The Full MOA

Think Black Friday was bad? Try living at the Mall of America for a whole week

For many Twin Cities residents, the Mall of America means one thing: Your out-of-town friends are visiting and want to see the cities' most obvious landmark.

Our much-maligned mega-mall represents a highly evolved, if slightly mutated, specimen of a genus that sprung into being more than 80 years ago. The first modern shopping centers began sprouting up in America in the 1920s when car-owning shoppers began fleeing crowded and dirty city centers. The rise of suburbia expedited malls' popularity. During the '80s, super-malls came into vogue, as exemplified by the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, opened in 1981—to this day, it is the only mall in North America to best the MoA in total area. Eleven years later, our own colossus of consumerism opened its doors on the consecrated grounds of the old Met Stadium.

It's true that Southdale Center in Edina, opened in 1956, holds the distinction of being the world's first climate-controlled enclosed shopping mall. And yes, Eden Prairie Center is where Kevin Smith filmed Mallrats. But the Mall of America, despite now being "only" the 14th-largest mall in the world in terms of total leaseable area, is the one Twin Cities shopping precinct that manages to pull double duty as a tourist destination.

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In many ways, the MoA is a distillation of America itself. Many of our nation's idiosyncrasies—both good and bad—can be observed the moment you step inside its hallowed halls: our preoccupation with jaw-gaping enormity, our irrepressible capitalist spirit, our cultural diversity, our insistence on wearing jorts even in mid-November.

But how to go about wrapping your head around a monolith that employs more than 11,000 workers, including clerks, security guards, tour guides, and ride operators? That spans 4.2 million square feet? That rakes in almost $2 billion a year from visitors? That, according to an awesomely arbitrary stat rundown on its website, can fit seven Yankee Stadiums into it?

One way is to eat, breathe, drink, and sleep in the place for seven days, inhabiting it during all open hours, 10:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Which is exactly what I did. I realized going in that boredom would be my greatest adversary. These misgivings were compounded by the guidelines I was determined to follow:

  • I was not to leave the building for any amount of time during open hours.
  • I was to at least step foot in every one of the mall's 520-plus stores.
  • I was required to sleep a minimum of one night in the mall. Somehow.
  • No outside food, water, or alcohol. Everything consumed must be purchased onsite.
  • No iPod or other distractions allowed.
  • No poking fun at the mall's Santa Clauses.
  • Not even the one that kind of looks like a pedophile.

Day One

As I stepped inside, finding respite from the bitter morning cold, I took solace in the fact that at least my new home would be climate-controlled. I was excited to discover from mall officials that there's no need to heat the building. The skylights above the sprawling amusement park in the mall's core provide warmth via the greenhouse effect. In addition, the body heat emitted from the teeming hordes of shoppers—typically 100,000 or so per day—keep the temp at a balmy 70 degrees even on cloudy days.

The latter is not a pleasurable tidbit for the queasy to ponder. It's one thing knowing that warmth is due to UV rays trapped inside the building. It's quite another to realize the coziness you're enjoying comes courtesy of carbon dioxide emitted from the toxic pores of the garlic-reeking yeti standing in front of you in line at Sbarro.

I pushed these thoughts aside and found my way to the Rainforest Café, an artifice of a restaurant chockfull of faux foliage, plaster rocks, and sadness. The plastic barstools are shaped and painted to resemble the torso or legs of assorted tigers, zebras, and giraffes. I sat atop what appeared to be a decapitated mountain gorilla and tried to gather my strength for the week ahead.

The bartender struck up a conversation. I asked about the types of people that most often come through. According to mall officials, about 40 percent of visitors are tourists, mostly from Canada, England, Japan, Germany, and Scandinavia. The bartender confirmed a relative paucity of locals.

"They do their shopping at Southdale and whatnot," he said. "Just too hectic here, I guess. Spend too much time in here and you'll go insane."

I thought about the bartender's words as I walked out of the dank restaurant and into the bright mall corridor.

No, I thought. Not me. I won't go insane. There's too much fun to be had in this place.

Thus began my hurried meet-and-greets through a sizeable cross section of the mall's first-floor retailers. I started on the west side, a.k.a. The West Market, beginning at Nordstrom and making my way south toward Macy's.

"What can you tell me about this place?" I asked two clerks at Solstice, an uppity sunglasses retailer.

"Well," said Renae, a petite Laotian girl, exchanging a confused glance with her co-worker. "We've had a few celebrities come through here. Sydney Rice came in here and bought a $300 pair of Marc Jacobs. Brooke Hogan was here. But she didn't buy anything, 'cause she got mobbed by her fans."

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