At 8 a.m., two hours before the shops open, Towson Town Center is so quiet that every echo deafens: the patter of coffee beans being scooped in the food court; the creak of a ladder as a man in a hard hat climbs up to reach a sign; every groan of the escalator.
Most never see the mall at this hour. But one group is here every day: a gang of mall walkers and old-timers who meet daily to exercise, drink coffee and gab the morning away.
At 8 a.m., the morning mall crowd runs the place, orbiting around the 4th-floor Starbucks — and Marty Martinez is their unofficial mayor.
“In less than an hour, we solve all the world’s problems,” said Martinez, 86, early one Friday morning. The Timonium resident sat outside Starbucks with Doc Richardson, of Lutherville, as a rotating cast of regulars stopped by mid-walk to chat.
Lisa Bisenius, manager of Towson Town Center, said the mall opens its doors for walkers long before stores open at 10 or 11 a.m. Though it varies by season, she estimated that about 100 people might walk the mall’s temperature-controlled hallways on any given morning.
“My favorite time is right before stores open,” Bisenius said. “It’s like a small-town atmosphere.”
“This is a microcosm,” said Lynne Agress, who walks at the mall five days a week. “Most of these people you would never meet in everyday life.”
“Everybody says hello,” said Ron Gray, 77, who drives from Baldwin most mornings to walk the mall. Gray said that he and his wife used to exercise elsewhere, but now make the drive because the mall is “more of an exercise social hour.”
So, what do the mall-goers talk about every morning? According to Richardson, mostly food.
“We’re always comparing places, and trying to find new ones,” Richardson said. Martinez likes Tio Pepe’s and the barbecue at Jake’s Grill, an unassuming Cockeysville joint on Falls Road. Richardson has strong feelings on cheesesteaks.
“Food’s the safe topic,” Richardson said, adding that the group tries to avoid talking politics to sidestep arguments.
Weekday mornings, Martinez gets to the mall around 6 a.m. He walks for an hour, and then sets up at the table by Starbucks to talk with the regulars. Most of the gang is gone by 10 a.m, he said.
Much of the morning mall crowd started walking for health reasons, Gray said; his own medical woes include two knee replacements.
“We come between operations,” Martinez said. “We come and go according to doctors.”
Bisenius said a loop around all four floors of the mall would total two miles. The mall offers fliers with information on the distances of each floor, she said.
Martinez admitted his daily walks could take place outdoors, but said the climate-controlled mall has a special appeal.
“I used to walk outside in my neighborhood, 3 miles a day,” Martinez said. “Don’t tell me it’s fresh air. There’s fumes, strollers, dogs … here, you’ve got [air conditioning] and a nice, level walk.”
According to a 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and University of Washington Health Promotion Research Center, “walking at malls is often recommended by health care providers because malls offer free, relatively accessible, and pedestrian-friendly environments.”
Malls, the report continues, have security and are sheltered from weather and traffic congestion, as well as level surfaces and available drinking fountains and restrooms. Because of that, malls can provide a safe environment for older adults who often face barriers to exercise to walk in order to get the nationally recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
In addition to older adults, Bisenius said other people also walk the mall, including people recovering from surgery to mothers pushing baby strollers. But walkers are not the only people who benefit from the morning tradition; the mall management benefits, too, Bisenius said.
American malls were once commercial and social hubs, but forces such as online shopping have shrunk the market for shopping malls in recent years, leading to high vacancy rates, according to a 2014 report by consulting firm McKinsey. To succeed in the modern era, McKinsey wrote that some malls are working to “recast the mall as the new downtown,” drawing customers not just with retail, but with experiences.
Mall walking, Bisenius said, is one such way Towson Town Center is drawing people in.
“Really, the advantages are reciprocal,” Bisenius said. “We glean benefits from the walkers. It’s a good way to get people to come to the mall and get familiar [with] new stores.”
The walkers also become the mall’s “eyes and ears, for us to know what customers and the community are saying,” she said. Besides, the off-hour walkers don’t raise an additional insurance concern for the mall because the shopping center’s policy coverage is 24/7, Bisensius said.
Martinez said the gang is rarely shy about giving the mall feedback.
“We’re watching as they’re renovating,” Martinez said, before launching into a detailed conversation with Richardson about the mall’s silver lamps and where glass was being installed. The group, Martinez said, keeps an eye on which stores are closing, which are moving and which are getting renovations, watching shops bounce around the mall like a “big checkers game.”
Bisenius said the morning crowd has a “very sweet and positive atmosphere.” The gang brings in cake to celebrate holidays and birthdays, for instance, and Bisenius said they often invite mall staff to join in.
“We feel like it’s a service that we’re offering, but we really do gain a lot from them and appreciate them as an added element,” Bisenius said. “Even though technically we’re not making money [from mall walkers], it’s really about having them be a part of our community.”