In the past 20 years, I have been inside a Toys ‘R’ Us perhaps a dozen times. From high school through much of my adulthood, there was little reason. Once, in the year 2000 I headed to the Toys ‘R’ Us in North Atlanta, braving traffic to get the brand new LEGO Millennium Falcon set from the only place in town I was sure carried it. More recently, now that I have kids of my own, I’ve been in several times, mainly searching for an obscure birthday present for one of the unnamed hordes of classmate-friends they have. Now that the stores are (mostly) closing, I look back trying to see why what was such a big part of my childhood zeitgeist is now crumbling.
“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid…” The jingle is incessant. You’re probably humming it right now if you’re in the right demographic. As a kid, Toys ‘R’ Us was a wonderland of joy wrapped in colorful cardboard and plastic. Giant giraffes greeted us on the rare visit to the giant store where we could run freely, barely supervised by our parents as we tore through the aisles of toys we wanted but could never afford. I grew up inside Philadelphia in a small duplex. It’s hard to believe now, but the house is only 16′ wide. It was a step up for my parents who had both grown up in row houses nearer to the center of the city. Same width, but neighbors on both sides. We didn’t have much, so those visits to Toys ‘R’ Us, the gleaming world of imagination were gifts in themselves. Just seeing in person what we could only dream about in the yearly Christmas catalog as we circled our impossible wish list was full of potential, rarely fulfilled.
“They’ve got the best for so much less that I can play with…” Thirty plus years on from those days visiting the nearest Toys ‘R’ Us in Northeast Philadelphia, I wonder what went wrong. I took my own kids to a store in suburban Atlanta just this past weekend. They ran around and played, just as I had, looking in wonder at some of the toys. I looked at the walls of Funko Pop Vinyls and the aisles of LEGO. The kids jumped into the Power Wheels Star Wars Landspeeder and the PJ Masks Cat Car for pics to send to Mommy. There was something missing, though. Sure, they were excited to see all those toys, but it’s not like they had never seen aisles of toys before. Every time we head to the local Target or Wal-Mart they see aisles of toys. On the rare occasion we’ve headed into GameStop or the physical ThinkGeek store, those are wall-to-wall sensory overload. Toys ‘R’ Us just seemed tired somehow. The prices weren’t anything special, and in many cases, were higher than most other stores, let alone shopping online. The selection wasn’t anything exclusive, really, save a very few items. The floor was dingy, the toys left out for kids to play with while parents desperately searched for the one item that might make the next birthday kid happy were worn and had a veneer of long use. This wasn’t the gleaming Willy Wonka-esque playscape of my youth. Like the rest of us, it was older and a bit sad.
“It’s the biggest toy store there is…” A lot can be said about vulture capitalism, leveraged buyouts, corporate malfeasance, etc, but there is something to be said for the state of both the big box industry and Toys ‘R’ Us itself. What happened to the wonder? Local toy stores have now taken that and run with it. Go into a mom and pop specialty shop and the STEM experiments and wooden toys stand along with the build-your-own robots and puzzles. They are bright, happy, and have employees dedicated to the joy of children. While other big box retailers might not have the dedicated employees, they have the prices that attract parents and a selection to match. In a world where incentive is needed to draw people into a brick and mortar store, Toys ‘R’ Us has lost its way. Nostalgia isn’t enough. I don’t wanna grow up, but baby, I did.