Bookworm: ‘Fountain’ intriguing read harking back to ones’ childhood

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall”

  • By Alexandra Lange
  • c. 2022, Bloomsbury
  • $28, 320 pages

You never had trouble saying “goodbye.” Goodbye, paycheck! Goodbye to the space in your closet and kitchen, spare change from the couch, and the car console! Goodbye, everyone! You won't be back any time soon because you're heading for the mall now – although, as you'll see in the new book, “Meet Me by the Fountain” by Alexandra Lange, the mall just isn't what it used to be.

“Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” by Alexandra Lange.

Viktor Gruenbaum knew design. He'd fled the Nazis in Vienna in 1938, immigrated to New York, changed his surname, and almost immediately landed a job creating buildings for corporate exhibitors at the New York World's Fair. Then he worked as a designer for high-end boutiques and stores and, turning his eye toward the problems facing downtown stores versus suburban stores with more parking, Gruen saw a solution: he created the first mall.

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It “was a national event,” says Lange.

Within a very short time, other designers realized that shoppers perceived the mall as a “treat,” and they made it even more so. Rocks, ponds, and greenery were added to malls, along with park benches and mini-zoos. Child-friendly zones were created. Stores were required to upgrade or remodel every few years and underperforming stores were dropped, often in favor of national chains. Then, about twenty years after its creation, the mall itself began to morph into open-air marketplaces.

“Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” author Alexandra Lange.

This was, says Lange, both good and bad. Marketplaces revitalized downtowns and made use of abandoned or derelict buildings – but creators often ignored the three things that made such pedestrian malls work.

So if the mall needed to change, why not go bigger? Why not invite senior mall-walkers and teenagers flush with cash and young arcade gamers? In fact, what about offering public spaces for meetings, and movie theatres and restaurants for every budget?

It sounded great and shoppers loved it – until they didn't. In 1980, says Lange, the notion that the mall was “dying” was first raised in the media.

It wasn't the last time...

When was the last time you were in a mall? For most Americans, it was sometime this week and “Meet Me by the Fountain” explains how that happened.

Or, more specifically, how it happens, since malls have never stopped changing to become what shoppers want in the moment. Even the word, says author Alexandra Lange, is going out of favor. This shift has been for the better: malls of the 1960s were marred by racism; malls of the '80s, by a certain amount of blight. Still, despite all the mall killjoys who crow about its demise, Lange pooh-poohs any sort of death. Malls survive by adapting – something they've done well – but they can do better, she says, by tapping into nostalgia. That's one thing, she points out, that Americans love.

Reading this book is like looking in the nooks, crannies, and hidden hallways of your local shopping emporium with a critical eye. It's a hark back to your childhood in the most intriguing way. “Meet Me by the Fountain” is a very good buy.

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“In the Houses of Their Dead”

  • By Terry Alford
  • c. 2022, Liveright
  • $27.95, 320 pages

You're talking to yourself again. That's okay: it helps sort your thoughts, calm your brain, and settle your mind. But you're not just talking to yourself: it may sound funny but it's comforting to have one-sided conversations with people who would've shared their valuable wisdom if they were still alive. You talk to those who gone sometimes, and in “In the Houses of Their Dead” by Terry Alford, you'll see how that's a habit that's been around awhile.

Even for the early 1800s, Edwin Booth grew up in an unconventional household.

His father was an alcoholic actor who was prone to eccentricity, and he forced young Edwin to become his traveling companion and handler when the boy was just twelve years old. Edwin's mother had lost several her children to 19th-century diseases. His younger siblings – especially Asia and John Wilkes – were as melodramatic as their father. As you might expect, the family was drawn toward the new mania for spiritualism.

“In the Houses of Their Dead” by Terry Alford.

In 1848, after the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have heard the spirit of a dead man in the basement of their home, America became captivated by the idea that the living could communicate with those who had died. Seances became all the rage, complete with spectral knocking, otherworldly messages scratched in a medium's skin, and eerie photographs of loved ones hovering over grieving parents. Fans of spiritualism swore they were talking to the dead when they were being scammed.

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But just the idea – the mere chance – that she could speak to her dead sons made Mary Lincoln willing to try spiritualism. Her husband, Abraham, didn't put much faith in such things (though, to be fair, Abraham was unsettled in faith, period), but he followed Mary to seek mediums who could speak to Willie and Tad.

One of the mediums the Lincolns visited was Charles Colchester, a pseudonymous conman with quite a lengthy client list, including the actor John Wilkes Booth. And when Booth's rants and racism started to alarm Colchester, the medium subtly tried to warn the President ...

First, this: if you've come here expecting spooky stories and ghosties, you'll probably be mighty disappointed. “In the Houses of Their Dead” is not that kind of book.

Instead, author Terry Alford offers a long look at a wide arc of weirdly coincidental history that may, at times, feel as though it was being orchestrated in some otherworldly way. Under that arc, we see a seemingly-weary man burdened by familial trouble that's he's almost powerless to fix; we watch as a usually-practical leader grapples with the idea of faith; and we see how his wife, long-rumored to have been mentally ill, became that way.

Even for a skeptic who pooh-poohs spirits and haunts, these stories and the peripheral tales that accompany them both lend a strong appeal to this book. Fans of history and of New Age studies will enjoy “In the Houses of Their Dead.” It's a book you won't have to work hard to talk yourself into.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.