Mall mogul says: You are where you shop

Gosh, I never thought I'd come to have tender feelings for a mall, but I guess you can get attached to anything.

My empathy arose in reaction to what sounded like a put-down of Westfield Shoppingtown at Southcenter, and the people who do their buying there. It was just a paragraph in a long P-I story about Kemper Freeman's shaping of Bellevue, particularly his malls and most especially Bellevue Square.

The reporters asked Freeman about competition from Southcenter, and he said: "When you walk through the [Southcenter] mall, the way the customer dresses just to shop there — the light blue and pink hair curlers, the shoes that flop, flop, flop along — it's a completely different customer."

I believe this is the point where someone is supposed to say, "Oh no, he didn't!" But he did indeed.

Of course the malls are in different communities and draw from different demographic bases to some degree. I think that is what Freeman was saying, but the subtext communicated disdain for the common folk.

It was overstatement, I think. I roamed around Southcenter the other day and found not a single pink or blue curler. Pam Johnson, who was shopping at The Buckle, was as put together as anyone at Bellevue Square, tall, slender, wearing a black corduroy suit jacket and tan pants. She's a beautiful young woman you might expect to see on the cover of Essence magazine.

Johnson said she hadn't shopped at Bel-Square in years, not since the mall started changing. "I feel like it wants to be in Beverly Hills," she said. "If they are going to look at me funny because of how I'm dressed, I don't think I want to shop there anyway."

Most of the people I asked about the article agreed there's a difference in the way most shoppers at the two malls look.

Heidi Marsh thinks there is. I chased her down at the Southcenter Nordstrom because she looked like what a Bellevue Square shopper is supposed to look like, I think, except that she was wearing flip flops.

"I get dressed up for Bellevue or Alderwood, but this is like my daily mall," she said.

Marsh, blond, blue-eyed, slender, was wearing khaki capri pants and one of those sweaters with a hood that I saw a lot of at Bellevue Square earlier in the day.

Before I went to Southcenter, I sat outside the Bellevue Square Nordstrom jotting down descriptions of the people walking by.

There were people who were stylishly dressed and coifed, with perfect makeup. But there were also lots of folks who didn't look that way.

Both malls had a wide spectrum of shoppers, though one leaned more toward coifed and the other toward comfort.

Your hairstyle, the clothes you wear, the way you carry yourself are all full of messages that other people use to place you in the social spectrum. That's been true as long as people have had a choice about their appearance and for as long as we have lived in large, stratified societies, but the lines are often blurred nowadays.

People with money wear styles that originated with poor folks, and people without money can use a credit card to dress up.

I chatted about the Freeman quote with a trio of saleswomen at the Nordstrom at Southcenter.

"That's funny, I've worked at both, and I don't see a difference in our customers," one said.

Some of the customers are the same people. Another saleswoman said they get a lot of returns of stuff that was bought in Bellevue.

Her colleague seconded that, adding a little observation of her own. "Our customers aren't as pretentious. They don't come in and buy things they can't afford to impress people and then bring them back."

I figure people at cosmetics counters know about appearances, so I asked the folks down at Macy's.

"In Bellevue you have to dress up, almost like it's a big show there," a saleswoman there said.

Another saleswoman said her customers say they just feel more comfortable at Southcenter. They don't like the atmosphere of the Bellevue mall. I've heard that a lot and felt it myself. I just feel more relaxed at Southcenter, but that doesn't mean Bellevue Square or the new version of University Village are bad places; fancy has its place.

An evening at the symphony is less comfy than a night at the movies, and a meal at an expensive restaurant is a world away from dropping in on the neighborhood cafe.

The malls around here don't differ that much really (Macy's and Nordstrom are not Target or Wal-Mart demographically), but they do each say something about the kind of person they want to attract, and if that isn't me or you, we might feel a bit out of place.

I exchanged pleasantries with some nice people in Bellevue. Of course they were dressed like normal people, except they didn't have rollers in their hair. We are all susceptible to exaggerating differences to make it easier to place ourselves and others in some way that makes the world seem orderly.

But this isn't the 18th century; things just aren't that simple anymore.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at