As Reopening Continues, a Not-Quite-Normal Mall Experience Awaits

A dispatch from the kind-of open CambridgeSide mall.

Photo by Alyssa Vaughn

Even before the pandemic forced CambridgeSide to close its doors for a little over two months, the East Cambridge mall as we knew it was already on its way out. At the end of last year, the Cambridge City Council approved a sweeping restructure of the traditional indoor mall—one of the last in the Boston area—to a mixed-use model, replacing enclosed shops with residences, office space, and street-level retail and restaurants. The move came as no surprise—the shopping malls of Clueless and Mean Girls have long been on their last legs, with malls across the country shuttering or pivoting to mixed-use, and department store stalwarts like Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney accruing massive debt and announcing closures. On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic has made e-commerce even more ubiquitous, caused dramatic job loss and pay cuts, and has essentially eliminated any reason to buy new clothes by forcing us all indoors for months.

With all this in mind as I approached CambridgeSide midday Tuesday, I expected the mall to be just about as empty as the eerily-quiet First Street where it’s located. But when I found the one food court entrance that wasn’t cordoned off by traffic cones and pushed open the doors, I found—well, certainly not crowds, but a lively number of mall patrons, many young, cruising the mall’s corridors, chatting with their shopping companions on benches, and sipping on Dunkin’ iced coffees. It felt…strangely normal. So normal, in fact, that when a worker at Chiang Mai Thai in the food court offered me a free honey chicken sample on a toothpick, I automatically accepted, brought it to my mouth, and promptly crashed it into my face mask. Reminder: We’re not back to everyday life quite yet.

This feeling of almost-normal pervades CambridgeSide. The digital directory signs were up and running, but they had new hand sanitizer dispensers attached to their sides. Shoppers peered into storefronts, but they did so from behind face coverings, which are required for entry. The food court was open, but the tables had disappeared, replaced by signs instructing patrons to take their food to-go or to eat at the tables outside around the canal.

The biggest difference from business as usual, though, was the fact that most shops at the mall have not yet opened. As I power-walked from H&M to T.J. Maxx and back again, I passed shuttered, darkened storefront after shuttered, darkened storefront. Some had signs indicating when they would return—Newbury Comics on June 12, Sephora on June 19, Ann Taylor on July 1—but others still seemed to be stopped in time. Claire’s still promises to be back March 27. The window of the Children’s Place is still reminding shoppers that the store will be closed Easter Sunday. I found myself, as I often have during quarantine, thinking far too hard to remember what month it is and remembering with a jolt that Easter in fact already passed by, months ago.

Choosing a store to actually enter was an exercise in futility: Should I go to Pandora and dispassionately look at jewelry I have no occasion to wear? Or should I go to Finish Line to dispassionately look at shoes I have no occasion to wear? Eventually, I found myself standing at the entry of Old Navy, the only major clothing retailer at CambridgeSide that is open. I walked in cautiously, expecting mandatory hand sanitizer or a wait to get in, but an employee seated in the entryway simply greeted me from behind her mask and made a tally mark on the dry erase sheet in front of her to indicate my presence. Inside, I passed racks of summery tops and lightweight cardigans, neatly folded beneath sale signs. Other shoppers browsed alone or in groups of two or three, some piling up hangers on their arms.

“So I can really just…walk around and touch stuff?” I asked an employee, like an alien who has never been to a mall before. Yes, of course, she told me. The fitting rooms were closed, she said (which I had gathered from the multiple CLOSED signs and the clothing racks jamming up the fitting room area), but the store has extended its return policy, so I should feel free to buy, try on my purchase at home, and bring it back within 45 days for a full refund.

As I wandered, directionless without my normal desire to impulse-buy, I came across 18-year-old Jesica Aguilar, 20-year old Jenifer Aguilar, and 20-year-old Maria Vasquez sorting through the sundresses. Jesica told me the trio had come to CambridgeSide because she wanted a new outfit to wear for her graduation pictures. “I might as well wear something nice,” she said, eyeing a floral-print sleeveless dress. Jesica says she has been doing a lot of online shopping since the shutdown began, but once stores started opening back up, she and her friends have been driving to New Hampshire to go to the mall. “I’m tired of ordering stuff online and waiting weeks for it to come,” she says.

This desire for instant gratification is perhaps what brought some of my fellow patrons to CambridgeSide on Tuesday. But as I started paying closer attention to the people passing me by on my laps around the mall, I noticed that most were carrying no bags at all. A handful of people were carrying paper bags from Old Navy (which, by the way, contributed to the Twilight Zone feel by reading “SPARK SOME MERRY” in red font on the side), and others were carrying bags of takeout emblazoned with Burger King and Panda Express logos. But most people, it seemed, weren’t doing much buying at all.

“Quarantine just has us so bored, and we needed to go out,” 13-year-old Stephanie Mesa, who was shopping with her mother, told me. Mesa, who was empty-handed, says the pair didn’t come to the mall with any specific mission in mind—they just wanted to be somewhere besides at home.

As I made my way out of CambridgeSide Tuesday, my new Old Navy sweatpants swinging in their holiday bag at my side, I thought what a treat it was to simply spend an hour in a place that wasn’t my living room. It actually makes me think back to my high school years, the era of my life when I frequented the mall in my hometown. My world back then was limited by my age, my allowance, and my curfew, while my world today is limited by business closures, social distancing advisories, and the fear of contracting a serious virus, but all the same, I’ve landed back at the mall—the French-fry scented, Top-40-soundtracked place I used to go to feel like I had something to do and somewhere to be. Yes, CambridgeSide feels outdated, yes, there are very few stores open, and no, I haven’t yet tried on my new sweatpants because I’m waiting for any COVID germs on them to die—but after months of being a shut-in, I’ll accept that like a free food court sample on a toothpick.