later fixed,” he laughed. “So, someone watched it, like people who worked for the company.”
The video that catapulted Bell to national attention was Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. It now has more than 1 million views on YouTube.
“I think at that time there wasn’t any good video of that mall,” he said. “Kids were filming, but I wanted to do a comprehensive look ... and shoot a really good video of it.”
He made a mini-documentary of a retail collapse in one American city. It stands as a cautionary tale for every still-thriving mall.
In it, frogs can be heard singing from the water pooled up inside the mall. Raccoon tracks are documented. Birds chirp. Moss is evident on the floor.
Graffiti and bullet holes are rampant.
“I’m in there,” Bell recalled, “and all of a sudden I hear all these people walking. It’s a creepy place anyway to be in by myself, so I’m wondering, ‘Is this a gang of vagrants?’
“Then I see a cop with a flashlight and then it was, ‘There he is!’ They had dogs and everything.”
He was escorted out by Akron police, though he adds: “They were actually nice and interested in what I was doing.”
Bell’s since been back, and had visited the mall the day before this interview.
“They’ve torn down the inside,” he said. “It’s still interesting to see so many people watch the video. It’s my favorite. I’m very proud of it. I drove six hours to Akron to shoot it.”
HOW DO THEY SHOP?
Pierson has an Amazon Prime account but after documenting so many struggling stores, the view from the lens changed the way he shops.
“I still order plenty but I do try to shop local now more than I used to,” he said. “It’s worth it to get something now (rather) than wait for delivery.”
Also, during his video sorties, “I do try to spend some money at these places — the mall food court, or at Sears, or something.”
Bell, for all his dead mall excursions, has a different perspective.
“I don't shop at malls,” he said. “I love mall food, but as far as shops, they never have anything I want ... but I have very limited shopping needs.”
He also shops Amazon.
“Busy malls drive me crazy,” he admitted.
All total, Bell has been to about 50 malls “teetering on edge to dead to abandoned,” he said.
“There’s going to be malls that will survive and keep doing well until the next thing comes along,” he said. “... I look at it like drive-ins. Back in the day, they were huge and everyone went and then ... that was over.”
MOVING ON, LOOKING BACK
Bell’s current YouTube project, which is gaining a fan base, is touring hotels that have received bad reviews. It’s called Another Dirty Room.
But for him, the dead mall videos, which earned him a spot as a Tedx speaker on the subject, are “like a eulogy.”
“As a teenager, the mall was the place for me,” he said. “I worked at the mall shoe store called Dulce” and at a sports store, Herman’s World of Sporting Goods.
He recalled a stint working at Macy’s in the early 1990s. The store, he said, took great pride in an austere black-and-white portrait of itself, devoid of any vehicles in the parking lot.
“It was such a ‘Twin Peaks’ kind of creepy photo,” he remembered. “... a professional photographer took it and gave it to managers for their offices.”
The description sounds just like his mall videos.
“I wish I had a copy of that picture,” he laments.
HOW IS RETAIL IN TACOMA?
How healthy is a local economy? A good indicator is the price per square foot of retail space.
As the economy began to unravel in 2007, retail space in Tacoma was leasing for as little as in the teens of dollars per square foot, said Kyle Prosser, a broker with First Western Properties.
Today the price per square foot in the Tacoma area has risen to the mid-$30s, Prosser said. Brokers believe Tacoma’s retail space soon will command $40 or more per square foot — a distant dream a decade ago.
“A lot of the good stuff has been scooped up by these tenants that are either coming from Seattle or simply backfilling,” Prosser said. “A lot of the retail space we have left on the market is less desirable than the stuff we had in 2007.”
Space near the new Tacoma Walmart and the new Fred Meyer in Gig Harbor is starting to demand $40 per square foot, he said.
The remodeled Westgate North Shopping Center, which has two buildings under construction North 26th and Pearl streets, has lease rates in the high $30 range.
Kate Martin, staff writer