It’s got New York glamour on a Texas scale and a parking lot like something from Miami beach. It’s a tourist trap and a local hang-out. Some love to hate it, but it is everyone’s guilty pleasure. There’s nothing quite like the King of Prussia Mall.
King of Prussia—that’s a funny name for a town, isn’t it? King of Prussia? It’s like naming a town “Queen of England” or “Chancellor of Germany.” I don’t even know if I could point out Prussia on a map. And what did the Prussians, or their King, have to do with greater Philadelphia? I don’t remember learning about the Prussians conquering the land next to Valley Forge. Turns out some old guy in 1851 named a local tavern after the king. He didn’t much care for British imperialism and neither did the king of Prussia. Good on him, then.
The King of Prussia Mall is the largest mall in America in terms of retail square footage. Mall of America might take up more space, but what our place of brand-name worship lacks in size, it makes up in miles and miles of stores. I’ve seen older couples in sweatsuits and sneakers getting their exercise in the place, which is not to say it lacks grandeur.
Driving down King of Prussia road—that guy with the tavern certainly has built up a legacy—you feel like you’re on Mulholland Drive in LA: a twisty lane overlooking a bright, glitzy city full of people and anticipation. The traffic’s pretty bad, too. You can tell the Mall was never supposed to be this big. While the township and state have done their best to manage traffic around the place, there’s no grand entrance as one might expect when arriving at such a lush locale. They’ve done just about everything they can to make up for it. In 2018, the two halves of the Mall were finally linked, adding 50 stores and a massive new food court. It’s new. It’s classy. It’s pricey. It’s sexy. This is the real mall of America.
There’s background music—different music for different departments: the men’s department is playing some atrociously masculine guitar song, while the women’s section sounds like something booming out over a catwalk.
The easiest point of entry for me is at Nordstrom. I like going in through the department stores. There’s something old school about a place like that. At Christmas time, you feel like you’re in Miracle on 34th Street. It is Saturday the week before the Super Bowl, and it’s been raining all day. I expect it to be packed. Surprisingly, there’s not an abnormally large crowd. I can even get parking on the upper deck, next to a couple of fine sports cars. I guess a rainy day does not imply that people will go spend their savings. I cross the pedestrian walkway three stories from the road below and enter the store.
The smell is the first thing that hits you. I don’t want to call it perfume because I don’t think any person would put on something so bland, but it doesn’t smell natural. If it’s some kind of sales tactic to get me to meander, it’s not working. The noise comes next. There’s background music—different music for different departments: the men’s department is playing some atrociously masculine guitar song, while the women’s section sounds like something booming out over a catwalk. Standing in the aisle between the two creates a muddy din in my ear. Then there’s the ambient noise—people and footsteps and music and intercoms all mush together.
The first person I see in the store is a woman walking very quickly with her phone hanging from her neck on some kind of handbag strap. I can see all her apps. Three younger women walk by slowly, laughing, one of them pushing a kid in a little black car while he plays on his iPad. They are enjoying themselves, but they take up a lot of space. I dip behind a mannequin in skin-tight jeans to get around them.
Passed the escalators within the store, I see the opening to the main atrium that guides shoppers on their journey through retail heaven. To the right, there is a floor-to-ceiling poster for lingerie with the model doing a rather poor job of advertising the product given that she’s not wearing anything. Directly across from the Nordstrom is the Lululemon store. I know that, nowadays, for a man to buy clothes from the Lemon is not unusual—I’ve heard the pants are rather comfortable. (Whether they are dress code is still up for debate. I’m sure Mr. Lengel and Ms. Kenna have some opinions.) I still find it a little odd to buy clothes from what was traditionally a high-end women’s workout apparel store.
For the sake of gathering data on the average Mall shopper, I reluctantly go in. The man who greets me is friendly. His gray hair is gelled in a dramatic swoosh and his figure fits snugly into a suit of tight-fitting spandex. I didn’t need any help finding anything, thank you. Every store in the Mall has its own music, and the Lemon, while selling men’s clothing, plays something similar to the women’s department at Nordstrom: thumping techno club music.
