By Jerry Chandler
Today (assuming you’re reading this on the day it goes live) is Thursday 28, 2018. Within the next 24 hours, the last Toys “R” Us in the United States will be closing its doors for the very last time. A business that Charles Lazarus started in 1957 (or 1948 if you go all the way back to Children’s Supermart) will cease to exist. But, more than that, and unlike with so many other businesses that leave us in the ever changing consumer landscape, a piece of our collective childhoods will cease to exist this week.
I was a child of the 1970s and a teen of the 1980s. That means I was a kid of the perfect age range for when Toys “R” Us was becoming the toy store that everyone everywhere knew about and went to for their toys. I was young when the first Toys “R” Us went up in my area. I can’t even tell you exactly how young. It’s a little hazy, and looking it up with Toys “R” Us so much in the news right now is a bit tricky. What I absolutely can tell you, though, is the general reaction everyone had to it.
The local radio and television stations were covering the store coming into the area quite heavily. Toys “R” Us was already a name people knew, and the idea of a toy store of that size, the world’s biggest toy store, coming to town had a lot of kids acting much the same as they would in the weeks before Christmas. People who have grown up with Toys “R” Us already firmly established in their town- and certainly those who grew up with that and the internet in full swing –probably can’t truly comprehend what a change this was when it came to toy shopping and kids getting to go to the store with their allowance or lawn cutting money.
We had Bradley’s, Rose’s, Nichols, G.C. Murphy, and K-Mart among a few others as our shopping trip options before then. I won’t knock any of those stores. They were what they were and they were popular five and dime and convenience stores in their day. However, they weren’t toy stores. They had toys, but they weren’t toy stores. At best, the toy section in those stores was about a half dozen isles that butted up against the bike racks and the sporting goods section. You could probably find something from the toyline of your choice in there, but for the most part each toyline only had a roughly three foot wide section of the not all that high shelves. Even then, only the really hot toys of the moment had that three foot wide section to itself from top to bottom. This meant that, while you could usually find something from the toyline you wanted, the selection was sometimes extremely limited.
Walking into a Toys “R” Us for the first time- especially as a small child with that everything looks so much larger than it really is perspective –was unlike anything else. It probably felt as if Santa Claus had personally walked you into Santa’s workshop and told you to have look around and see whatever you wanted to see.
There were stores your parents regularly walked you into that weren’t as big as a Toys “R” Us was, and, unlike those other stores, this was nothing but games, bikes, and toys for kids. For someone who was used to walking into a store half the size of a Toys “R” Us and being told to go find something in the toy section that made up (at best) five percent of the store’s floor space, the size of the average Toys “R” Us was almost overwhelming. It wasn’t four to six isles of toys that you could easily see the end of from the start of the toy section, and it wasn’t shelves that were barely taller than your mom was. This was a giant building full of a seemingly never ending series of isles and shelves and bins, and the shelves went so high up that the people working there needed a giant rolling ladder to get something down for you.
Beyond the sheer size of the place, the variety of toylines and the huge selection from each toyline was something you had never seen in the toy sections of your local convenience stores. You could walk into a Rose’s or a Nichols and find a small section of the shelves that had a handful of Micronauts or Shogun Warriors or G.I. Joes on display. You could typically find the hot new product from those toylines, but limited even there to only those new items they viewed as being the best price point items to sell in their stores. With Toys “R” Us, you might have a quarter of a gigantic isle devoted to giving a spot to every single current item available from those (and other) toylines. You would walk into Toys “R” Us and see things you didn’t even know existed in those toylines until you saw them siting on the shelf of your local Toys “R” Us.
So, yeah, as a really young child you felt like you were walking through Santa’s workshop made real and planted in your hometown. Plus, well, the store’s commercials became an ever present sight and sound during the time of year you associated with Santa, so the feeling was likely intensified by that.
For a very long time, if you were of the right age, it was like Christmas all year long whenever your parents suggested a trip to Toys “R” Us. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl or what toys or games you were into, you would find more than everything you wanted during every trip. Plus, on some occasions, if you were really young, you got to meet a giraffe.
