It's time to pour one out for Toys R Us. This week, the bankrupt company announcedin the US and UK.
While the brand may live on --and come to mind -- we may never again wander through the company's giant warehouses full of toys. Even if we don't want to grow up, as the famous jingle goes, it's time.
You could argue the death of Toys R Us is the end of an era, but it's smarter to say the end of an era killed Toys R Us. As the Washington Post visually points out, the United States' declining birth rate means fewer babies, which means fewer kids, which means fewer parents spending less money on those kids and babies at Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores.
In the end, Toys R Us had $5 billion in debt, and with sales continuing to slip, it was unable to find a buyer for its stores. Another buyer, I mean, because the last buyers were the private equity firms who gave the company that debt back in 2005.
So even though we're not sure when Toys R Us will be gone for good, we've decided to take this opportunity to share some of our memories of the giant toy store.
When I was growing up in a small beach town in Delaware, the nearest Toys R Us was two hours away in Wilmington, the biggest city in Delaware. So it was a big deal when I was able to go to one.
My most vivid memory is when I was 5 years old, my mom and I were in Wilmington for a doctor's appointment. I had to get these really painful and terrible allergy shots. They'd literally make my whole arm swell and they'd hurt for days. On the way home, after stopping by the Charcoal Pit for a decadent lunch of grilled cheese, french fries and onion rings, we went to Toys R Us.
I was allowed to pick out one toy as my reward for being so brave at the doc visit. I remember looking at the rows and rows of toys in awe. And then I picked this doll: Dancerella. She was a-24 inch plastic doll with plastic hot pink ballerina slippers, pointed toes and a little spinner on top that you could turn to make her do perfect pirouettes. I loved that doll.
I remember insisting on taking her out the packaging right when we got in the car so I could hold her the whole way home. It wasn't so much that I wanted to be a ballerina or even that I liked ballet, but I loved her because she had brown hair, like me. Back then in the 1970s -- long before American Girl existed -- it seemed like every Barbie doll or other doll was platinum blonde. And I just wanted a doll that looked like me. Of course, aside from the brown hair she actually looked nothing like me.
If my mom were still around, I'm sure she'd have lots of memories too, since she raised kids long before Amazon and actually had to plan entire days of Christmas shopping. After we all had grown up, she'd joke about how every year at least one of us would ask Santa for the hardest to find gift. One year it was me who wanted a doll of Scooter from the Muppets. Apparently, my mom had relatives in Wilmington checking Toys R Us and friends in other states scouring toy stores trying to find Scooter. Her hard work paid off and he was under the tree.
P.S. I still have Scooter. Dancerella is long gone. Her hair became a tangled mess around that twirly thing on the top of her head.
Toys R Us was pretty new when I was a kid -- it only launched in the UK in the mid-80s. It was a special trip to go there because it was just off the motorway in the middle of this gigantic rainswept car park. But nowhere else was nearly as good. We'd go to some little town on holiday in Devon or Scotland somewhere and my mum, desperate to keep me amused, would go, "Ooh, look, a toy shop! Let's go in." And I just knew it wouldn't be as good as Toys R Us.
I loved it so much. Because it was the only place that stocked all the stuff I loved. When you're a kid, you're into really specific things and the next best thing isn't good enough. You have to have that particular car or jet or robot. And Toys R Us had all the pirate Lego sets. It had all the GI Joes. It had all the M.A.S.K. cars. It had literally everything in every super specific line of cartoon-adjacent plastic crap that I was obsessed with.
This is a long time ago, but whenever I went to Toys R Us as a kid there was this Aurora slot car track mounted up on a wall that was huge. I mean, one lap around this track with loops, bank turns, switchover tracks and more, would probably last over a minute. No matter how nicely I asked, I never got it as a gift.
I finally saved up the money from mowing lawns over a summer, and the feeling of carrying that huge box out of the store is one I'll never forget. I was so proud. Toys R Us is like going to childhood heaven.
I remember when I was 10 hearing a story about a kid who went to pay for a toy at our local Toys R Us, but, as the legend went, the clerk ended up giving the toy to the kid for free because it had damaged packaging. As a child with no money, this sounded like a fine shopping strategy.
The next time I went, I scoured the shelves for a toy with a scuffed up box. I thought I'd hit pay dirt with a M.A.S.K. pickup truck that turned into a plane (pretty sure it was the main bad guy's vehicle). The corner of its cardboard box had been crushed, and another part of it punctured by something.
I presented the damaged goods to a sullen teenage clerk, hopefully. He took the box from me, looked it over, gave me a suspicious "thanks," and then trudged off with it, presumably to return it to the shelf.
Still can't believe that didn't work.
Toy stores were my favorite places in the whole world growing up, and Toys R Us was the mecca. I couldn't wait to walk down those aisles admiring the action figures, the Lego sets, the Nerf guns, the mesmerizing video games, and -- in the summertime -- the Super Soakers. I had to have it all, and though I don't remember getting much there (my parents didn't spoil me rotten, which I've only begun to appreciate recently) it was the place many of my childhood dreams first formed.