Each mannequin has a perfect physique, with the classic yoga pants stretched across overly full buttocks. Naturally, most of the people shopping in the store are wearing the brand, except for one man at the register. He’s an older gentleman, clearly buying something for his wife or daughter, as his charcoal pinstripe suit and Italian loafers suggest a style that skews more towards affluence than athleisure. He sticks out, and his ignorance of the merchandise draws the clerk from behind the counter. While taking note of all this on my pad, the greeter man approaches me again. He asks the same question, albeit with a smile more suspicious than friendly. I take this as my cue to leave.
I turn right out of the store and down the hallway to the new main section. I’ve only been here fifteen minutes, and I’ve already seen a young man in his General Issue. We make polite eye contact and carry on with our business. Turning right again at the intersection, I enter one of the more enjoyable mall spaces. There is a smoothie shop and an ice cream parlor, all surrounded by branded stores pretending to be cute boutiques. This is one of the older places in the Mall. You can tell from the large, stained-glass dome and the network of ironwork keeping it in place. In the summer, the light can be rather warm, but in January, it only provides natural light and a good example of turn-of-the-century grand architecture. It’s pretty.
Some people walk down the hall with shopping bags filled with God-knows-how-many thousands of dollars worth of clothing, wearing the most recent trends in ironic high fashion streetwear, or whatever new title they give “on-trend.”
Up ahead on the ceiling, there are in large capital letters the names of the big four department stores at the other end of the Mall: Neiman Marcus, Lord and Taylor, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. I’m partial to Neiman, myself. Also at this end of the hallway are all the stores for the international crowd. Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s, Bottega Veneta—I could go on, but I don’t want you to feel any more plebeian, which is how you feel as you walk past stores with handbags on pedestals and shoes which see better care than my aunt’s manicured fingernails. Some people walk down the hall with shopping bags filled with God-knows-how-many thousands of dollars worth of clothing, wearing the most recent trends in ironic high fashion streetwear, or whatever new title they give “on-trend.” In this part of the Mall, it’s hard to remember that you’re not in Harrods.
I’ve always been fascinated by the security line outside of the Louis Vuitton store. I wondered why they felt the need to have extra security when other stores sell items that are just as valuable. And why is the line so long? Does it feel degrading to wait in line to purchase something so expensive? I can’t imagine anyone in that line waits long for anything, and yet here they are, solemnly standing as I walk past and guffaw at their taste. But this time, for whatever reason, there was no security, so I went inside.
The nice woman greets me at the door in a business suit. I almost miss her since she’s very short. I think like most people, I’m just here for the novelty, but I’ll let you know if I need help, thank you. There wasn’t any real organization of products in the store—no one room had one type of garment or accessory. However, everything did have a big L-V logo on it, if not multiple, and plenty of those clover things from the logo. Now, I appreciate a high-quality shoe or wallet or belt, but having things with big logos on them to show off isn’t my taste. I prefer cars with the badge-delete option, a stealth look that allows only people in the know to understand the significance. Then again, what do I know? I’m wearing a t-shirt and some Nike sneakers.
While there might not have been any security outside, there was plenty inside by the goods. In the back in between the jewelry and sneakers in a little hallway is a man who looks like Randy from “A Christmas Story” when his mother wraps him up in layers and layers of clothes before he goes outside. As casually as possible, like I can afford anything in the store, I walk by him and into the room with some of the sneakers.
I think I’ve seen some rappers wearing these, but outside of a music video, I can’t imagine any scenario where these would be functional. I conclude that these shoes, like any object without mechanical purpose, must be works of art.
I think I’ve seen some rappers wearing these, but outside of a music video, I can’t imagine any scenario where these would be functional. I conclude that these shoes, like any object without mechanical purpose, must be works of art. Some of them look like normal sneakers just after they’ve been put in a kiln for some time, glazed like strange pottery. They have wild colors and patterns like nothing I’ve ever seen. At first, it felt weird to take a picture of the shoe without context, but then I remember that all people do with these shoes is post pictures of them online, so I feel less out of place. I move along because it looks like someone actually wants to buy them, and I don’t want to be in the way of someone who can afford these things.
