Brice and Beth Keith have gone to the Oaks Mall nearly every day for years. But the couple hasn’t spent a penny on merchandise. In fact, they haven’t even entered a store.
Instead, they go to the Oaks Mall each morning before shops open simply to walk laps. They walk twice around the mall, which equals around 1.6 miles.
Brice, 67, and Beth, 65, have found this to be a free and comfortable way to keep themselves in shape.
“It’s cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter,” Brice said.
Mall walking is a nationwide hobby, whose participants are most often folks who have retired. Malls usually open their doors about an hour before shops open to allow the public to walk around. It is a source of exercise in a comfortable and secure area, according to the CDC.
Upon request, the Oaks Mall provides walkers with a map showcasing various walking routes of a quarter mile, three-quarters of a mile, and 1 mile, according to its website.
Gainesville, popularly nicknamed “Rainesville,” is known to have frequent storms that prevent people from regularly walking outside. Flooded gutters, puddles, and muddy pathways are not a concern when walking inside the mall.
“You should have come here last week,” Beth said. “It was so cold, everyone was in here.”
Other walkers said they enjoy their morning walks in the Oaks Mall because they don’t have to worry about large crowds. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many still don’t feel comfortable in crowded spaces.
In the time before the mall opens, the only people inside are mall employees setting up, security guards, and mall walkers.
“Especially in the aftermath of COVID, it’s a lot better,” said a 76-year-old woman who has walked daily in the Oaks Mall since 2012. “I do still mask up because a zillion people have been in here.”
The mall may not be packed at that early hour, but those who are there have formed a sort of community. People have gotten used to seeing the same familiar faces day after day.
Christine Dietrich, 70, walks in the Oaks Mall once a month as she awaits her monthly pedicure.
Instead of sitting and waiting for her pedicurist, she gets to window shop while simultaneously racking up her steps for the day.
“I’m not here all too often, but when I do come, I still recognize the same people,” Dietrich said, waving to a group of women who walk by.
Dietrich said she enjoys being able to window shop, as opposed to the monotony of walking on a gym treadmill.
She enjoys the sense of security that the mall provides, as security guards roam the mall even before shops open.
“It’s safe to walk here,” she said. “It may not be safe in their [other mall walkers’] neighborhoods.”
She is thankful for the mall that has provided her and so many others with a safe and comfortable walking environment and hopes it remains a viable option.
Dietrich walked past a row of closed stores and expressed her concern for the future of the mall.
“Maybe I need to shop here more often to keep it open,” she said with a laugh.