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Death of the Mall: Valley YouTuber captures the pain, nostalgia of dead retail spaces

YouTube channel Retail Archaeology documents the slow demise of malls and strip malls throughout the Valley and across Arizona.
Credit: Erik Pierson via Retail Archaeology on YouTube

PHOENIX — Fiesta Mall in Mesa was Erik Pierson’s mall growing up. 

He’d meet up with friends there on a hot Saturday afternoon, maybe get into a little bit of trouble (but not too much, of course), enjoy being a kid and all that sweet, free air conditioning.

At some point, though, Pierson stopped going to Fiesta Mall. And then 15 years went by. Out of the blue, a friend of his who had a job delivering office supplies to the mall asked him if he had been there recently.

When the friend described the eeriness of a once-vibrant mall now mostly boarded up and silent, Pierson had to see it for himself.

“It was just so weird. I had to take pictures and film some of it cause I’d never seen anything like it before,” said Pierson.

Pierson ended up posting the video of Fiesta Mall to YouTube and it quickly became a hit. 

From that video on, Pierson has made hundreds of videos for his YouTube channel, Retail Archaeology, documenting the slow demise of malls and strip malls across Arizona and adjacent states.

What started out as a hobby for Pierson has ballooned into a channel that has nearly 100,000 subscribers and gets hundreds of thousands of views.

Credit: Erik Pierson via Retail Archaeology on YouTube

Pierson says the interest in his channel, and the many others like it on YouTube, stems mostly from nostalgia but also the morbid curiosity of watching something so familiar die. 

“You went to the mall to hang out, to see friends, to kill a Saturday afternoon. It was a communal place and I think a lot of that is being lost, especially with teenagers,” said Pierson.

A mall well-documented by Pierson is one of Phoenix’s most iconic malls, Metrocenter Mall. Metrocenter was built in 1973 and was the gathering spot for Valley teens in the '80s and '90s. 

It had everything a teenager looking to kill a Saturday could ask for: the most popular stores, an arcade, an ice rink, a Cinnabon and fame (it was heavily featured in the 1989 movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

Credit: Erik Pierson via Retail Archaeology on YouTube

Pierson remembers it as the mall his dad took him to as a preteen to play video games at the arcade. In two recent videos, he got to go inside Metrocenter after it had been closed for about six months. It was his first-time documenting what a truly dead mall looks like from the inside.

“It was eerie. It was really shocking to see how quickly the property deteriorated. There was already graffiti all over the place, a thick layer of dust over everything, leaky pipes. Also, they were still pumping music into large portions of the mall so that was really bizarre that there was music playing when it looks like a zombie apocalypse,” said Pierson.

Credit: Erik Pierson via Retail Archaeology on YouTube

Malls like Metrocenter and the stores inside them have been in trouble for a while, but the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating their demise. In May 2020, only a few months into the pandemic, Nordstrom announced it was closing various stores across the country including the one at Chandler Fashion Center Mall.

At the beginning of June 2020, Metrocenter announced it was closing, by the end of the month a nostalgic last cruise around the mall held by former self-described mall rats closed the place down. And by January 2021 all items that could be auctioned off from Metrocenter had been sold to other retailers and collectors of mall memorabilia.

“For malls that are struggling already, it’s definitely accelerating their demise. Metrocenter is a perfect example of that. I think everyone knew that at some point Metrocenter was going to close but with COVID it just brought that demise so much earlier,” said Pierson.

However, blaming the pandemic and the rise of Amazon and other online retailers for the closure of so many malls and retail spaces is too easy, according to Pierson.

“A lot of malls really started struggling in the late ’90s and it had nothing to do with Amazon in so much as it had to do with that in a lot of places they built too many malls. We didn’t need as many as they built,” said Pierson.

Pierson acknowledges that sometimes shopping online is more economical and safer given that the pandemic is still raging across the country. But that by creating the YouTube channel he sees the direct impact shopping local has on his community and he hopes it inspires others to do the same.

“It’s not just the malls that are struggling. It’s the strip malls, the grocery store chains. I want to show people that it’s not just systemic of one type of thing, it’s an issue that affects all corners of retail. And I don’t want to tell people not to use Amazon or online shopping in general, just don’t forget about your local businesses.”

To check out the Retail Archaeology YouTube channel, head here. For a more in-depth talk with Pierson about his channel and his favorite dead mall, watch his interview here:

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