Back out in the main hall, I take a seat on a cushion next to a group of four elderly people and look back at the strange orange and brown world from which I just emerged (their stuff would look good on Mr. Trocano). The items in that store are treated like museum pieces, and yet I just walked in and casually tossed one around in my hands. It’s funny sometimes how much people value a brand or a style whether they own it or not. But then again, it’s natural to want nice things, to work towards reward and luxury. If that year-long effort culminates in a purchase of a fancy new belt, then that purchase feels good. Some look down their noses at flashy brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, wondering where the traditional loafers and modest handbags went.
It might not be for everyone, but who cares? Nice things, after all, are nice.
Like the people in the fancy stores, he has a trendy haircut and thin-framed gold glasses, a puffy jacket with a big logo on the sleeve and some wild sneakers.
As I gather my thoughts, I am reminded of the local and international communities that congregate in the mall. Randomly glancing up, I see Dr. DiNubile walking past the storefronts with a bag from the Vans store, presumably for Dylan. At the same time going the other way is a small group of Asian kids talking animatedly, one wearing a disposable face mask like you might grab from Kids First. Like the people in the fancy stores, he has a trendy haircut and thin-framed gold glasses, a puffy jacket with a big logo on the sleeve and some wild sneakers. Dr. DiNubile has on jeans and a leather jacket. I prefer his style.
Soon after, a new, young trio walk past me to the department store at the end of the hall. They wear trendy clothes, geometric haircuts, and generally robotic facial expressions that make them hard to tell apart. The girl among them has on a purple-and- orange-striped dress with high-top shoes and dyed-orange hair. Her friends are not as loudly dressed, but they do bear the names of the fancy stores on their sweatshirts. They walk with purpose, trying to be casual about their appearance as if it’s no big deal, like an artist with his head down on an album cover. Their mopey irony makes them stand out, but then they disappear behind the coat racks and mannequins in the store, maybe off to buy another sweatshirt or makeup. I guess department stores do have something for everyone.
At this part of the Mall, the din of people and footsteps is the loudest. The new high ceilings are probably designed in some way to take in the sound, but the slick black-and-white marble floor and the big glass windows for the Tiffany’s store make it so every voice is heard together. Walking straight down the hallway, just following the other shoppers, somehow, I end up in the line for ShakeShack. Those damn floor-plan designers, trying to make me buy a burger. I will not fall prey to the lures of big business. You can’t just funnel me into your system! It does smell pretty good, though. And for 4:30 in the afternoon, the line stretches out surprisingly far. Far enough that getting through without stopping is a challenge.
It’s kind of funny that the Mall, a place for spending and leisure, can wear people out.
It was all part of their master plan, I know it.
It’s kind of funny that the Mall, a place for spending and leisure, can wear people out. You’re just walking around and looking at clothes and things, and yet everyone sitting on a couch or in a chair at the shiny new food court looks gassed. I guess it’s like how traveling somehow makes people tired. Sitting on a plane or in a car, walking from station to station, sitting again, and by the end of it all, exhaustion. I guess the Mall is about as big as an airport, and it certainly could play the role of an international terminal. In the food court, while surrounded by a burger joint, salad bar, and pizzeria, I hear Spanish, an Indian dialect, Mandarin, something from Eastern Europe.
At my high table in the middle of it all, like a hawk on top of a steeple, I look out over the grand atrium stalking for noteworthy prey. At my table, there is another hawk. A dark blue sweatshirt and jeans. He looks down at his phone now and then, but other than that, there is nothing in front of him. All that distinguishes him are his periodic exhales, which he forces through the trilling of his lips. We briefly make eye contact, and I think we have a mutual understanding of each other’s goals for our trips to the mall. We say nothing.
There’s a middle-aged man with all kinds of devices out: a big book, a notepad, phone, iPad with keyboard. He makes many annotations while I watch, and periodically he looks around, as though to see if anyone is annotating him. The woman to my immediate left is eating a salad. She’s dressed in all black business wear and drinks a glass of lemonade. She never looks up. Once finished, she downs her drink and makes sure to push her chair in. She disappears into the crowd. I look to check back in with my man in the blue but he is gone, too.
