Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Childhood's End: A Farewell to Toys "R" Us

This summer, America's children, and all children at heart -- meaning adults like me -- were forced to grow up in a most dramatic and unpleasant way. 

We had to say goodbye to Toys R. Us, an American institution since 1948. The store filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and now, in summer 2018, remains nothing but a cherished memory. The doors to this particular dreamland have been permanently shut.

But Toys R Us was just a store, some people might say, right? A temple to consumerism, and one that hooked our children young.

To which I would reply: not so fast.  Toys R. Us was a lot more than that.

For many of us, Toys R Us was a place where imagination and dreams took root, and where they began to sprout, to bloom. It was a place that led to hours, years, and even decades of make-believe and fun. I grew up in New Jersey and some of my earliest memories are of visiting Toys R. Us stores in Totowa, or Paramus with my sister and my parents.

Why was Toys R. Us so special? What made it significantly different from the toy section in Target, or Walmart? What made it different from Amazon.com?

For children, Toys R Us was a place constructed just for them: a store devoted entirely to their interests and it told the world that they -- that children -- were important. Their interests were important too. In a world that moves fast and is always on the move, that message is one that is significant.  So I suppose you can conclude that Toys R Us was a place where children mattered, and made children realize that they mattered.  

And it was a temple in a way, I concede, but not merely to consumerism. It was a mecca of fun, excitement, and most importantly, possibilities. It was row after row, aisle after aisle, of creativity made manifest in the newest and best toys.  From bikes to trains to video games, it was the greatest toy store there is...or was.

For adults, like me, Toys R Us has become something else too: a legacy. My son Joel was born in 2006, and I have been taking him to the store since he was an infant. 

For approximately eight years, we have had a standing summer ritual. As soon as the summer starts, and either I am off from work, or Joel is out of school, we pick a day, drive up to Concorde, N.C., together and visit the Toys R. Us there. We arrive just as it opens, and then spend an hour or so, checking out the newest action figures, or Legos. We then go out to lunch together, and drive home with bags filled of toys, or video games, or Nerf guns.  

In my childhood, of course, Toys R. Us was the place of Star Wars toys, or Micronauts, or Star Trek. For Joel, the store has fueled his interest in Transformers, Pokemon, Star Wars (again), Marvel, Nintendo, and, perhaps greatest of all, Lego. For both of our childhoods, I know nothing is better than arriving home with a new toy or two, and beginning a brand new adventure and letting our imaginations run wild.

A visit to Toys R. Us is about the toys, sure, but it is also about me and my son being together, and sharing interests and imagination.

I suspect it is precisely this way for many fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters too. 

So Joel and I had our last visit to Toys R. Us together in May of 2018.

My wife won't allow me to post photos of Joel on the Internet yet, but I do have a photo of him there on the final visit, and it is a little sad, to tell the truth. He is an eleven year old boy standing in the center of largely empty aisles, looking somewhat downcast at the state of the store. 

We actually had an opportunity to go back one more time after that, a few weeks ago, and Joel didn't want to go back.  He said he would rather remember the store the way it was, than see it at the very end, "cannibalized" in his words.

I will confess I felt a lump in my throat on our last visit, as we drove away from the store, and awareness settled in that it was the last time I would be there with my boy.

And that he would never take his son to Toys R. Us. 

And that a generation of American kids would grow up without a place, in every state and city, devoted just to them; reminding them how important they are, and how much they matter to us, and our posterity.

We can look at all the reasons why Toys R. Us closed. Perhaps it was mismanagement. Perhaps it was changing times, or the competition of the Internet.  But it is a crying shame that our culture no longer has the time or interest in a 60 year old, American institution designed for children.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and all good things must come to an end.  I am grateful that this store has been a part of my life, and my son's too. But I am sad that this particular tradition ends here, when other children still need it. 

I'm not ready for Toys R. Us to go. To coin a phrase:  "I don't wanna grow up."

So, one final refrain:


  1. In the early 2000's, I was stuck in a job that I really hated. There was a Toys R Us near my office, so I would go there on my lunch break and browse the aisles. This was the height of the 12" action figure craze, and it took me back to my childhood when I would race up and down the aisles of Toys R Us to buy G.I. Joes and the Marx Best of the West figures. In a way, it was a safe zone where I could feel happy for a little while before going back to work. I can't help but wonder if Toys R Us was a safe zone for many other kids and grown-ups alike.

  2. Good post, John.

    The Canadian store locations are still open for business. Fairfax Financial, here in Toronto, bought them and continue to operate them under the Toys "R" Us name.

  3. John, nice sad thoughts regarding Toys-R-Us. We had a major toy store chain that was in my area before Toys-R-Us replaced it in the '80s. In the '70s and early '80s we had CHILDWORLD. It was my toy store with all the memories that you stated here.



  4. One of many big retailers killed by private equity firms (what we call corporate raiders these days). The debt used to leverage the buyout of the company weighted it down and destroyed it.

  5. Anonymous12:54 PM

    Indeed it was a great place to relive childhood memories and good old fashioned fun. In May I bought a sentinel submarine from our local store. The cashier joked, "Is this for you?" It felt great to say, "Please, I'm 50 years old...of course it's for me!"


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