Last January in the midst of a blizzard, my toddler grandson and I found the only safe space near Burlington, VT area: an indoor mall. Pushing his stroller through the corridors, zigzagging through clacking toys, overpriced kiddie togs, and alluring fast food, I remembered the many hours I’d spent walking mall floors with my own children. I actually think my older daughter’s first word may have been “mall.”
And then, after exhausting the commericial clatter, we saw it: a library!
It was like finding an island in a salty sea. Leander, my grandson, could be freed from the reigns of his stroller. We both knew what to do in a library, especially one with a children’s area. I found myself a comfy chair, and Leander went to work on the lego tables, puzzles, and movable cushions. Together with another little boy, he built a castle out of Styrofoam blocks. He even found some books—and we read some together.
We spent a good hour in the library, happily exercising our muscles and our minds—and without paying some exorbitant admission fee. Even our lunch was affordable: the mall’s flagship restaurant, just across the aisle from the library, turned out to be IHOP, a perfect choice when your date is a two-year-old. It was a perfect day for grandma and grandson—and, I suspect, an equally good one for mom and dad.
Bottom line: if I had to be trapped indoors all day with an active toddler without paying a fortune, this option couldn’t be beat.
Libraries in Malls Are A Thing
I went home to Maryland and glowed about this experience to my friend and colleague Maribel, who happens to be the operations manager of the libraries in our county. She kept mum, but it must have been hard—because she knew that several months later, our library system was planning to open a branch in Annapolis’ Westfield Mall. It sits in a 3,000 square-foot storefront across from Under Armour and near Crate and Barrel.
Our mall library (named Discoveries: The Library at the Mall) opened in late April. Maribel told me that it is the first mall library in Central Maryland, part of a new wave of making libraries relevant to contemporary lifestyles.
Lifestyles aside, the idea makes perfect sense to me, given all that empty retail space in dying indoor malls.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. It turns out that libraries in malls are a thing. In Washington State, the King County Library opened its first shopping mall library in 2001 at the Crossroads Mall. That was after the mall offered space—and it was a great idea. Mall libraries have been popping up all over the USA since then.
The American Library Association has a wiki on public libraries in shopping malls—although I do not think it is up to date. They list 20-or-so examples, none of which includes the one in Anne Arundel County or South Burlington, VT.
Saving the Shopping Mall?
Whether libraries in malls are good for literacy and literature, they are certainly good for libraries as insitutions. While not always full-service facilities, they make books, computers, and other library services available to people who might no otherwise visit a more traditional facility.
Libraries in malls are also good for communities. Besides relieving desperate childcare providers, they provide refuges for non-shopping spouses and mall employees on breaks. People may drop by to search online for jobs, research a purchase, bring their kids in for story hour, or even, yes, check-out or return books. Some of these libraries even allow patrons to bring in a cup of coffee to sip while web-surfing.
Above all, these libraries are good for malls. They may, in fact, be saving them by making sad, emptying malls into places people want to be. For a long time, of course, we’ve been seeing tiny branch libraries in strip malls. There is even a library in DC’s Watergate Hotel. I suppose a library filling empty retail space in the dying indoor mall is just a logical extension–but somehow without an external door the close quarters to commerce feel foreign.
No more though. Libraries and malls may be a brilliant mix. It is telling that the Galleria at Sunset Mall in Nevada even won a Gold U.S. MAXI Award from the International Council of Shopping Centers (who knew there was such a group?). The reason had nothing to do with being a good library, or about providing public services. It was all about the economic downturn and the shuttering of anchor stores at traditional malls, with public libraries riding to the rescue.
Regardless, as a writer, book lover, and grandmother, I am grateful. And I will now take my charges to the mall in better conscience.