The men’s department at the local department store was deserted when I walked in the other day. Three salesmen jumped up and began circling with needy smiles, eyeing me as if I were the last woman at the bar at closing time. “You’ve shopped with us before,” said the salesman who stepped forward when I showed some interest in the pants rack. He was right, but my last purchase came months ago; like most other people, I’ve been spending less money and less time at the mall. In my suburban area there are a half-dozen small, medium, and large malls, and these meccas of consumption are now often eerily quiet. “On weekdays, it’s like a tomb in here,” the salesman confided, after I made his day by buying two pairs of pants. For shopping malls and commercial enterprises of all kinds, it feels like the End Times.

In the malls in my town, empty storefronts are springing up like tombstones. Borders died first, then Circuit City pulled the plug, and now Fortunoff’s is giving up its glittering ghost, leaving hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space. Will anything ever replace them? This recession, of course, will eventually end, as recessions always do. But I wonder if Americans, who once shopped as a primary form of entertainment, will again descend on the malls for goodies they don’t really need, their wallets bristling with maxed-out credit cards. My parents, and their parents, never quite got over the Depression; they spent most of their lives jealously guarding their pennies, no matter how many they accumulated. After a major earthquake, the ground never again seems sure under your feet.

William Falk