Hey Remember – Toys ‘R’ Us

Remember Toys R Us closing

“Kids, gather around. I have some sad news to tell you. Toys “R” Us is going away.”

“What do you mean mister? Where is Toys “R”  Us going? Why does it have to leave? ”

“Well, it got sick and wasn’t able to get better. So, now it has to close up and no one will get to shop there anymore. I know you’re all sad about it. I’m sad too. But we can still remember it anytime we want and think of all the good memories it gave us. You can hug your stuffed Geoffrey the Giraffe and sing the Toys “R” Us song to him anytime you want. Do you have any questions?”

Toys R Us commercial kid Geoffrey closing stores“So, what you’re saying is that Toys ‘R’ Us is going the same way as a lot of other brick and mortar retail outlets have gone. They stopped making a lot of money like they used to. They had a a bunch of debts that their dummy head bosses couldn’t overcome and they were too stupid to adapt to 21st century changes and digital shopping. So, they had no choice but to file for bankruptcy and now are forced to liquidate all their stores and disappear forever?”

“Uh, yeah. That sums it up. I’m glad you kids understand.”

“Yeah, ok. Whatever. Can we go play on our tablets now.”

And so the curtain comes down on a seventy-year old childhood wonder of a store that dazzled generations of wide-eyed kids and had millions of them excitedly running up and down its aisles. Toys “R” Us is going bye-bye.

You’ve read all about the circumstances that lead to Toys “R” Us closing it’s doors permanently. Folks are eager to weigh in on the whys, the reasons, placing the blame and detailing what exactly happened to lead us to saying farewell to a place once known as being retail paradise for any little boy and girl.

But skipping over the ‘hows’, ‘whys’ and ‘what happened?’, the ultimate end of the story is that all those big warehouse-sized toy wonderlands that everyone loved going to when they were a kid will be no more.

Normally, I do these ‘Hey Remember’ posts about things that are much more distant memories than this. The closing up of all Toys “R” Us stores is pretty fresh news. It’s still sinking in for a lot of people. They might not have been in one in decades, but that nostalgic connection that was made between millions of kids and Toys “R” Us is a pretty powerful thing. Kids were its sole target demographic and the company worked really hard to cement a relationship to them. So, folks really mean it when they describe its closing as ‘the death of part of my childhood’.

Toys R Us catalog geoffrey giraffe 1969 retroAt the moment it seems folks are now suddenly eager to do some shopping at Toys “R” Us, mainly to get their hands on some slashed priced deals that will inevitably happen. And for some, just to walk in its doors to take one final last look around and wax nostalgic will get them to pay one a visit.

Toys “R” Us will probably get more foot traffic in the last waning months of its life than it has in the last ten years! Kind of ironic huh?

Going to a Toys “R” Us will soon be one of those experiences of childhood that will fade into memory never to be had by future generations of kids. There will be a clear line drawn between the kids who will have grown up with Toys “R” Us in their lives and for those whom it will never have existed.

When future kids hear these old, grey-haired ‘Toys “R” Us Kids’ reflect back on their youth, the younger generation will look confused and ask “what the heck are you talking about? A toy store? You mean it ONLY sold toys? There was nothing else to buy there? Yeah right! Why would they spell its name with a backwards ‘R’? Who the heck is Geoffrey the Giraffe? Will you stop singing that song!”

It all started in 1948 when 25-year-old Charles Lazarus opened a baby furniture store called Children’s Bargain Town in Washington, D.C. It catered to the post-war baby boom era of young newlyweds on the cusp of starting families in the soon to be sunny 1950’s.

Lazarus began expanding his inventory to include toys for children. And that proved to be quite a hit attracting more and more steady young customers. Soon he would focus solely on selling toys.

It wasn’t until ten years later Lazarus expanded to the supermarket-styled shopping experience for customers. It proved successful. And with the opening of his second store he adopted the name Toys “R” Us. The backwards ‘R’ was an attention-getter, looking childlike, which was exactly the point Lazarus wanted to get across. Teachers and parents weren’t fans of the grammatical error though.

Toys R Us Geoffrey Giraffe evolution mascotFrom there Toys “R” Us stores began popping up all over the country and soon became part of the landscape. The mascot of Geoffrey the Giraffe was born in 1965. He would be featured in TV commercials for the store and became their ever-present mascot.

Geoffrey went through several redesigns through the years and was even given a wife Gigi and a son and daughter, Junior and Baby Gee. They would make appearances at the stores and give the kids a thrill. Along with also enticing kids to come visit the store on endless tv commercials.

I never understood how Toys settled on having a giraffe as a mascot. I never really saw the connection between toys and this long necked animal. It worked though.

