Malled In by Jes Battis

“When I go to the mall, I usually want to leave right away. When I go to the mall, I feel like I’m on the tip of becoming myself.”

—Kate Black, Big Mall: Shopping For Meaning

It’s the eighties and I’m hunting a mechanical snail through Cottonwood Mall in Chilliwack. I saw the wind-up snail in Toys & Wheels, a store that contains almost everything I’ve ever wanted. The sorceress from He-Man stares wisely down at me from her cardboard package, wings tucked in. A series of niche toys with holographic chest plates—called Visionaries—offer a future of strange light and interminable wars. I’m newly eight, and I know my way from Dee Jay’s, where my mom works, to the paradise of action-figures on the other side of the mall. I walk in a secret pattern on the tiles, because if I don’t, Skeletor wins. 

Though I secretly want him to. 


Share It:

I pass Mariposa, where the gold lamay shirts are tempting, but I can’t delay. Various women wave to me: a collective of retail workers, assembled by my mother to surveil me on these little odysseys. I grew up in this mall, and I know all of its mysteries, including the service hallway that smells of smoke and hairspray. 

Everything will happen to me here. And nothing.

A mall is a map.

I unfold it, like Castle Grayskull.

Everyone I love is inside.

Malls gave me my first taste of dialogue as a writer. Gossip overheard at the record store. Dads grousing about inflation at Radio Shack. The janitorial staff who moved invisibly through corridors, laughing and joking as they swept up cigarette butts. The red-faced managers, and the employees who whispered as soon as they vanished into back offices. Teens working up the courage to buy a Kate Bush cassette that might change their whole mental landscape. Seniors doing slow laps, talking about shops I’d never known. The places my mom haunted as a girl. Ice cream counters and general stores. Ron-El’s, where she fixed transistor radios as a teenager, staring at each tube with a thoughtful expression. 

Recently, Cottonwood Mall tore out its food court—which had been a social hub since 1974—and replaced it with a liquor store. I imagine a poem called Goodnight Food Court. Hush, little kiosks. Fortune Wok and Burger Fixins and Cinnamon City, whose owners would always slip me free baking while I did my homework. The space where you could be crowded and comfortably alone at the same time.

I try to remember all those conversations.

Uncle Bobby, yelling because he’d forgotten to charge his hearing aids.

The manager of Second Cup, who was gay and didn’t care if you knew it.

The kids with pained expressions who’d just gotten their ears pierced at Ardene, looking for consolation in fountain pop.

It feels like someone demolished a room in my apartment. Like I came home, and the walls were just gone.


I enjoy haunting malls with my boyfriend. We’re both the type of people who are soothed by looking at things—preferably on shelves, or intriguingly stacked—and malls offer a form of socialization set to easy mode. I know all of these places as intimately as I know my own body. Coles. The Bay. Sunrise Records. In the small-ish town where I grew up, they were gateways to other worlds. Places where people dissected literature and bought good saucepans. In the small-ish prairie city where we currently live, they act as grooves for our nervous little needles. We have some of our best conversations in clearance sections. He wants to create a photographic essay about defunct Sears locations.

My mom worked at Sears for decades. Once, she told me, in the early nineties, a trans woman came into the women’s clothing department. She wanted to try on some dresses, and the middle-aged cis women who ran the section were flummoxed.

My mother frowned. I don’t see what the issue is.

The women were scandalized. 

My mother looked them dead in the eye. She’s using the women’s change room, and I won’t hear any more objections.

Malls can be transformative. An electric current of social issues flows through them. You can taste the kiss of a battery in the air. 

The first time I tried on a femme top, I brought it all the way up the escalator, to the men’s floor. I sandwiched it between two men’s shirts. 

The employee said nothing. I wish I could time-travel back to that Sears change room, where a quiet but firm voice would speak to me from the other side of the mirror.

I won’t hear any more objections.


