Home » Flashback photos of 1980s malls that inspired Stranger Things

Flashback photos of 1980s malls that inspired Stranger Things

Nostalgic images from decades past reveal how American families flocked to malls from dawn until dusk – before the digital age dealt a death knell to the iconic shopping spaces. 

From fun family outings to cheeky high school truants, malls once served as the central hub for a bustling community of mullet-sporting Americans. And photographer Michael Galinsky captured every moment. 

Throughout the 1980s, he traveled across the country, shooting images of everything from long-forgotten retailers to retro fashion trends – with his work later inspiring costume designers for the Netflix retro horror show Stranger Things. 

Today his seminal book ‘The Decline of Mall Civilization’ is a stunning reminder of American life during the mall’s heyday – before online shopping put scores of shopping centers out business

The nostalgic pictures come from photographer Michael Galinsky’s book ‘The Decline of Mall Civilization’ 

Galinsky said he chose this image as the cover photo because it captures 'the energy and the action' when malls were booming across America

Galinsky said he chose this image as the cover photo because it captures ‘the energy and the action’ when malls were booming across America

A mall goer is pictured in Smith Haven Mall in Long Island, New York donning an era-defining hairdo

A mall goer is pictured in Smith Haven Mall in Long Island, New York donning an era-defining hairdo

Malls became a bustling hub of American life around the time Galinsky began his collection in the 1980s

Malls became a bustling hub of American life around the time Galinsky began his collection in the 1980s

At their peak, there were more than 2,500 malls scattered across the country. Today there are only around 700 – with Business Insider predicting there will be just 150 of the iconic spaces left within a decade. 

Of course, many Americans still visit malls regularly. But when they first burst onto the scene they quickly became the nation’s new public square – and Galinksy’s throwback snaps capture a time when they were the center of American social life.

‘In my sophomore year of college, I took a photography class and I shot images in a mall for my class project,’ he recalls. 

‘My teacher was ecstatic about the images and immediately suggested that I spread out to other malls. I called up a friend and he agreed to drive across the country with me that summer.

‘Guns N’ Roses were blowing up, and Nirvana was still an infant. George Bush was president and very few people had seen the internet,’ he added. 

He began his project with ‘some stealthy stalking of the big-haired denizens of the Smith Haven Mall on Long Island’ – and the ensuing galleries showcased malls as hotspots of tank tops, outlandish hairdos and zany characters. 

South Square Mall in North Carolina is pictured during its heyday during the 1980s

South Square Mall in North Carolina is pictured during its heyday during the 1980s

Filled to the brim with classic fast food and since-shuttered retailers, malls were a hotspot of American life back in the day

Filled to the brim with classic fast food and since-shuttered retailers, malls were a hotspot of American life back in the day

Galinsky said he included snaps of arcades in his collection because they were 'central' to his childhood visits to malls

Galinsky said he included snaps of arcades in his collection because they were ‘central’ to his childhood visits to malls

Questionable fashion choices permeate throughout the gallery, including thick denim and plaid shirts

Questionable fashion choices permeate throughout the gallery, including thick denim and plaid shirts

Patriotic themes and American flag merchandise were a staple of US mall culture in the 1980s, showcased in this snap from a mall in Columbia, Missouri in 1989

Patriotic themes and American flag merchandise were a staple of US mall culture in the 1980s, showcased in this snap from a mall in Columbia, Missouri in 1989

From the iconic Smith Haven in New York to the now-shuttered Villa Italia Mall in Colorado, Galinsky and a friend traversed from state to state to capture the essence of American life. 

‘By the time we got to San Francisco, we had hit over a dozen malls and three times as many thrift stores and antique shops in our wobbly ramble across America,’ he recalled. 

Decades later in 2010, amid a successful career as a filmmaker, Galinsky dug out the dusty photographs from inside a desk drawer and began reminiscing about his six-week campaign to hit as many malls as possible. 