By the early 1980’s Toys “R” Us expanded on its ‘R’ brand opening with the clothing focused Kids “R” Us, which would eventually fold into the Babies “R” Us brand.

I, like millions of other kids, loved Toys “R” Us. Their commercials, their catalogs, the store. It was all great. And yeah I have nice memories of it.

I remember going there, rifling through the pegs of Star Wars toys to pick out the specific action figures I needed. I got my first Star Wars toy from there. A Darth Vader action figure. I ended up having to get a replacement one down the road because I accidentally popped his head off. Most of my childhood toys came from Toys “R” Us.

My parents were really good during Christmas to keep my crazy lists of requested Star Toys straight. I don’t think I ever had to return any of them or tell them this wasn’t the one I wanted. It must have drove them crazy keeping that all that nonsense straight.

Toys R Us catalog 1980sI recall Mom taking me to our Toys “R” Us to see superheroes who were making an appearance at the store. I wish I had a picture of that. Back then our expectations of superhero costumes were extremely low. I think Spider-Man was a guy just wearing red pajamas and the Hulk was some styrofoam mask on a guys head, but to my young eyes they were awe-inspiring!

During the early 80’s the height of the Cabbage Patch craze hit. I recall seeing the lines of parents all waiting and hoping to get one of those stinking dolls at my Toys “R” Us. My mother was forced to brave that chaos. Seeing the old news clips of that fad is hysterical now.

Toys “R” Us was where I got my Huffy dirt bike. I loved that bike! Blue and yellow, tearing around the neighborhood and the backwoods on that thing. I have no idea how many miles I racked up on that bike. All those scenes of Elliot riding his bike in E.T. – that was me!

It was really during the 1970s and 80s that I think of as ‘the height of Toys “R” Us’. It might just be because that’s around the time I was a kid and toys were really on my radar. That’s also when we got those catchy commercials that are still remembered today.

Star Wars toys r us shopping retro 1980sToylines were running rampant during that period! It seemed perfectly reasonable that a huge store was needed to have them all under one roof for busloads of kid to go to! There was that adolescent high demand to fill toyboxs with all this stuff and spend afternoons playing with it all.

And when you walked into those older Toys “R” Us stores you’d gaze upon aisles and aisles of toys! It looked like they went on for miles! No exaggeration – just walls packed and filled, solely devoted to specific toy-lines! They didn’t waste an inch of space in those older stores.

Ok, maybe it just looked more impressive because I was smaller then, but still thinking back on all the toys that were available:

Star Wars, He-Man, Transformers, Barbie, Super Powers, Mego dolls, Strawberry Shortcake, the Smurfs, Barbie, WWF, Care Bears, Thundercats GI Joe, Jem, Colorforms, My Little Pony, Hot Wheels, My Little Pony, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rainbow Bright, Cabbage Patch Kids, MicroMachines, new home game systems, on and on and on.

We were inundated with toy advertisements. THEN with the now extinct weekly Saturday morning cartoon ritual we all did, it would help propel all these toys popularity and promotion even further! Then there were all these different popular movies that toy companies were able to capitalize on. It was a lot of variety happening.

It was like an endless desire to collect these toys and get the latest character, vehicle or playset for them. Not to mention all the standard, timeless toys kids will always play with and have. What kid hasn’t ever played with Play-Dough?

I know everyone likes saying, ‘oh today’s kids only like their ipads and video games. Tangible, old-fashioned toys aren’t as popular as they once were’ observation. But really, what are the popular toy lines today that warrant having their own shopping sections devoted to them and you have to keep them stocked for a steady stream of kids?

A lot of those retro toylines and brands from a generation ago are still around, but they’re not as big of a thing as they once were. Even Star Wars toys, while still popular, don’t seem like that big of a deal in comparison from back to what I remember it as ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’.

A lot of those older toylines have gone through updating to be marketed to older collectors who grew up with them. These are really high-end, pricey toys, that look more like display pieces than actual toys! Today, a kids weekly allowance or their cash they earn by having a paper route wouldn’t even afford a kid to buy the accessories for some of these speciality action figures.

Many of those older toy brands have had a longevity to them. They made a huge impact on kids. Awhile back I was watching the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us that featured the history of toylines like Star Wars, He-Man and G.I. Joe.

Yeah, Barbie and Legos will always be around, but in twenty, thirty years what toylines being made today will be looked back with such reverence as some of the ones that were born in the ’70’s and ’80’s? To my grown-up eyes, most toys today seem more like short-term fads than something that will follow kids for the rest of their lives and continue long after they hit adulthood.

