Remembering Toys R Us, The Biggest Toy Store There Was
I guess it’s time to grow up: According to the Associated Press, the chain is preparing to liquidate its remaining 740 stores. Even though the company fell on hard times in recent years, it still accounted for an enormous amount of the toy sales in our country; about $11 billion annually which the AP article says is “about 20 percent of the toys bought in the United States.” And now that’s all about to go away, along with a lot of jobs.
Toys R Us has been around in some form or another for decades. It was founded in 1932 by Charles P. Lazarus as “Children’s Supermart.” The Toys R Us name was first used in the mid 1950s, and by the 1980s it was the dominant toy store, with hundreds of locations around the country. Odds are if you’re a child of the ’80s, like me, you have very fond memories of Toys R Us. Odds are you also know every word to the chain’s theme song, which blared ubiquitously from commercials for years, with choirs of children chanting “I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid!”
Walt Disney World is supposedly the happiest place on earth, but to a kid, Toys R Us was a much more attainable alternative. If you were lucky you got to go to Disney World once, maybe twice. If you were lucky, you could get a trip to Toys R Us every couple of months. My mother could pretty much motivate me to do anything if she promised me a trip to Toys R Us. (“Oh you want me to train to be an international assassin? Cool cool; how many Super Powers action figures do I get?”)
In a cross-promotion I now recognize as truly insidious and as a child considered proof that magic was real in the universe, Toys R Us also did an annual shopping spree promotion with Nickelodeon. One lucky viewer got to run amok in a Toys R Us for five or ten minutes of pure mayhem. Whatever they could grab, they kept. They would advertise the contest for months and then after the winner got their spree, they would show commercials featuring their run.
I make fun of people who watch unboxing videos on YouTube, but these commercials basically invented the vicarious thrill of watching people get hyped about toys decades ago. If I could have watched a weekly show of kids running through Toys R Us on shopping sprees I definitely would have. (Frankly, I’m surprised no one has ever tried that, even as a Supermarket Sweep-style game show for kids/toys.) I had dreams about the Toys R Us shopping sprees pretty regularly all through childhood and even into my teen and college years, long after I stopped buying toys. This thing imprinted on my soul in a way I don’t fully understand.
It might be why Toys R Us was my first-ever job during summers off from high school, where I worked as a cashier. It wasn’t a great job, but it wasn’t terrible, and from my register I got to witness first-hand the weird fervor with which people pursue fads. (The summer of Teletubbies mania, any time we got a shipment, the place became a frenzied mob scene, with grown-ass adults actually fighting over dolls and yelling things like “That’s my Tinky Winky!”)
Obviously I spent a lot less time at Toys R Us in recent years, but I have two daughters now. I took the older kid to Toys R Us for the first time recently, and it was a lot of fun watching her not blink for 20 minutes as we wandered the store in search of the specific thing we were looking for (A sea lion figure, and sure enough, Toys R Us had one.) I’m sorry we won’t get to do that more, both because it was nice sharing something I loved as a kid with my own child and because now I have to find a new way to blackmail my daughter into doing what I want her to do.
I missed my last day of work at Toys R Us because I was sick, so I never handed in my iconic Toys R Us vest. It’s still hanging in the back of my closet, with the name tag pinned to the chest. (It’s the best easy Halloween costume ever.) Whenever I stumble on it I always get a little nostalgic for the old Toys R Us on Route 18 where my mom used to take me if I got straight As on my report card. Now I imagine seeing it will make me sadder. The world changes. That is inevitable, just like growing up. Even if we want to stay a Toys R Us kid.
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