Parents and other former children lamented, waxed nostalgic, and raged at the news this week that Toys R Us, the last American large-scale brick-‘n’-mortar toy store chain, may be shuttering its remaining 800 stores over the next several weeks due to the long-term shenanigans of the evil corporate overlords who bought it in 2005 and basically ransacked it for cash for years. Soon that kaleidoscopically immersive childhood shopping experience, one of the few places a family could go and spend a day surrounded only by wall-to-wall playthings, will be downgraded from endangered to extinct.
I’m saddened by the loss, but not devastated. My life has been one long series of toy store collapses.
My earliest memories of wandering through toy aisles come from GC Murphy’s, an old-time department store chain with a large location inside Lafayette Square, our nearest shopping mall. My mom grew up a mallrat before there were shopping malls and turned nearly-weekly mall trips into a family ritual. I never set foot in a church growing up, but I knew my way around most Indianapolis malls. Mom usually let me buy one item on every trip for $5 or less. It was at Murphy’s that I began amassing small Lego sets, stocked up on Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and bypassed the Star Wars section when I discovered the much better-articulated cast of G.I. Joe. It helped that I never saw a Star Wars film till I was 11, but I could watch the GI Joe cartoon every weekday afternoon at home for free.
Lafayette Square didn’t have a dedicated toy store back then, but when we’d venture out to other parts of town, I found their malls featured the much more indulgent KayBee Toys, a veritable wonderland in comparison. KayBee had a much wider selection of everything and anything, along with a modest comic book section, mostly in plastic-bagged three-packs. The KayBee at Washington Square was the first place I ever encountered Marvel’s extremely rare Star Wars comics, which were hot, hard-to-find items for a good while thanks to the first wave of George Lucas fans and greedy investors alike. KayBee was a treat, though it’s for the best that I couldn’t dive into their wares on a weekly basis. They lasted well into my adulthood before the internet helped murder them and other retailers.
Larger still was the great Children’s Palace, free-standing and unconfined by the boundaries of any mall landlord. Mom didn’t take me there often, probably afraid my head would explode from joy and I’d never want to leave without spending at least $500 we didn’t have. Mostly I recall exploring their video game selection out of curiosity and jealousy, years before I could afford my first console. (That precious day came at age 16, when I saved up the paychecks from my first job to buy a Nintendo NES, years after the demise of Children’s Palace.)
On occasion I’d frequent the Kmart toy section whenever we went to visit my aunt at work, but their selection was a bit narrower than Murphy’s, and the neighborhood kids were apparently an unruly lot. Toys were scattered everywhere, action-figure pegs left empty with their contents lying in unsorted piles on the floor. Often I’d have to put down toy boxes I found open, damaged, or with their prized contents stolen. Sharing the experience with messy riffraff, without proper caretaking on the store’s part, sanded a little bit of the corners off my smile.
Independent toy stores were a thing back then, but a lesser presence in my consciousness. Ed Schick’s Toy and Hobby Shop, a proprietor so ancient that Google swears I’m making them up (or misspelling, maybe?), carried a wide assortment of electric trains, which I didn’t care about, and model cars, of which I was a fan for about twenty minutes till I realized the finished products weren’t actually toys but fragile display items to be set on shelves for staring at and dusting. Meanwhile at Glendale Mall, Kits and Kaboodle kept their focus on educational toys and wooden constructs — no popular toy lines, no cartoon tie-ins, no recognizable characters anywhere in sight. I didn’t get them. They’re still in business today but relocated to a faraway affluent suburb where I imagine their wares are a better fit.
[UPDATED 3/18/201, 12:40 p.m.: In the middle of church service this morning I finally remembered the correct name was Ed Schock’s Toy & Hobby Shops, which had three locations until they went out of business in the late ’80s. We frequented both the Glendale Mall and Eagledale Plaza locations, though I can’t recall exactly why — either acquiring Dungeons & Dragons modules for me, or buying doll parts for my grandma. She had her hobbies, too.]