Star Wars toys Toys R Us retro shopping kidI mean, I know kids were crazy about fidget-spinners for ten minutes, but I don’t think that warrants having a football field-sized store to go buy them at.

I know one of the big popular, trending internet things nowadays are these unboxing toy videos. Kids open up some sealed mystery box on camera to record their reaction of seeing what kind of toy it contains.

That type of toy product seems perfectly designed to be bought anonymously online. Why would a kid have to goto a toy store to buy that thing? They’re basically opening up their mail to viewers.

Will kids have the same strong emotional attachment to their toys as a generation ago has held onto theirs? In twenty, thirty years, are kids going to value the toys from their youth as much as previous generations do? Does the movie Toy Story better reflect a previous generation of kids and their relationship to their toys rather than present day kids?

I still have my 1983 Jabba the Hutt figure and still get jazzed seeing it and pulling it out of its box. Or my Mego magnet-handed Batman! Geez, I love him! There’s no way I would ever let Mom put him out for a garage sale or toss him out! I’d never forgive her for that!

I’m still pissed at her for giving away my 1979 18-inch Alien figure decades ago!

It could be all us grown-up toy loving nostalgic collectors all took that Toys “R” Us “I don’t want to grow up” jingle a little too seriously. The amount of plastic us adult toy-lovers will leave behind is going to be astronomical!

I think we also played with toys for much longer than our modern day counterparts do too. We continued diving into our toxboxes at older ages, whereas kids today stop with the ‘kid stuff’ and grow up faster than we did. Or maybe that’s just my skewed perspective.

I’m sure some toy historians and scholars (if there are such folks) have examined this question and the evolution of kids and their toys and how it has changed over the years. It is an interesting thought.

The brightly lit Shangri-La childhood scene of Toys “R” Us I once had got washed away a long time ago when I found myself having to punch a time clock walking into the place and I ended up working for Geoffrey.

Yes, I was a Toys “R” Us employee for a time. Initially, my time at Toys “R” Us was only meant to be a seasonal position for me, but they asked me to stay on and I stuck around there much longer than I ever had planned to. I still think they were just shocked that they had found a halfway decent worker with me and didn’t want to let me go.

Toys R Us shipping truckThat magical toy curtain got pulled back when I saw how workers were treated, the issues the stores faced, the problems that the company had and how they would handle them and in some cases flat out ignore them.

In a way Toys “R” Us educated me as to how disorganized every business and company operates. Since that time, I’ve witnessed incompetence, chaos and disorganization in every place I’ve been. I somehow expect it.

I still believe, no matter where you’re working or how nice a place it might look from the outside, it’s most likely being run by idiots and it’s flat out amazing the place is not only somehow still managing to operate, but actually is able to keep the roof on!

But maybe that’s just my personal experience. Anyway, thanks Geoffrey for that life lesson!

It was a crazy place. The best thing I can say about it was that some of the folks I worked with were very nice. I enjoyed seeing them everyday and they made the place fun to spend time at. I still keep in contact with many of them today. Another plus, was often times I had the run of the place when I worked overnights there.

Not many people want to work the overnight shift, but it worked for me. I would be going to classes during the day and then working overnights. I can’t believe I managed it. For a long stretch it would be me and one other person alone in one big, quiet Toys “R” Us store. Looking back on it I realize how absurd that was.

Just picture the size of one of these stores and the amount of work that it would take to stock it. Now imagine it’s relying on two people to handle that. No supervision over them, no one watching and those two not caring of their responsibilities and just trying to get through their shift as painlessly as possible.

Toys R Us store layout 1980s closingOh, if I had still been a kid it would have been a dream job. I spent my nights riding scooters around the place, playing video games, watching dvds, getting into the vending machines, setting up car race tracks, sometimes sleeping most of my shift. If Geoffrey knew what was going on he would have been very upset with me.

 

There were a few amusing things I think back on that happened during my tenure of being a Toys “R” Us employee. The humorous stuff is really the things worth reflecting on.

Like, when in 1999 that Disney Tarzan movie came out and there was an action figure of Tarzan that got released that upset parents because when you pushed his ‘Try Me’ button his hand would move up and down and yell. It looked like Tarzan was vigorously masterbating. Yeah, that upset quite a few parents.

Or when that 1998 Godzilla movie and they were anticipating the toys being a big hit. They had tried to keep what this Godzilla looked like so we were instructed not to open any of the toy boxes until a specified date. We ignored that, took a peek at them, discovered what Godzilla looked like and were totally unimpressed. All those Godzilla toys sat around unsold for a really long time. I don’t think that stuff made it on many kids’ Christmas lists.

