Imagine if you had spent the majority of your professional career building a business empire — but unfortunately your good genes bestowed you with an uncommon longevity — and you lived just long enough to watch the empire crumble before you abruptly died.
While this sounds like a twisted premise of a “would you rather?” proposition or maybe an episode of the Twilight Zone, it was real life for Charles Lazarus, the founder of Toys R Us, who passed away at age 94 last week — mere days after his juggernaut toy store empire collapsed into bankruptcy at the hands of Amazon, Wal-Mart and the changing needs and habits of shoppers.
The loss of the company from the business and cultural landscape is a devastating punch in the nostalgic gut of now-forced-to-grow-up “Toys R Us Kids” like me. We all have fond memories of making important pilgrimages to Toys R Us throughout our childhoods.
For me, I usually went to Toys R Us when I was on a mission: I was either there to purchase something specific or there to peruse the options of something that I was interested in and actively saving up to buy. This was not like a toy store in a mall (remember KB Toys?), where you idly browsed the aisles (except for that pink one) and fleetingly examined whatever caught your eye.
Toys R Us was for closers.
My memories of the store and its geography are still so vivid. I remember where the bikes were. I remember where the Nerf guns were. I remember where the video games were. Most of all, I remember where the action figures were.
I can easily call to mind so many purchases that my brothers and I made there. If I had all the money back that was spent on various Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, X-Men figures and video games, my whole family could probably afford a summer home somewhere nice.
But, you know what? I have no regrets and I’m sure my parents don’t, either. The hard-earned purchase of those toys taught me about the value of a dollar and how to save up money by doing various household chores. Once the toys were home, I learned all kinds of skills involving cooperation, communication, storytelling, imagination and creativity from creating worlds and conflicts for those action figures along with my brothers.
I’m not saying that Toys R Us made all of that possible, but it sure did make the shopping part easy. If I was going to a friend’s birthday party, we could swing by Toys R Us and easily find a gift. If I saw a commercial for a toy that I wanted to learn more about, I knew that I could find it at Toys R Us and examine the box to see how the real toy compared to what had been presented on TV before making my purchase.
As life ebbs and flows, there was very recently a long stretch of years when I pretty much stopped going to Toys R Us. This had nothing to do with market trends and everything to do with my stage of life. Now that I have kids of my own — and friends with kids even older than mine — I have frequently been back to Toys R Us buying gifts for new births, birthdays of godchildren, nieces and nephews, and more.
On a trip last year, I ventured out of the baby and early childhood section to return to my beloved action figure aisle. I was curious what I would find there these days, and I was utterly shocked to see so many of the same products that I had purchased as a child. I don’t mean modern toys from the same franchises (though there were plenty of those) — I mean toys that use the original molds from 25 years ago to repackage old action figures in new “retro” or “classic” product lines meant to appeal to that overwhelming 1980s-90s nostalgia that is currently (and blessedly!) dominating our culture.
I knew that life would change quickly and that my kids wouldn’t share all of the same experiences as me, but I kind of assumed that Toys R Us trips were an untouchable, childhood touchstone that would span our generations.
While I completely understand the technological and market forces at work that hastened the chain’s demise, it feels odd to think that my kids will be saving their quarters to make a purchase online — losing the wonderful anticipation of going to the store, finding the toy you want on the shelf, proudly paying for it and examining it on the ride home before busting it out and introducing it to all your other toys.
It just won’t be the same when an Amazon drone drops it down your chimney or whatever.
RIP, Charles Lazarus. I’m sure there are toy stores in Heaven, since they used to represent a little bit of Heaven on Earth.
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