It was the odor of rubber bike tires and inflatable pools and hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with action figures, dolls, Lego blocks and games. It smelled like childhood.
I had come to Toys ‘R’ Us to say goodbye. In mid-March, Toys ‘R’ Us announced it would shut or sell all of its stores in the United States, and lay off about 31,000 workers.
My wife, who tagged along despite not sharing my attachment to Toys ‘R’ Us, didn’t understand what brought me here.
“Isn’t it depressing?” she asked.
I didn’t see it at first. “Depressing?”
What I saw was my past. Up here at the front was where I had found my first Super Soaker, neon yellow and green. Over there was where I picked out my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures. And, there, an aisle over, where I helped my mom fend off a mob to grab a few of those Mighty Morphin Power Rangers toys my brother had been wanting so badly.
The far right aisle, front to back, ran the length of the store, with all the newest technology in glass cases. On the opposite side of the aisle were the video games, the box art for every game from every system—rows and rows of games, all with pockets full of paper slips beneath. Up at the front, you’d hand the slip of paper to an employee, who’d go climbing in a cage to pull down the corresponding game. I don’t have my copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 anymore, but I can still remember the excitement I felt when I bought it—joy swelling as the game in its bright yellow box grew closer to me, inch by inch.
Really, the excitement started the moment my parents mentioned taking a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us. It would happen only on special occasions. If I had particularly good grades or saved up enough allowance, they’d make the trek so I could pick out the toy or game I wanted.
They probably didn’t expect that they would create and reinforce a behavior. I, as an adult, still reward myself much the same way—with video games, many of them sequels to the ones I bought at Toys ‘R’ Us decades ago.
* * *
When my mind rejoined my body, I eventually saw what my wife saw: people in a daze walking slowly up and down each aisle. Some were doing the same thing I was—saying goodbye, reliving their past. Others were vultures looking to pick the last bits of meat off the carcass. The staff did what it could to keep the store looking neat and clean. There were no long glass cases. No crowds fighting for Power Rangers toys.
Toys ‘R’ Us had been heading this way for awhile. As much as it meant to my childhood, I hadn’t been inside a Toys ‘R’ Us in years. There hadn’t been a reason to visit. My wife and I—married in our early 30s—were part of a larger trend Toys ‘R’ Us says is partly to blame for its demise. Kids who grew up with the store were waiting longer to have families of their own. There are fewer children, and Toys ‘R’ Us, in turn, has fewer potential customers than it did in the late 20th century.
Of course there are other reasons: Amazon and the rise of online shopping, busy families preferring multipurpose retailers like Target and Walmart, and perhaps most of all, the 2005 buyout of Toys ‘R’ Us by Vornado, KKR and Bain Capital, which saddled the company with massive debt.
Toys ‘R’ Us isn’t alone. KB Toys, a primary competitor of Toys ‘R’ Us, went out of business in 2009. The fabled FAO Schwarz toy store in New York City closed in 2015.
But there’s power in nostalgia, and businesses are wise to this. In 2016, Strategic Marks, a company that specializes in resurrecting defunct brands, bought the KB name. This Christmas, it plans on cashing in by opening 1,000 KB Toys seasonal pop-ups around the country. Another company, ThreeSixty Group, Inc., acquired FAO Schwarz in 2016, and says it will open a new FAO store this fall at 30 Rockefeller Center.
The same may eventually happen for Toys ‘R’ Us, too. Already there’s an effort, led by toy executive Isaac Larian, to save half of the Toys ‘R’ Us stores in the U.S.
Larian is majority owner of a firm called MGA whose brands include Bratz dolls and Little Tikes products. Of course, he and other toy makers would lose a major source of business should Toys ‘R’ Us fold. The fate of their industry could be at stake.
But Larian said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that nostalgia—not business—forced him to act. He sold his first product to Toys ‘R’ Us in 1979, and his fondest memories of his children involved bringing them to Toys ‘R’ Us.
It adds up. The brain doesn’t just plunk $200 million down on a failing company. There’s gotta be a little bit of heart involved, too.
* * *
Toys ‘R’ Us hit all parts of your brain, which maybe is why the memories have been so deeply seated.
There have been a slew of tributes to Toys ‘R’ Us in the weeks following its announcement, and what shocked me most is that many people had the same memories as me.
The paper slips. The cage full of video games. The rows of Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Power Rangers, G.I. Joes, Transformers and Super Soakers. The glass cases that held the special stuff—limited-edition Barbies, Intellivisions, Atari 2600s—with the products illuminated so they would gleam and draw you up against the glass to get a closer look.
Every single tribute marveled at the store’s ability to make lasting, clear memories. The toys changed, but two generations of kids had somehow retained the same recollections and feelings of the place they had bought them. The more I read, the more it seemed that Toys ‘R’ Us had shaped my generation as much as anything.
Even today, the connection between the store and children of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s remains. It’s filled with products aimed at transporting us back to childhood, with new versions of the toys we enjoyed in one form or another.
For me, the strongest nostalgia has always been related to the late ’80s and early ’90s, and I wasn’t surprised at the pull a Super Mario Bros. Monopoly board game—complete with pixelated game pieces straight from 1985—had on me during our visit.
My wife, well-aware of my weakness, noticed me staring at it, and knew exactly what was transpiring. She intervened.
“No,” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me away. “The answer is no.”
This, too, was a scene straight out of my past.
* * *
But, by the end of our visit, my wife had fallen to the magic of Toys ‘R’ Us.
“You’re in a toy store. You need to play,” she said to me as she arranged a row of Groots so they’d dance in unison.
I had been walking respectfully, aisle to aisle, browsing at what remained. But I realized that she was right. What good is a toy store if you can’t play with toys?
This, above all, is what future generations will lose should Toys ‘R’ Us disappear—the sights and sounds and smells of the place, the experience of doing something that rewarded you with a visit to Toys ‘R’ Us. It hit all parts of your brain, which maybe is why the memories have been so deeply seated.
I dislike that I have reached the stage of my life that I feel the urge to say what follows, but I feel sorry for today’s kids. Despite all the advantages they enjoy over prior generations, they’ll never get to experience the same joy I did. And something tells me the downloading of an app or the arrival of an Amazon box won’t crystallize in the memory quite the same way Toys ‘R’ Us had in mine.
* * *
It made goodbye that much harder.
After a few more minutes of browsing, I took one last breath of that cardboard-flavored air, and stepped through the automatic sliding doors for perhaps the last time.
I struggled with my feelings in that moment. This was a multibillion-dollar international corporation—it existed to take money in exchange for products that would give parents headaches. Why did I feel sad? Why did I feel as if I owed Toys ‘R’ Us anything? Why did so many people feel the same way? And—economics degree kicking in—how could a brand capable of creating such strong emotional attachments fail?
But one thing gave me comfort: my mixed-up emotions had proven the famous jingle wrong.
Because, sure, I may have grown up. But I felt more strongly than ever that I would always be a Toys ‘R’ Us kid.