PW: How many trips to the mall did it take to write Call of the Mall?
Paco Underhill: The structure of writing the book had me going to the mall virtually every weekend. How many trips? I have no idea. But in the course of my job, I'm on the floor of stores every week. Last week, I was at three different malls in Chicago. This week, I was at the Perimeter Mall in Atlanta, and if you were to ask me how many times I've been there, it's somewhere between 25 and 100.
PW: Why do shopping malls matter?
PU: Those of us who are older or grew up in the city know the mall is a duplication of some form of urban experience. But for many Americans, especially people under 30, the mall is their first experience with organized commercial activity, the first place many of them brush the face of fashion and entertainment, the first place they get their concept of style. It's the place where many of them make their first significant purchase for themselves. I remember junior high school [in New York City], when everybody wore loafers and my mother refused to buy me a pair. I finally went out and bought my own, and I shopped for that pair of loafers, looking at price and style, as diligently as for anything you can imagine. That same experience is what a lot of kids get at the mall.
PW: How did you become a retail anthropologist?
PU: I tell people my moment of epiphany was on top of the Seafirst Bank building in Seattle, the building rocking in the breeze as I tried to install time-lapse cameras for traffic study. I really don't like heights, I'm scared and I realized that somehow I had to reinvent myself. A week later, I'm standing in line in a bank in New York City, getting angrier by the minute, and it dawns on me that the same rules I've been using to look at what makes a good city could be taken inside a bank or a store. But another answer is that I'm a stutterer, and in retrospect, part of what I've done is take a coping mechanism for a handicap and turned it into a profession.
PW: By taking the opportunity to observe while you stay silent?
PU: We're always trying to figure out what the rules are. We can ask what they are, or we can watch and see. If you have trouble talking, you have to watch. I'm not really a shopper; I'm just intensely curious. My mother calls me a well-paid voyeur. I love going to a mall less for the nature of the stores as for being around other people. The reason why we as a species go to the marketplace is to look at other people. Staring at other people's faces, other people's movements, is one of the seminal forms of human recreation.
PW: Who do you see your audience as?
PU: I want to drive people to the business section who have never been there before. I want to present the bookstore owner with the challenge of asking, "Where the fuck do I put this book?" Is it a business book? Damn straight. But it could also be in nonfiction or in the travel section.
PW: Did the runaway success of Why We Buy catch you off guard?
PU: What's been hard is balancing my job as chief executive officer of a boutique consulting firm with my job of being an author. I know my colleagues [at Envirosell] have been frustrated with me and would like me to focus more on my job. On the other hand, we have clients that walk in our door, ready to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars in our lap because they read something I wrote. I'm not going to stop writing, but what that third book will be, I don't know yet. People's response to Call of the Mall will be a very decisive factor in choosing my next assignment. As a writer and a creative person, I hope I'm mature enough to recognize I have to be answerable to the people who enjoy what I do. The idea that an artist has a one-to-one relationship, just between him and the laptop, is an act of 19th-century masturbation. If you want to be creative, I think part of your responsibility to society is to engage with it.