We didn’t have the money to go on vacation during my childhood, so we went to nearby malls. A trip to Sevenoaks Mall in Abbotsford, or Guilford Mall in Surrey, was our version of going to a warmer climate. Sevenoaks was like an uncanny version of the mall I’d grown up with—a bit larger, a bit more glamorous. I’d huff icing from the Cinnabon, and then spend an hour trying to read everything in W.H. Smith. The mall was a safe labyrinth, where you couldn’t really get lost, because someone at the security desk would always claim you. I wondered what it would be like to hear yourself immortalized on the P.A. system. 

We have a lost child

All my favourite fantasy heroes were orphans who’d lost their parents by magic or medieval violence of some kind. Maybe if my name crackled in those speakers, I’d be found in a more real sense. In her book of poems, Archive of the Undressed, Jeanette Lynes talks about briefly losing her parents at the Expo fair: Truth was, I was a bit old to be lost. Now, in my forties, I often feel the same way. My parents divorced when I was six, and we live in different provinces, but I still want them to claim me at a customer service desk somewhere.

A friend recently visited her parents back home, and described their mellow rhythms: walking the dog, having coffee, walking the dog again, having more coffee. It was perfect, she said. I’d move back in with them tomorrow, if I could.

Growing up, those malls were the closest I got to experiencing a world beyond my small, overwhelmingly white and Christian town. I’d listen to bits of conversation, see flashes of other people’s lives, and wonder what it would be like to follow them home. What tapes were they listening to? What sweet things had they tasted?


I could dream for hours at the Coles in Cottonwood Mall. I’d sit down next to the Dragonlance novels, as if I was conducting a protest of one. I guess I took up so little space that nobody asked me to move. I stared at those painted covers like they were stained glass, and truly, Coles felt like the real church in a town where Christianity was so often weaponized against anyone different.

Fascinating people would wander down the fantasy aisle. Teenagers with purple hair and strategically ripped clothes. The eighties were all about clashing textures, and I loved the play of lace and spandex and flammable fabrics.           

I was on the edge of queerness in my sleepy farming town, though I didn’t realize it. My mother ran a record store, and several of her employees were queer. Because it was the eighties, and Chilliwack was a farm town, we rarely spoke about sexuality. I have to assume that people trusted her with this information because she seemed open and kind. As someone who’d played baseball from an early age, she’d also been hit on by other women. Boys would call her gay because she wasn’t interested in dating them, but she wasn’t bothered by these things. As I got older, I came to appreciate that my mother and I shared a certain level of distance when it came to traditional relationships and—for lack of a better phrase—structures of love and sexuality. We were both distracted by other parts of being human.

Years later, I asked my mother if she talked about AIDS with her queer friends.

It was dangerous, she said. And I didn’t know if she meant the plague, or talking about it.  After I came out to her in the nineties, she didn’t sleep for a week. All she could think about was how I might die. The retro-viral “cocktail” had only just appeared, and wasn’t widely accessible. I imagine her staring at the ceiling as she pictured me wandering through a dark forest, where any thorn could put me into an enchanted sleep. I was so paranoid that the first time I engaged in oral sex, we both wore condoms. It sounds like the punchline of a nineties joke, but the fear was real and constant. I don’t know if you’ve ever fellated a condom, but it certainly doesn’t taste like freedom.

“I stared at those painted covers like they were stained glass, and truly, Coles felt like the real church in a town where Christianity was so often weaponized against anyone different.”

I once took a disastrous trip to West Edmonton Mall with friends from high school. We’d been invited to a wedding in Alberta, but a week earlier, my mentally complex boyfriend had stolen my credit card and used it to buy several Greyhound tickets to unknown locations. This was after he’d threatened to kill himself during a camping trip, which ended with us both covered in mud as I tried to hold him together in a dry riverbed. I remember waking up in our tent, wearing only a pair of filthy sweatpants, and wondering if I had a type that might not be great for me. On the eve of the wedding trip, I had to tell these people—who’d seen me through some of the worst years of my life—that I had $20 left in my chequing account to contribute. 

We wandered through store after store, but I couldn’t afford a thing. I stared at the faux “Latin Quarter” strip of restaurants, and my life felt like that:  a cardboard movie set that you could knock down with one good kick.