After sharing the images online, Galinsky raised $13,000 through a Kickstarter to publish the images as a book, dubbed ‘Malls Across America’ – and it took the internet by storm.  At the time his book cost $30 – but is worth around 25 times that amount today.

Galinsky has since launched another campaign to reprint his second edition, ‘The Decline of Mall Civilization’, which has raised upwards of $58,000 after adding to his time capsule in impressive style. 

Decade-specific fashion trends permeate through the images, showcasing a time when thick denim pants and plaid shirts were all the rage. 

Pictured alongside since-closed retailers like Tape World, youngsters lived it up in arcades while 80s punk fanatics scoured music shops for vinyl records and wacky guitars. 

Mall goers filled the iconic spaces from dusk till dawn, decorating them with zany outfits and classic hairstyles

Mall goers filled the iconic spaces from dusk till dawn, decorating them with zany outfits and classic hairstyles

An antique show in South Square Mall in North Carolina was put on in 1989 to increase foot traffic because the establishment had 'already seen better days'

An antique show in South Square Mall in North Carolina was put on in 1989 to increase foot traffic because the establishment had ‘already seen better days’ 

A woman is seen smoking a cigarette inside a mall in Aurora, Colorado. The photographer said this image may have later influenced the design of hit show Stranger Things

A woman is seen smoking a cigarette inside a mall in Aurora, Colorado. The photographer said this image may have later influenced the design of hit show Stranger Things

Galinsky's six-week campaign to reach as many malls as possible in 1989 came to fruition over 20 years later, when he shared the mall photographs for the world to see

Galinsky’s six-week campaign to reach as many malls as possible in 1989 came to fruition over 20 years later, when he shared the mall photographs for the world to see 

The snapper’s decision to focus on malls is almost eerie, as he recalled his inspiration for the project.

I understood that it would not always be there,’ he explained.

After releasing his collection to the public, Galinsky discovered his snaps had even influenced the hit Netflix show Stranger Things and contributed to the series’ throwback imagery. 

‘When I launched my current kick-starter one of the first backers was costume designer Amy Parris who confirmed to me that she used the images she found online to help dress the cast,’ he said. 

Speaking of his evocative images, the photographer added: ‘Now, they hold clues from the past – evidence of how we used to be, before the internet, mobile phones, and social networking changed everything.’ 

Galinsky said this image of an elderly couple enjoying a day out at the mall is one of his favorites 'because it feels so out of time'

Galinsky said this image of an elderly couple enjoying a day out at the mall is one of his favorites ‘because it feels so out of time’

One of the first images he used in the project, this image was taken on Galinsky's first photography outing. 'I had my camera with me because I needed to find a project for my class,' he said. 'I was immediately aware that I might have found my project.'

One of the first images he used in the project, this image was taken on Galinsky’s first photography outing. ‘I had my camera with me because I needed to find a project for my class,’ he said. ‘I was immediately aware that I might have found my project.’

American mall-lovers pictured with wacky outfits adorned with tie-dye, alongside since-shuttered retailer 'Tape World'

American mall-lovers pictured with wacky outfits adorned with tie-dye, alongside since-shuttered retailer ‘Tape World’ 

The photographer said the Madonna album release helps date this image - especially since 'this was right when stores were moving from vinyl to CD'

The photographer said the Madonna album release helps date this image – especially since ‘this was right when stores were moving from vinyl to CD’

The true community aspect of Galinsky's work comes out in images such as this from the Smith Haven Mall in New York, where the space attracted shoppers both young and old

The true community aspect of Galinsky’s work comes out in images such as this from the Smith Haven Mall in New York, where the space attracted shoppers both young and old

Despite claiming he wasn't a big fan of his local South Square Mall in North Carolina, images like these from the space were important to Galinsky because he 'understood that it would not always be there'

Despite claiming he wasn’t a big fan of his local South Square Mall in North Carolina, images like these from the space were important to Galinsky because he ‘understood that it would not always be there’