I Went To Hot Topic And Got All Nostalgic

Publish date:
November 7, 2014

I've been going to the mall a lot lately. Well, a lot for me -- and since I haven't regularly gone to the mall in several years, going to the mall at all is a lot. The crowds are still kind of overwhelming but there's also an old familiar pleasure to moving through the bustle of it all.

Except for the perfume ladies. I am still not into the perfume ladies.

Overall, the mall hasn't changed much since the last time I was a frequent visitor. The stores are largely the same (there still aren't any stores in most malls, for example, where I can even try on clothes) though there's an ever-increasing number of kiosks selling iPhone covers. The mall hasn't even changed much as a concept since those long-ago days when my mom dropped me off on her way to work so I could spend the day wandering the wide aisles and stores during summer vacations when I was a kid.

Now that's something that could probably get her arrested, right? But when I was, like, 10 years old, it seemed like a great option. I was out of the house and active and there were people around if I got into any trouble. (So the mall hasn't changed but our perspective sure has.)

On my most recent mall trip, I found myself in Hot Topic. It was the day after Halloween and they were having a sale and I couldn't resist the siren call of buy-one-get-one-half-off. Also I was there on a mission for Ed -- a Captain America hoodie.

The place was packed, so much so that I wound up deeply uncomfortable and I fled as soon as I could (so crowded and I'm still building up a tolerance for that again). But a large part of me was still just so pleased to be there. There was a certain nostalgia to the experience -- and I've been thinking about it ever since.

Hot Topic first opened its doors in 1988. I had no idea they existed because, while I might have been spending a lot of time at the mall when I was 10 years old, I lived in Cherokee County, Georgia. Things weren't much better for me in the early ’90s in North Florida when I was going to high school. It wasn't until the late ’90s, when I was in college in Orlando, that I had access to my first Hot Topic.

It isn't like the store got me into goth stuff. I was well down that path already, in a lazy goth style that mostly involved jeans for everydaywear -- I liked to dress up for clubbing though. I listened to lots of different music but, as is still the case today, goth/industrial was my favorite.

In 1995, it was the music and a small group of new friends that pulled me into the goth scene anyway -- Darlene made me a mix tape with everything by Specimen on it, which was kind of a huge gift given how difficult it was to track down rare tracks at the time. And I think it was Deirdra who gave me all the Sisters of Mercy I would ever need. Those cassettes stuck with me, those cassettes and the almost-every-night schedule we had for going dancing. The morning hours were hazy but everything happening after dark was the best life had ever been.

It wasn't until I moved to Orlando that I had the opportunity to go to a Hot Topic. One night, after classes, I went with a new friend of mine who had far more scene cred (whatever that meant then and whatever it means now) than I did. The music was familiar because I'd just spent a couple years collecting it but I'd never heard it anywhere outside of a club or someone else's car/bedroom -- and that alone was enough to make me want to be in that store.

The clothes were out of my price range for the most part but Hot Topic did carry plus sizes (and still does). The easy accessibility of a style I had never quite managed to make work on a day-to-day basis was a little mind-blowing. I bought a coat -- a purple monster fur that actual saw me through about a decade of Florida winters. It was on clearance and the very hot sales guy gave me some extra percentage off. I should have recognized he was flirting with me at the time (my friend swore he was) but I was still pretty deep into self-loathing obliviousness at that point. Ah, hindsight.

Even at that point, Hot Topic was commonly derided as cheesy mall goth supplies, even by people who weren't into goth stuff. But I have never been able to really climb onto that bandwagon with any enthusiasm because there was something so validating about walking in and hearing 45 Grave's cover of "Riboflavin-Flavored, Non-Carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood" that very first time. Other people thought this weird music was cool! Other people were on a quest to find spikes to add to things (this is a lifelong quest for me because the Internet only helps if I have sufficient lead time for a project). I don't want to say it was like coming home because it was still just a mall store but it was comfortable in a way that no other store was.

It wasn't that I needed the existence of a store to legitimize my lifestyle choices (no more than I need access to plus size clothes to somehow legitimize my body size), it was that having access meant both recognition as a consumer and made life just so much easier.

On my recent trip, the kids who were in Hot Topic (mostly there with parents who love their kids even as they largely look confused by the fashion) were the same kids. And the smell of the place hasn't changed either. I posted about it on Facebook and Marci, because she's the kind of person to ask for that kind of detail, asked me to describe it.

It's all top note of patchouli and vinyl that mellows to hair dye and sweat. The dry down is air conditioning and plastic -- the kind of plastic they use to wrap all of those T-shirts. If you've ever worked retail and you've had to do stock work, pulling each item from its individual plastic wrapper, maybe you know about that smell, too. Though really the patchouli sticks in the back of my throat more than anything else. And I have to wonder if, when a store closes, the smell ever really goes away.

That's a good lead-in to a metaphor I will spare you, about how Hot Topic has certainly stuck with me, no matter how much color I wear sometimes. The recognition I felt when I walked in and didn't get questioned or judged for my tastes provided a little bit of breathing room in a world that was not super friendly because of my body and style. Not too shabby for a cheesy mall goth store.

As I stood in line to pay for Ed's hoodie (victory achieved on that shopping mission), the opening of "Riboflavin-Flavored, Non-Carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood" kicked in. I knew it immediately.