Or sometimes, in the big Toys R Us toy guide they'd mail to our house. I couldn't wait to get that catalog and see the wonders that toymakers had cooked up. And I remember staying up late at night plotting the perfect route through my local store, just in case I won the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run shopping spree, where they gave you 5 minutes to fill a shopping cart with as many toys as you could.
It would sometimes be months or years before I could finally afford that toy, sometimes secondhand at a garage sale or Goodwill, but it was always worth it. (Though I never did get a Nerf Crossbow. They're pretty rare now.)
Though I've gotta say -- Toys R Us lost its luster for me as a teen, and as an adult. The prices weren't competitive, and they didn't always have the best games on demo. I spent a lot more time hanging out at Target.
Toys R Us was a beckoning wonderland of possibility... that I mostly admired from afar. My toys were largely hand-me-downs from older siblings, or birthday presents, and my parents would rather I read a book or go play outside anyway. Although we drove by the toy mecca weekly, and parked in front of it to walk to Longs Drugs nearby, we rarely went in. I'd watch as happy kids emerged stretching sticky, glow-in-the-dark goo, pogo balls and endless variations of Lego and My Little Pony.
The few times we entered Toys R Us' sliding doors, it was with a strict budget and an understanding that if I asked for candy or more toys, we would walk out with nothing. While other kids wailed, ran and screamed, I scoured boxes and scanned price tags to weigh the ROI of this toy versus that one!
But really, don't feel bad for me. I still stacked a lot of block towers and Lego bricks, and pulled the heads off Barbie dolls only to squish them back on again. And I still feel a pang of sadness that an enduring symbol of childhood play for generations of kids has had its day.
Just a few months ago, I was heading into a store to pick up some baby clothes when a strange thing happened. The store was a combination Babies R Us and Toys R Us, and when I caught a glimpse of the sign, I had a sudden pang of excitement. I'm going into Toys R Us! My internal kid brain shouted. Jackpot!
Of course, two seconds of reflection revealed that there was nothing in particular I wanted from a toy store as a bonafide adult. But that momentary feeling was a reminder of how much I loved walking through the store as a child. I didn't even need to be there to get something for myself for it to be a blast. Maybe I was there to pick up a Skip It for a friend's birthday party. Maybe I was in the action figures aisle checking out Ninja Turtles with my big brother. It didn't really matter. Seeing all that stuff made to delight kids in one gigantic place was pure joy.
Of course, if the trip resulted in a My Little Pony, a squiggle-wiggle pen or a string racer, all the better.
Now that I think about it, I should ask my mom if she kept our string racer, because that thing was awesome.
It's funny to think about the strange places you had to look for entertainment in the days before the Internet: I remember devouring the movie section of the weekly TV guide and poring over the toy section of the Argos catalogue until the pages fell out. But the absolute pinnacle was a trip to childhood temple Toys R Us. It was like Willy Wonka's factory or the warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It was where we got those wonderful toys.
Sure, you can order anything from Amazon these days, but that's not a patch on taking a kid into a real-life toy store -- where you get to be a kid again.
A visit to Toys R Us was a capital-E Event. Sure, there were local bookshops and sweet shops we could drop into between buying groceries and next year's school uniforms. But there wasn't a branch of Toys R Us on the high street.
Going to Toys R Us meant driving out to a warehouse and spending an hour wandering through endless aisles of glorious toys... only for my dad to inform me that there was no way we were spending £20 on a single Tamagotchi, let alone getting one each. I think I ended up getting a rainbow slinky instead. It's fine. I'm not bitter.
So my childhood and adult memories of Toys R Us are very different. As a kid, I only went to the store once a year, the day after Christmas. That's when we would return the gifts from relatives who didn't know us well and oh, how I loved the store credit. It meant shopping for free, and no one could tell me what I should or shouldn't get. The ultimate freedom.
As an adult however, I can't help but shake only bad associations -- more with Babies R Us. Once with my first child and then again more than a decade later with my twins, I had to go around the store with that scanner gun, overwhelmed by the baby registry process. I should have known better the second time -- it's so tedious and silly. What you need most for babies is not on the registry. And how weird to be essentially asking for presents.
Anyway, I still shudder at that feeling of being trapped and just wanting to leave the store at all costs. Maybe I was just hungry and fat!
Growing up in Chicago, the closest Toys R Us near me was two bus rides away. From the ages of 12 through 16 -- which lined up pretty nicely with the 16-bit era of video games -- it was probably my favorite place in the world to be.
Every Saturday morning, my best friend and I made the arduous trek. As we walked from the last bus stop to the store, I would begin to walk faster faster in anticipation of getting to the store, making that sharp right turn, rounding the endcap and entering the glorious video game aisle.
