James Lileks
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I was not surprised to hear that Brookstone is closing its mall stores, but still felt a bit guilty.

Three years ago, I played with some of that magic sand they were selling for Christmas. It was wet — but it was also dry! Please buy some, the clerk’s pleading eyes said. We’re dying here.

I walked away sans sand and probably doomed the company. OK, maybe not single-handedly, but still.

The store had a strange dichotomy: high-tech gadgets and soft things for your aching, wracked, deteriorating body. The ideal customer seemed to be someone who had his feet in a water massager and was sitting in a chair that kneaded his back while reclining his head on a special pillow and operating a drone. It was the Sharper Image wearing Apple Store clothes.

You can find all their stuff online. Hurrah for that, right? I buy a lot online, but I still love the mall. It feels archaic to admit that: The other day I tied up ol’ Dobbin on the hitching post outside, spat some chaw, checked my six-guns with the marshal and moseyed on over to the telegraph office — in this case, the mobile phone store. Three clerks were sitting around, looking at their phones.

“Hello!” I told them. “I know I can do everything on an app that puts the power to control my account in the palm of my hand, but I enjoy human interaction. Who wants to upsell me an unlimited texting plan?”

“Why, I’d be happy to help,” said one. “What sort of plan do you want?”

“Actually, I don’t need one at all. My child has gone to South America, so the only texts I will get now are from my wife telling me she’s left work. She uses punctuation, so she always sounds kinda mad. ‘Leaving work.’ Have you noticed that? People who use periods sound like they’re irritated. Or the queen. I imagine she uses proper punctuation, although she would say, ‘We are leaving work.’ Not that she works, per se, although the old gal has a full plate every day from what I can tell.”

The clerk nodded, unfazed. They get a lot of strange, lonely people at the mall these days.

I explained: I needed an international calling plan for my daughter for a month, until she could get a SIM card for the Brazilian phone provider. The clerk rattled off the details: $100 a month, unlimited texting, 50 cents a minute for phone calls.

“I was in here two weeks ago, and they said it would be $60 a month at a dollar a minute.”

“That’s a different plan.”

“Then that, dare I say, might be the plan I want, no? It being less?”

But there was also a plan that let you talk your head off anywhere in the world for $10 a day, as well as let you text the entire body of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Data usage was expensive, though, so Daughter couldn’t stream “The Office” while touring the Amazon basin. That seemed unlikely, anyway; she’s seen all the episodes twice.

The cheaper plan could not be secured at the store, though. I would have to do it through an app. “Didn’t you do that in-store just a few months ago?” I wondered. “Yes,” she said, but the company has taken away their ability to serve humans.

You’re going to be Brookstoned, I thought. A few years from now the bottom-liners will note that no one goes to the mall stores anymore, and you’ll be shuttered, with a sign in front of the metal grate saying “Exciting new shopping coming soon!” Except it won’t, unless some guy fulfills a lifelong dream and opens Nuthin’ but Laces, a shoe accessory store, and stands in the back every day watching his savings gurgle away.

Everyone loves having everything delivered to their door. I do. But there’s nothing quite like going to the mall for a pair of jeans, finding the huge wall of pants all neatly stacked, with all the different options — slim, boot cut, high rise, relaxed, tense, lying waistband size for the days you feel bloated, and so on. They still don’t have your size, but if they did, you could try them on.

Anyway, a few days later I went back to the mall phone store, surprised that Herberger’s was still going out of business. It’s like Minnesota women leaving a dinner party — they have to stand at the door and talk for another 10 minutes while the menfolk jingle their keys. Just go out of business already.

The phone store had no customers, so everyone was eager to help. This time I had to pay off the phone so it could be unlocked.

The clerk reviewed my account, looking for ways to bring down the cost, her fingers skidding and swiping on the pad like a butterfly dancing on a hot plate. Aha! She found a way to save 15 percent — and it wasn’t something I could have found on my app.

I felt so good about old-style retail outlets I went straight to the department store to see if they had jeans I liked in my size. They didn’t, of course, but an actual human clerk apologized about it. You just don’t get that personal touch on Amazon.

You just get jeans, which I ended up ordering.

And a foot massager, some magic sand and a drone. You know how that works: The website highlights things “other customers who never thought about Brookstone except at Christmas and even then wandered out of the store without buying anything also looked at.” I didn’t really want any of that stuff, but, hey, there was free shipping.

And there’s a human element, too. Sometimes I see the UPS guy when he’s getting back in his truck.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks