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Missing My Mall

The sad truth is this: I’d rather be at a mall than almost anywhere.

As a teen, I logged more hours at the Sherman Oaks Galleria than I did in trigonometry class. Later, as a new mom, I’d schlep my infant to the Pacific View Mall in Ventura — through wretched rain — just to have somewhere dry to stroll.

Malls are the 3-D version of thumbing through your favorite magazine: At best, you find something delightful inside. At worst, you learn what’s current, what other people are interested in. And if you’re crazy-lucky, there’s a Hot Dog on a Stick in the food court.

On sunny days, I used to take my son to La Cumbre Plaza and amble. We’d buy a Mrs. Fields cookie, toss pennies in the fountain, pick up cards at Hallmark, and happily sniff the incense wafting from The Body Shop. It was our mall.

But we don’t go there much anymore. Ever since the recent “enhancement” project — which sent no-frills staples like KB Toys packing and welcomed high-end boutiques like Tiffany & Co. and BCBGMAXAZRIA — it feels like we’re trespassing on someone else’s mall now. Someone with far nicer shoes and a standing facial appointment.

“I don’t think it’s improved at all, just more overpriced stores that squeeze out us regular folks and cater to Hope Ranch,” says a friend of mine. “I’m just waiting for Sears to be replaced by Neiman Marcus.”

“I wish Red Robin were still there,” says another, “and that the regular working-class-folk atmosphere was not being replaced with the uppity Coach/Tiffany/Ruth’s Chris patina.”

“My boyfriend and I used to meet there at lunchtime and stroll through the stores and perhaps make a purchase or two,” says a young woman I know. “Now I just feel poor walking through the mall.”

Built in 1967, La Cumbre was purchased in 2004 by the Macerich Company, which owns 72 malls nationwide (including Pacific View and Thousand Oaks’ The Oaks). Its Web site defines La Cumbre’s new stores as “popular better retailers” that are “perfectly matched to the interests of this sophisticated community,” and boasts that the mall is located between the “affluent” neighborhoods of San Roque and Hope Ranch and “just minutes from the super-affluent city of Montecito, which has an average household income in excess of \$175,000.”

Those would be spine-tingling demographics, I’m sure, if only those moneyed masses were dropping wampum at the mall. But the slumped economy has made \$150 steak dinners and \$30,000 brooches seem silly; I don’t care how cute the little blue box is.

I recently spent an hour at La Cumbre during a weekday lunch hour and counted about 100 people roaming the plaza. Only 15 were carrying shopping bags — more from Sears than anywhere else. Of course, Louis Vuitton need only sell a single \$3,300 satchel to have a banner day, but are they even doing that? A mall insider tells me some high-end stores are exempt from paying rent during the down economy, while the few remaining locally owned businesses are still struggling to cough up the cash.

I called mall management to see if this was true. “What I can say,” noted corporate mall guy, “is that we work closely with the retailers we bring in to create leasing terms that help ensure they have long-term success.”

I see. And what sort of complaints has he heard from locals who miss their old stores? “I’ve heard consistently positive comments,” he insisted, “some more enthused than others.”

It’s funny, really. While the mall’s new offerings may not suit my friends or me, its spokesperson matches its new stores perfectly. Both of them are selling something I don’t buy.

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