The couple on my right is in an unsettled state. They cannot agree on something, I know not what, and hoping to dodge anything that might come flying from their vicinity, I remove myself from the table and head towards one of the communal couches. I notice a man in a burgundy beanie drawing with a thick, wooden pen in a sketchbook. How nice. He’s drawing the scene in front of him, all the difficult angles of the modern mall aesthetic. I’ve seen people do this at an airport, but they are waiting and have nothing else to do. This man has sought out his craft—this is his activity for the afternoon.
I sit on a couch with my back to the artist. A column of greenery divides us. Peering through the shrubbery—don’t forget, I’m still in the Mall, not the rainforest—I get a better glance at his pad. He’s not drawing the hallway and the stores. He’s drawing people. Just quick sketches from the waist up, not spending more than a couple of minutes on each, I imagine, for his page is full of figures, and it looks like he’s already gone through multiple sheets. Some have faces, some don’t; Some glasses or a striped shirt. Each of his people has only a few distinguishable characteristics. Just the ones you notice in passing. No one notices the man.
This is a comfortable couch. I imagine it is supposed to lull the sitter into a restful, meditative state, one that allows the person to gather their thoughts, reset their priorities, and get back out there and shop. I have no such inclinations. Instead, I notice the people next to me, an older couple on their phones, taking a rest like me. Then, carrying some white and brown drink from the coffee shop in the court, their son arrives, phone in hand, headphones around his neck, with a plain appearance. The father, a guy who looks like he owns a gun, lets out a bear-like grunt.
“There you are,” says the mother, “where have you been?”
“I was just walking around, Mom. Relax.” The kid has a buzzcut and an overall dopey face.
“Your mother was so worried.”
“I’m tired. Can we just sit for a little bit?”
But the parents get up, commencing a long walk back to the car followed by an even longer ride home filled with scolding and awkward silence.
I sit there for another twenty minutes or so. I think three people come and go from the couch. Eventually, the man with the sketchpad leaves, too. He’s gone through three more sheets of paper since I sat down. By this time of day, most of the people walk with heavy feet and tired eyes, although a few still have some life left in them, mostly the kids. The store directly across from me has a funny sign about the Astros stealing their sign. There’s a small group gathered around the CBD kiosk down the hall. When the mother with her baby and toddler sitting next to me are rejoined by Dad and leave, I rise from my steeple of awareness, stretch, and head back to the car.
Fresh air. It’s cool, crisp, and still damp. The lights are on for the Nordstrom sign now, giving each big capital letter a halo. I’ll be able to see it from Mulholland Drive. The windy sounds of the highways around the Mall are refreshing coming from the din in the stores. In my car, there is silence.
Why would anyone think the mall is fun? Everything’s expensive, parking’s a pain, it’s a long walk to anywhere. But of course, we locals are not anyone. There’s a reason that the inside of the Mall doesn’t feel like Merion or Bryn Mawr or South Philly: it’s full of visitors, spectators, amazed at the show we Philadelphians, we Americans, express ourselves in the modern-day market.
The locals don’t like it because we see it every day. For these others, whether they’re coming from 50 miles or 5,000 miles, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s the largest mall in the country—there’s literally nothing else like it. Like everything in life, to enjoy the Mall, one must experience it in moderation. Too much time there and the Gucci becomes the GAP. Here, celebrities sometimes make an appearance, and every big name in fashion has a store. Now and then, buying something is fun.
Nice things are nice, after all. And we, the locals, the Chancellors of retail Mecca, we get our own benefits, for unlike Hajj, which is one week a year, the Mall is always there. Just like going down the shore or up to the mountains, a local makes a run to the Mall. For us, it is not the fancy stores or size that appeals to us. It is something more intimate. It’s seeing a person you know in a sea of people you don’t. It’s blending in while knowing you’re in your backyard. It’s the endless opportunity to look at someone and think: who are you? The real reason the Mall draws us here is each other.
This piece was inspired by David Foster Wallace’s article in Harper’s Magazine, “A Ticket to the Fair.”