Eventually my buddy became progressively more and more annoyed with my fast walking, so much so that he began to affectionately refer to it as "the asshole walk." Once that term was established, that's what he'd say without fail as we made our approach. "Oh boy, here comes the asshole walk."
Despite feeling more than a bit ashamed, it never ever quelled my excitement or slowed me down!
I once went to Toys R Us with my mum to make my Christmas list. We traipsed up and down the aisles and as I pointed things out my mum wrote them down (along with the prices). At the end she totted it all up and the total came to about £300, which seemed astronomically huge to me. I was so horrified and felt so guilty that I told my parents not to buy me anything after all. They definitely did buy me a few items off the list in the end (I can't remember what, sadly), but they probably totalled around £50 max.
Toys R Us was also the site of my biggest ever purchase as a child. The big-ticket item in question was a Tamagotchi. As I handed over the £10 note to the cashier I felt my heart pounding in my chest. It felt so reckless to be spending such a large amount of money in one go, but I couldn't resist. The lure of the Tamagotchi was strong, and now I think about it, that little beeping egg must have been the first piece of tech I ever bought with my own money.
My family never celebrated Christmas. Well, at least not in the formal sense, with the tree and the lights and Santa Claus. But my parents did recognize the need to fit in, thanks to a spoiled, young boy who didn't understand why all his friends got toys every December but he didn't.
So every December 26th, my dad would take me to Toys R Us in the morning, and tell me I could pick anything under $100 from the store. It was always Lego sets... though one year I asked for a giant crayon box and another year I wanted a skateboard. In a way, it was better than Christmas. I actually looked forward to Dec. 26 more than actual Christmas (Please send all complaints about that to ben.rubin AT cbsi DOT com). Eventually I outgrew toys and just started asking my parents for money instead.
I never really did Christmas as a kid, but we'll always have Toys R Us. Whoops, spoke too soon.
Trips to an actual toy store were rare when I was a kid -- but we wound up at Toys R Us once or twice. It didn't have the best prices. It was out of the way, and hard to get to. It's overwhelmingly huge aisles of toys were easy to get lost in. My parents never, ever bought me a Power Wheels car no matter how much I asked.
But, Toys R Us was the only store I remember that let me look at the back of video game boxes, by myself, without asking someone to unlock the case.
And that's how I wound up playing Robotrek, a bizarre, but charming Enix RPG about building robots.
Also, that song has never left my head. From bikes, to trains to video games, indeed. Gee Whiz!
I had the complete sets of both Voltrons, all purchased from the Rosemead, California Toys R Us store in the 80s. Getting each one was so exciting, and though I had no idea what die-cast metal was at the time, the term just sounded cool.
Yes, I also liked the vehicle Voltron (don't @ me).
Unfortunately, the head eventually broke off the Black Lion. Both sets went to a friend when we moved to London.
We went to Toys R Us often because it was close to my house. My sister and I would go up and down every aisle before we'd reach the other end of the store where there was a wall of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. We'd try to find ones we didn't have. It was the place where we got our first bikes, our first Lego sets and our first Atari video games.
As a kid, we had toy stores that we'd go to at the mall, like Kay-Bee or King Norman's, but a trip to Toys R Us was always something special. As a little kid, any Toys R Us seemed unbelievably huge, as if it were multiple Christmases and birthdays all under one roof. I was also impressed because the store mascot had the same name as me -- even if they spelled it differently.
The Toys R Us of my childhood had already been gone for a while; the chainwide store redesigns years ago ditched the rainbow stripes everywhere and made the interiors more inviting. But I missed the sense of intimidation those old toy shelves had. It looked like the world's supply of Monopoly and Battleship went straight to the ceiling. I even kinda miss the antiquated system of having to grab a pull ticket for a video game from the display and then taking that to the register, and then having to wait at the special area at the front of the store to pick it up. Sure, it added a lot of steps to the purchase process, but then it also seemed a little more important, too.
Even in this era of instant gratification and same-day shipping, going to Toys R Us was still a treat for my kids, and I'm kinda sad that it's going away. For them. Mostly.
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I remember watching the commercials for Toys R Us on TV and whispering the song every now and then. I mean, who wouldn't want to be a Toys R Us kid?
But Toys R Us was like Disneyland to me -- a magical, mystical wonderland far, far out of reach. My working parents couldn't afford a road trip to Florida and it never factored into their thinking to take my brother and sisters to a giant toy store and let us loose.
So my first real memory of Toys R Us was after I was grown up right before my daughter was born. We headed over to see all the cool stuff we could buy her that I didn't have growing up (a rock tumbler! a microscope with slides! spy tech, including a decoder!)
But I also remember wandering around toy nirvana and turning into the "aisle of pink." That image of pink and purple dolls, makeup, glitter and tiaras threw me -- and I suppose that's why we never really went back. But we did leave that day with a wooden set of Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys that she still has.
I'm sure I'll tell my grandkids someday: "When I was a kid, there was this giant toy store..."
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