By the time I was going to Toys “R” Us in the 1970s, Geoffrey the Giraffe was the well-established figurehead for the company. Geoffrey the Giraffe was an ever-present figure on the printed page of their newspaper and comic book ads, the summer and Christmas catalogs, the TV commercials, and in-store special events. When a young child walked into Toys “R” Us and saw Geoffrey the Giraffe waving at them and beckoning them over for hug and a photo, it was not that different from a child’s reaction to seeing Mickey, Donald, and Goofy at Disneyland. This was a magical character you associated with fun and joy come to life, and he was welcoming you to his magic kingdom.
Toys “R” Us was even the place you could find toys that almost no one else seemed to carry. When Rom was a (very limited to one toy) toyline and Marvel comic, the one I got was bought at Toys “R” Us. None of the local convenience stores had it in their toy sections. Also, note the top of the comic cover. That wasn’t just on the Rom comic. Almost every (if not every) Marvel comic carried that header that month.
Yeah, Toys “R” Us seemed to be everywhere, and it was somehow connected to everything you loved as a kid. Additionally, as you grew, the store seemed to grow. Sure, it was just stuff that was there all along that you never really looked at before, but they were smart about covering a wide range of kids and collectors. There was always something there for you. That was true for decades.
By the 2000s, the company was starting to face financial pressures from competition like Walmart and Target. Chains like these had begun to increase the size of their toy sections, carry more variety from each line, and make deals with companies for store exclusives. They also used their purchasing power to cut price points and carry some of the same merchandise as Toys “R” Us at lower prices. Parents on budgets started doing more of their gift shopping at stores like these, and kids were more likely to spend their limited allowances there and get more toys for what they would spend at Toys “R” Us rather than to save it up for a trip there. Then the world wide web grew up and became a giant shopper’s paradise where anyone could find anything they wanted, often for prices that beat anything the brick and mortar stores had, and have it delivered to their door within a matter of days.
Then some of the serious financial hits happened. Then the leveraged buyout from companies known for stripping businesses of their assets for a fast profit happened. Toys “R” Us might still have eventually had to close up shop, but we’ll never know as some of the damage done during this period was something the company could ultimately never recover from. In September of 2017, the company filed for bankruptcy. They attempted to keep the news optimistic, and, after the initial talk of total closure in the news, announcements were made about how the company would not close all of its stores right after Christmas 2017 after all. Some stores, the most viable and money making, would remain open and continue on. One of my local stores was supposed to be such a store. Even the employees in that store were under the impression that their store was staying open right up until the day before the announced liquidation and closure of every US store was made.
In perhaps a moment so surreal as to feel like it was scripted for a movie, Charles Lazarus, the founder of Toys “R” Us, passed away within days of the announcement that ended the company he started.
In these last few weeks, the stores have been liquidating anything and everything inside their four walls. People have been walking in and buying bikes, games, toys, and even shelves and display racks at ever reducing prices. In many places, the few remaining stores have had the last of their inventory moved into one tight location on the sales floor and the rest of the store taped off from shoppers with bright yellow “CAUTION” tape. By the end of the day tomorrow, by the end of the day on June 29, 2018, the doors will be closed to any shoppers coming into any part of the stores ever again.
“The end of an era” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s overused and applied when and where it really shouldn’t be. This is a time when it absolutely applies. For many people of a certain age range, Toys “R” Us was not merely a toy store, but an almost magical part of their early childhood. Going to Toys “R” Us was also an experience that crossed generations. My parents took me there when I was very young; probably looking as giddy and excited as my children are when my wife and I buckle them into the backseat and tell them we were taking them to Toys “R” Us. My children, as I did when I was young, have long ago now gotten to where they associate the Toys “R” Us Christmas commercials with that time of the year as if it was every bit as expected and as necessary and as traditional as Christmas music on the radio. It’s a store that wove itself into being a part of people’s childhoods, and its passing feels like we’re watching a piece of our childhood pass away.
In the last day or so, there have been reports of people wanting to buy the name and some assets and relaunch the brand. I wish them luck, but… It’s pretty much a given that such an endeavor will, at best, produce something that has a name we know without actually being what it was we knew. Those giant, giraffe adorned brick and mortar stores with toys and games and fun for as far as the eye can see are all gone now. In all likelihood, no matter what may happen with regards to ownership of the name, they will not be coming back.
It is the end of an era, and there are no more Toys “R” Us kids.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.