Not until I was a twentysomething husband and father did we hear a peep from legendary FAO Schwarz, that chain made famous in the Tom Hanks movie Big. They attempted to penetrate the Indianapolis market as one of the first stores inside Circle Centre Mall, which opened in 1995 with the intent to revitalize our sickly downtown shopping scene. I scored an interview with them at a job fair and even got a callback, but ultimately chickened out. The eventual grand opening revealed a vast array of stuffed animals and an adequate action figure department, all at upscale prices that induced sticker shock in thousands of would-be patrons during their stay in our city. They lasted a few years before surrendering to local market forces. Two decades later the entire company would follow suit, including the flagship Manhattan location we visited on our 2012 road trip. Curiously, tonight I learned their extermination was only temporary, though their resurrection wasn’t fully corporeal.
Then there was Toys R Us, who existed way back when, but not in Indianapolis. The first time I ever heard of them was, of all places, on the front of a month’s worth of Marvel Comics as part of a 1980 cross-promotional sweepstakes. At the time, I was eight years old and their nearest location was probably 120 miles away. I declined to submit a sweepstakes entry. For years the name would mean nothing to me.
In the late ’80s Toys R Us established their Hoosier turf with four locations, one on each side of town like perfectly positioned poles meant to activate an alien invasion device. I was too old and cool for most of their wares as a teen and young adult except for their action figures, which remained a part of my geek indulgences until well into the 2000s. I still have warm memories of waiting in line with my best friend Anne for the midnight release of all-new figures from that upcoming major motion picture Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I remember buying numerous products from McFarlane Toys that made fantastically rendered statues for my shelves. I enjoyed digging into the clearance section and picking up third-rate heroes and sculpts for cheap. I remember Saturday mornings when Anne and I would arrive shortly after opening to scope out new figures (Star Wars as well as other universes) while letting the scruffy-looking Hot Wheels eBay-scavengers have their space. (Or maybe that was at Target. Or both.) And of course I remember the time we visited the flagship TRU in Times Square on our 2011 road trip before their eviction in 2015.
As a young father, particularly during the non-custodial years after my divorce, TRU was a fun place to take my son whenever I had him over for his visitations. I remember watching his eyes go wide as he ping-ponged from one aisle to the next, browsing and lingering and loitering and grabbing and trying and interacting and totally getting into the tactile, experiential joy of in-person toy shopping — of up-close, physical contact with real objects of imagination and wonder. The forays into funtime continued well after he moved in with me full-time, but eventually he got old and Toys R Us faded from our activity rotation. Sadly the west-side location was shuttered years ago, one among dozens of businesses that faltered as that particular neighborhood fell victim to urban blight. The other three locations have been more fortunate and survived to the present day, but the fourth building is now an oddly shaped charter school.
Most of these memories were made long before a majority of American civilization decided that virtual shopping on a remote flatscreen was somehow better for kids than being there, personally handling the item, and deciding whether or not it would be a good fit for their playtime scenarios. Today kids settle for looking at pictures of potentially fun devices, sometimes with access to different camera angles, but their decision-making process is informed by a very limited data set of hard sensory input. Sometimes they forgo such frivolities and limit their playtime to screen-based entertainment only. It’s like kids are being guided inside Plato’s cave, but they’re shopping for the shadows on the walls instead of the real things casting those shadows.
And as with Plato’s cave, as well as all those toy store ruins scattered along the roadside of my life’s history, Toys R Us won’t be a reality for much longer, neither a family tradition nor a parent/child bonding opportunity. Not unless some surprising white knights with hearts and ethics can rescue them from the clutches of Wall Street parasites, much like some white knights technically rescued FAO Schwarz from its own passing in TRU’s clutches, if we can count FAO’s current spectral presence as a successful rescue. Once it’s gone…I suppose independent toy shops could take advantage of the power vacuum and step up to the forefront in their communities, much as some indie bookstores have tried to make a difference in metropolitan areas where Borders, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton vacated the premises. Whether they have the resources, wherewithal, or local support to do so is…a good question.
Beyond the hope of mom-‘n’-pop toy shops, after TRU our largest nationwide toy sources will be big-box department stores. I’m not excited to imagine a dark future in which happy kids and parents sing together, “I don’t wanna grow up! I’m a Walmart toy aisle kid!” The meter is horrid, and the moral is worse.