Mall Memories

by Terry Nguyen
Image by Walden Green. [Aeropostale’s signature scent “Promise Me” against a iridescent, mercurial background. There are Auntie Anne’s pretzels on the label of the perfume bottle.]

This essay is part of Scent Access Memory, our editorial series with Dirt.

When the retail apocalypse finally comes for my humble hometown mall, my one wish is for Auntie Anne’s to be spared. My hope is, in the mixed-use residential complex that will inevitably replace Main Place Mall, Auntie Anne’s will survive. The aroma of brown butter, sugar, and cinnamon is as irresistible as it is timeless. 

The allure is purely olfactory, of course. Auntie Anne’s pretzels always smell better than they taste, though I succumb to the temptation every time. Upon entering the mall, it envelops my nostrils like a warm hug. The kiosk’s glowing sign imbues a warmth upon the surrounding commercial environment, softening the cool-toned lighting, glass displays, and ceramic tiles. A fixture of American malls since the ’90s, Auntie Anne’s beckons you to idle and indulge. Stay awhile, the scent says. Smell the pretzels.

This past December, I walked into a luxury Southern California mall that smells like a fancy hotel lobby. My parents often took me there as a child to see the Christmas lights, but the linen-fresh scent evoked nothing in my memory. The commercial fragrance was unfamiliar and consistently fresh (I suspected nebulizing diffusers were planted throughout), without any hint of bleach or food court grease puncturing the sterile bergamot. Indeed, South Coast Plaza is not a “regular” suburban mall (though it is squarely located in the Orange County suburbs) but a “global shopping destination” with over 200 designer stores and boutiques. Instead of a food court, it boasts an artisanal churro stand, European-style bakeries, and white tablecloth restaurants, which are completely inodorous to passersby. 

South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, CA. Photo Arnold C, courtesy Wikipedia Commons. [The clean, shiny interior of a mall with potted trees, a mini carousel, and netted balloons.]

There is no obvious olfactory persuasion at play to convince shoppers to eat and linger at South Coast Plaza. The designer-clad clientele has money to spend and is intent on spending it. An Auntie Anne’s or a Cinnabon or a Mrs. Fields might be welcomed by the kids, but I suspect the middle-class nature of these sugary sweets wouldn’t sit right with the health-conscious elite. They prefer the deodorizing essence of a juice bar.

South Coast Plaza will, without a doubt, survive the retail apocalypse. Walking around its shiny, spotless floors, I passed by Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, and Abercrombie & Fitch, retailers that defined my teenage mall-rat years. Yet I felt oddly detached towards their presence, as if the Abercrombie & Fitch was a Rehearsal-like simulation and not the real thing: The wood-paneled storefront revealed a bright interior, from which I could not get a whiff of A&F’s late-aughts signature musk. After a quick Google search, I learned the store had replaced its iconic “Fierce” cologne with a gender-neutral, white bergamot fragrance. Without Fierce’s intoxicating fumes, my fondness for A&F, or a past version of the brand, had dissipated. 

It may be that my “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were," to quote Proust, but what I cherished most about the mall was the baptism of synthetic scents that clung onto my pores and hair. It was the only place I came home from that earned a “You smell good” from my mom, instead of the usual “You smell like wind,” which was code for “Go shower and change into your indoor clothes.” 

It didn’t matter which mall (the distinct architecture of the various SoCal malls I frequented have grown blurred in my memory, and their demise has only rendered them interchangeable). The scented aura I carried back was always blatantly synthetic and vaguely antiseptic. But there’s a powdery sweetness to it that my mom, the most frequent mall-goer I know, continues to be delighted by. 

If I could bottle up my mall-rat years, “Fierce” would be an unforgettable top note, alongside Aeropostale’s underrated, spring-like “Promise Me” and Victoria’s Secret’s flirty “Bombshell,” whose soapy florals were the defining 2010s-era scent of every suburban girls’ locker room. I also can’t forget Bath and Body’s dizzying array of fruity vanilla scents that, during its semi-annual sale, almost render me anosmic. (My mom once purchased too many bottles of “Sweet Pea,” a light, earthy pear-like scent, and began spraying it all over the laundry to use it up. For several months, my clothes smelled like I worked in a flower shop, which sounds pleasant but made me an insect target.) 

[Inside an Aeropostale, where zip-up hoodies line the clothes racks, folded piles of t-shirts blanket the tables, and, presumably, the smell of “Promise Me” overwhelms the nostrils.]

At South Coast, I tried to replicate my mall-rat scent by spritzing “Fierce” and “Bombshell” on my wrists, before walking into Bath and Body for a full-body effect. I left smelling good, artificial but good. But without the suburban mall’s less-than-savory middle notes — the stuffy carpet odor of a JCPenney changing room, the fishy residue of pleather shoes, the suffocating Axe-like exhaust of cologne from the cheap perfume kiosks — the top notes quickly evaporated into the crisp, perfumed air. Nostalgia, much like a scent, is a complex emotional cocktail that is not so easily imitated or duped.

Perhaps the top notes could’ve been redeemed had there been an Auntie Anne’s, Mrs. Fields, or Orange Julius around, the persistent, saccharine base notes of my early memories of mass consumption. The scents emitted from these kiosks reflect the childlike excitement I carried to the mall, when I was guided by pure instinct and not yet commodity fetishism. I think this is what our collective nostalgia for the late-aughts mall is about: We miss the scent of possibility, a time when shopping was a game of discovery and chance. You always left the mall smelling good.

Terry Nguyen is an essayist, critic, and poet from Garden Grove, California. She works in Brooklyn and is a contributing editor for Dirt Media.