DOTHAN, AL, January 12, 2013 — I had some Christmas gift exchanges to make this year, so I headed off for our quaint little town square shopping center that extends across three counties, has its own zip code, a fire department and a park ‘n ride lot. This is a rural area, malls near cities are even larger.
In the parking lot I witnessed two behemoth SUVs challenging each other like angry mountain goats, horns blaring, for the right to bully a nervous Prius away from a space. I drive a tiny sports car and decided it was safer to park in the outer zone and walk the five-mile distance to the stores.
I had to return an undersized sweater that had obviously been re-gifted several times since the 1980s, a crystal punch bowl (does anyone make punch anymore?) and a deluxe TV remote control device that only had instructions in Korean. It was a simple trip and the worst part would be just getting to the mall itself, or so I hoped.
About halfway across the parking lot I started to think about the whole modern experience of shopping. Some of us baby boomers predate shopping malls by just a few years and can still remember when shopping meant roaming around downtown with your mother yanking on your arm. I’m sure someone will correct me on this, but covered malls started arriving sometime in the late 1950’s and were quite a novelty. Until that time the closest thing to one-stop shopping was a big department store, many of which are now gone.
I’ve done some research and found that shopping malls actually date to the Greek agora, but the Romans elevated shopping to an art form with giant malls, called spendi maximus, where you could find everything from marble urns to purple cloth. Roman’s described a trip to the mall as Emo usque ad mortem, which literally meant “shop ‘til you drop.”
Like today, Roman malls were popular hangout spots for teens. Girls wore very short togas and boys turned their headbands backwards in rebellion to their parents. Adult women were highly attracted to comen getit (post-holiday sales), and their version of the modern cash machine was an argentum lendit tua or moneylender.
The Romans of course didn’t celebrate our modern holidays, but they had their own local events, including Femina Virginis en Volcanus in Pompeii, Cristianus y Lionus in Rome and Gaulus Roastia in the northern territories. Apparently most of their holidays involved gifting, as well as returning gifts afterward, much like today.
Most shopping in Rome was controlled by women, but there were shopping areas, called Searsari, for men to check out tools, weapons and chariot parts. This was not to be confused with Littlus Caesar’s, a chain of pizza delivery stores owned by the famous Roman leader Julius, who also invented an orange drink still available today.
I’m pleased to say that my trip only took five hours since I was able to hitch a ride on the back of a pickup truck for the last three miles of the parking lot. Inside, the mall was crowded but most people were in the food court watching toddlers spit up the remnants of Happy Meals while the stores were more or less empty.
I was able to exchange the sweater for an extra-large (I’m working on it) and I changed the punch bowl for a more practical wooden salad bowl. The television remote was exchanged for an electric stapler that I’m sure I will have a use for some day.
On the way back out I was startled by a large talking sign that seemed to recognize me and knew about the sweater I had just exchanged. A video screen popped on with a nicely dressed young man who said “If you need extra large sizes we’d like to recommend…” I walked quickly away and didn’t hear the end of it. I especially didn’t want to know how a digital sign had details about my sweater.
I looked back over my shoulder and watched the next shopper being video mugged. I wondered if the Romans had anything similar. Perhaps Julius Caesar’s demise had nothing to do with politics after all. Perhaps he was just a victim of some very aggressive retail practices. That thought made me feel a little bit better about the talking sign as I tried to hitch a ride back to my car.
Note: Analysts report that holiday sales for 2012 were the worst since the height of the recession in 2008, which is bringing massive sales and discounts during January. Concern about the US debt and shopper fatigue are being given as the primary reasons. I was not able to find any statistics on how many shoppers this year gave up, exhausted, just trying to get in from the parking lot.
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