A MALL TURNED INSIDE OUT

What happens when you take an indoor mall and turn it inside out? You get the Totem Mall in Fort St. John, BC. Every time I walk through it I?m waiting for some guy to jump out from behind a potted plant with the words ?Candid Camera? stamped on his vest.

This mall didn?t start out bizarre. In fact, the only unusual thing about it was how it had been thoughtfully positioned so that it centered itself in the deepest part of a valley shaped parking lot. Maybe the idea was that shoppers would be more likely to enter the mall if they could walk downhill to get inside. It certainly worked that way for the snow and rain, but unfortunately precipitation doesn?t do much shopping and worse, it only flows one direction.

Water issues aside, like so many other small community malls, the Totem Mall was anchored on one end by Safeway and the other by Zellers, with a smattering of luggage, photography, clothing, book and jewellery shops in-between and, of course, it had that one important element that northerners appreciate – the great heated indoors.

Mall bashers bemoaned the loss of downtown shopping charm, but I bemoaned the loss of frozen digits more. I found it irresistibly charming to come home with food, clothing, and all 10 fingers and toes intact.

Then things went frightfully awry. First Safeway moved into a place of its own, complete with a Starbucks and hardwood flooring. It was disappointing to say the least, but when a theatre moved into the vacated space, we consoled ourselves with popcorn and matinees. Then Wal-Mart bulldozed its way into town, sending Zellers fleeing over the hill dragging its blue light specials behind it. And that?s when the mall began to go strange. It began to turn itself inside out.

First M & M Meat Shops, then a dollar store and finally a furniture rental place positioned itself into the far corner of the mall. Since all three were blocked off on the back by the movie theatre and the side by Mark?s Work Warehouse, they were only accessible by an outside door. A bit odd for a mall, but what else could be done? Then Mark?s Work Warehouse – perhaps annoyed by the popcorn fumes or confused by their neighbour?s outside doors – up and moved themselves down the mall into bigger digs, but this time instead of having a mall entrance, they nailed up a big white wooden wall instead. A wall! Inside the mall! A wall where a door should be. To be fair, there is a door in the wall, but stencilled on it is the word ?receiving.? Merchandise not customers. So now the trucks have to unload their cargo, bring it inside the mall and knock on the door in the white wooden wall, while the customers have to go outside the mall to get inside.

As if that weren?t crazy enough, a college decided to move one of its classrooms into the mall complete with an inside entrance. Continue down the mall and the shops once again open to the inside until you get to where Zellers used to be and are confronted by a wall covered in tastefully nailed up sheets of primed drywall. If Zeller?s former space was still empty this would make sense. Not fashion sense, but practical sense. Except it isn?t empty. You know it isn?t because when you drive into the sloping parking lot you see a brand new sign where it used to say Zellers, now reading Staples instead. However, you can only access the grand purveyor of computers, paper and staples, from an outside entrance.

So now you can go inside the mall to see a movie or take a college course, but you have to go outside to buy work clothes, food and computers, and then back inside for books and jewellery. The Totem Mall; where you don?t need the movie theatre to escape reality.