When I moved to Vancouver for grad school, I found it surprisingly difficult to keep myself alive. I’d been a latchkey kid, which meant that I could make survivalist one-pot meals, but I’d never felt so dislocated before. I was only about two hours from my hometown, but it seemed like a different world, and I’d never been good at making friends outside of structured environments (read: autistic, though I wouldn’t find that out until much later). 

I moved into a spider-infested apartment in Burnaby with two other roommates, both of whom were competent grad students in geography. Scientists, I thought, a bit in awe, while shuffling through photocopied articles on medieval poetry. 

I spent a lot of time wandering around Lougheed Mall, which, at the time, was anchored by Sears and the Bay like two benevolent archons. I was walking my way through writing a doomed thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There was a place called the Grainery Café where you could get cheap coffee and a square of lasange roughly the size of a premature baby (I was born two and a half pounds and jaundiced, like a shard of caramel corn). I’d work through the lunch I couldn’t afford while watching people come and go. The bored teens always trying to make something happen, the convivial seniors, and the people like me—also in their twenties—who looked tired and lost.

“In many ways, malls are the only version of walkable communities that late captalism will allow.”

I love a food court. How royal they sound. Like stationary buses where you can witness multiple lives crashing into each other. My dad and I used to invent stories for people when we sat in the food court, and I still encourage creative writing students to study dialogue and action in these spaces. There’s ordinary drama everywhere. If I’m being honest, I also love food courts because they’re so structured. You get in line, place your unchanging order, and then carry your tray to a table that’s bolted to the ground. The food is familiar and caloric. Taco Time is a time machine, and the taste of that weak enchilada sauce brings me back to afternoons with my dad post-divorce, when he didn’t want to cook. He’d talk to me about psychology and mysticism—Carlos Castaneda learning how to astral project in northern Mexico—and I wanted to stay there forever, just listening to him.

I once saw a homeless man being kicked out of Pacific Centre Mall in downtown Vancouver. This was during its transformation from a brown-tiled shopping centre to the slick marble hub of advanced capitalism that it is now. The man looked at me—frozen, eating Mexi-Fries at a corner table—and said: You’re seeing this.  You’re a witness.

But I didn’t do anything. I was the witness who brings nothing to the case.


Malls are microcosms. Far more accessible and orderly than the world outside, they contain everything you need. In many ways, malls are the only version of walkable communities that late captalism will allow. They’ve always served as cultural networks in small towns. Many of my students have written about working at a mall bookstore, and feeling like it was their only connection to a larger world. How those spaces also served as DIY communities for young queer and trans people, who didn’t feel safe at home or in school. A warm, reliable place, where you could spend hours doing everything and nothing.

I still go to malls when I feel burnt out, anxious, or blocked. I can wander. That might be the most valuable thing about malls: they let you wander without a destination. You’re aggressively encouraged to buy things, but you can still just browse. The Old French root of browse means: to nibble off buds; to sample. You can be a nervous, nibbling deer, as I frequently am.

I understand that malls are an unsustainable part of the colonial-capitalist project. They waste vast amounts of energy, and generate profit on stolen land. But malls have still shaped me in profound ways, both as a writer and person who needs a certain level of order to feel safe.  Malls have given me endless lessons on how humans spin into contact with each other. They’ve kept me alive when I was suicidal. They’ve offered moments of strange wonder: a place that sells lawnmowers and off-brand sweets; a place where you can buy a Klingon Bat’leth; a strange children’s area across from a Fabricland, where a screen grows out of a Seussical tree.

Chasing a mechanical snail, and knowing—down to the roots—that I was under so many watchful eyes. That I would never be lost.

Photo credit Devin Wilger

Jes Battis (they/them) is from Chilliwack, B.C. (Stó꞉lō territory) and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Regina (Treaty 4). They are the author of the Occult Special Investigator series (shortlisted for the Sunburst Award), the Parallel Parks series, and most recently, The Winter Knight with ECW (long-listed for Canada Reads 2024, shortlisted for an Indie Forward Award). They’ve also published creative nonfiction in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Strange Horizons. Their first collection of poetry, I Hate Parties, will be released with Nightwood Editions in Fall 2024.