Or how about that big Midnight Madness event for the long awaited return of Star Wars in 1999 with The Phantom Menace! A big deal was made about that movie coming out and of course that excitement included new Star Wars toys too! We had the place decorated, giant pod racers hung from the ceiling, the local news came over to cover the story, lines of fans were outside the door waiting for the stroke of midnight on May 3rd ’99 for us to open the doors and they could buy all this new stuff!

Toys Tarzan Godzilla Phantom Menace Toys R UsOh sure, everyone was excited about it all that night. We even had a bunch of Star Wars cosplayers there to participate. They agreed to help promote the event and only requested the store hold one of every toy for them so they could buy them when things died down. Unfortuatnely for the them, an employee didn’t realize what all these shopping carts full of Phantom Menace crap were for and wheeled it out to the frenzied crowd.

So, those cosplayers got really screwed and when things started to die down and they went to get their toys they were gone! It was quite an amusing image of seeing a girl dressed as Queen Amidala with the makeup and big hairdo looking very pissed off.

It didn’t really matter though. The rest of the year all that Phantom Menace crap hung around the store, so there were plenty of opportunities to get it all. You could even wait longer until it all finally made it’s way to the bargain bins. That stuff hung around forever! It didn’t exactly have the same sustaining power as the original toys. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still unsold Phantom Menace toys from ’99 still hanging around at the bottom of the bins in some stores.

One of my favorite little pastimes was to see how long the Dragonheart figures sat in the store. Kids weren’t too keen on wanting a Dennis Quaid action figure.

I went through many Black Friday chaotic mornings. The overwhelmingly, crazy holiday seasons with the store hiring seasonal workers who would have been better suited to appear in Deliverance than stocking Raggedy Ann dolls. There were those wacky store layout redesigns that I always thought ruined the simplicity the place once had and just ended up being a confusing maze and an unpleasant shopping experience. The lack of quality toys that would be adorning the shelves. Toy scalpers picking through cases of action figures to sell at a markup. When Babies “R” Us began eclipsing our toy sales.

Everyone is giving their eulogies and reflections of the demise of Toys “R” Us. Most probably haven’t stepped in one in years. And it’s probably longer than that when they actually bought something from one of them. Odds are, this past Christmas most of the folks talking about how upset they are to see the stores closing fulfilled their toy buying obligations either shopping online or going to other stores that had cheaper prices.

You can’t really blame consumers though. Nostalgic memories don’t have much of a chance against present day convenience and lower prices elsewhere. And if the folks running Toys “R” Us weren’t able to provide that or could figure out how to compete in the digital era, managed to incompetently amass all this debt that was choking them year after year and thought they could rely on their mascot and their old commercial jingle to get folks to shop there and keep them alive – well, their extinction was only a matter of time.

Toys R Us Times Square ferris wheelThere’s more than just one thing that ended Toys “R” Us. Honesty, back when I worked there I was amazed it was still able to stay in business. I used to think it was odd that they were expanding stores and opening more of them without updating its business model, and that was ages ago.

Yeah, it’s great they had this big showy store in Times Square with a big ferris wheel inside, and I’m sure that place did some decent business thanks to tourists. But what about all the hundreds of their other stores that continued to look and function like an antiquated dinosaur from a bygone era? Some of their stores didn’t look like they were touched since the late 1980s!

There is a certain bit of irony to all this when you remember that Toys “R” Us helped put out hundreds, maybe thousands of Mom & Pop toy stores and other outlets in its 70-year history.

So, Toys “R” Us and Geoffrey will go the way like so many other big box stores. And it is a shame. I can’t imagine a kid ever getting as excited when their parents tell them they’ll be taking them to a Target or a Walmart as we got when it was announced we were going to Toys “R” Us. Kids can’t possibly have the same kind of enthusiasm browsing through Amazon as we did when the new Toys “R” Us catalog arrived.

None of those future toy shopping options won’t have the same joyous emotion we got from that store. Once upon a time, Toys “R” Us was one of the ultimate destinations for millions of kids to spend an afternoon at.

But I guess future kids won’t care too much about it closing. They won’t know what they’ll be missing since they weren’t around to experience Toys “R” Us’ during those golden years we had during our youth. I think it’s really more of the grown Toys “R” Us kids who are more upset over the news that Toys “R” Us, the once mighty pillar of so many childhoods, has collapsed and will disappear. That place really didn’t want to make any of us grow up.

Farewell old friend.

 

Do you have your own personal fond memories of Toys “R” Us?

 

 

 

Here’s some old retro commercials before they got their famous jingle. I so remember that Christmas commercial!

 

 

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