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Published June 05 2012

A day in the life of a mall rat: Reporter finds it’s not just shopping that brings people to West Acres

FARGO - I’m hardly someone who enjoys shopping. I get rather impatient when having to deal with large crowds. And food court fare doesn’t always seem to agree with my delicate digestive system.

So it’s weird finding myself spending an entire day, as I recently did, at West Acres Shopping

Center for a slice-of-life look at a day as a teen mall rat.

Fresh off a year of school, these boys and girls of summer are flocking to the mall for a hangout that’s safe, free and out of the elements.

So I dressed in my best teen-going-to-the-mall disguise, and set off to spend a day living the dream as a full-time American consumer.

9:15 a.m.

I roll into the strangely empty West Acres parking lot an hour before stores would begin opening. One benefit of arriving so early is that at least I’d have a good parking spot.

As I scope out my options for breakfast, I realize, almost too late, that I’m directly in the path of four mall-walkers.

They bear down on me at breakneck speed in what seems like a game of chicken.

I get out of the way just in the nick of time.

It’s a jungle, the mall. Only the strong survive here.

At this time of the day, there are few teens but plenty of tennis shoe-wearing adults. Small clumps of white-haired folks having coffee are spread throughout the food court, and I make my way over to one of the tables.

The group, made up of two couples – Deanne and Jerry Larson and Marian and Wally Salzwedel, all of Fargo, comes to the mall every weekday from about 8 to 10 a.m.

For the first hour, they mall walk, and for the second hour, they relax with coffee and just chat.

The Larsons have been coming to the mall for about four years, and the Salzwedels for closer to seven.

The group has made the mall their daily destination, Jerry Larson says, because it’s a large and welcoming indoor space well-suited for social interaction.

“We could walk outside, but then we’d miss the social aspect,” he says.

“Monday through Friday, you see the same people every morning,” Deanne Larson says, which makes the mall feel like a little family of sorts.

10:20 a.m.

Most of the stores opened about 10 minutes ago, and the crowd is starting to pick up.

I pack up my computer in the food court and make a couple of rounds through the mall, looking for things to do to pass the time, like a teen with no car and little money. Being a journalist isn’t much different, I realize.

Turns out, there is more to do than you might think.

Aside from the television and the large aquarium down by Sears, the player piano by Herbergers or the kaleidoscopes by JC Penney, there’s also the mini library in the center of the mall, with several shelves full of regional books.

One particular book there caught my eye: “Just How Much Scrap Lumber Does a Man Need to Save?”

I’ve always wondered.

11:30 a.m.

Of all the people I saw in the mall on Friday, these two stood out the most: Noah Fiedler and Ethan Curtis, two guys who had just finished their last day of fourth grade the previous day at Rothsay, Minn., Public Schools.

The boys were taking laps through the mall, wearing some huge fake mustaches that they had purchased earlier in the morning.

When asked about their facial hair, both boys shrug as if it wasn’t a big deal, and proceeded to ask me for directions to a store I didn’t recognize.

Needing to protect my cover story as a mall rat, I give them directions.

I hope they made it.

2:45 p.m.

The mall’s gotten quieter as the noon crowd thins out, but I’m still finding plenty of things to do.

After eating lunch, I’ve spent the last couple of hours people-watching in the center seating area and watching the movie in the Roger Maris museum. Who says there’s nothing to do here?

3:50 p.m.

After checking out the mall’s various artwork, (Alissa Sorum, the mall’s marketing director, told me that all photographs are by local photographers, and that more than 100 local and regional artists are represented throughout the building), I wander over to a group of teens sitting in the center court to find out directly from the source what makes a mall rat want to spend time here.

Angel Guarneros, Angel Ramirez and Anna Meyer, all eighth-graders at Ben Franklin Middle School in Fargo, were spending the first day of their summer vacation here, and the three say they’ll likely be spending a lot more time in the mall this summer.

Asked about what exactly the mall’s appeal is for teens such as themselves, the girls’ answer sounds familiar to what I heard from the older crowd earlier in the day – it’s simply a nice place to socialize with other teens their age.

“It’s big, and you can walk around and not get in trouble for it,” Ramirez says.

4:45 p.m.

It’s not just teen girls who enjoy the mall, it turns out. I make my way over to a bench in the food court, where ninth-grader Jake Roy, eighth-grader Isaac Roy and 10th-grader Wesley Possen, all of Fargo, admit they come here two or three times a week, sometimes hanging out for four or five hours at a time.

“It’s something to do,” Possen says.

“It’s an open space, where we can see other people,” adds Jake Roy.

The mall’s appeal for both young and old was starting to make sense to me.

I still don’t enjoy large crowds, but I was beginning to see West Acres as more than just a shopping center. It’s also a community space.

6 p.m.

As my workday winds down, I realize I’m actually quite tired. Aside from all the socializing with cliques both teen and senior citizen, I also had my picture taken in the mall’s photo booth (by myself, so I could remember the experience), shopped a little (but like a good mall rat didn’t actually buy anything) and played with puppies in the pet store.

And as a result, I’m beat.

Being a mall rat is exhausting. How do these teens do it?

I’m ready for a nap. Where’s the mattress store? I wonder what my sleep number is.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535