Wall to, wall-to-wall toys, Lets Go!
Wall to, wall-to-wall toys, Lets Go!
Wall to, wall-to-wall toys, Lets Go!
Wall to, wall-to-wall toys, Lets Go!

Will you remember Kaycee Kangaroo, Peter Panda, Mr. Kay Bee,
and Geoffrey the Giraffe?
It’s the end, the end of the toy stores!
It’s the end, the end of the Century!

Imagine the above set to the tune of the Ramones “Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio”.  This year we’re seeing the end of an era as the bankruptcy and eventual liquidation of the world’s largest (and honestly last) brick and mortar toy store chain, Toys R Us, begins to unfold. The story of how the retail giant stumbled and fell is a long and complex tale involving mismanagement, buyouts, greedy venture capital firms and an unwillingness to adapt to the modern marketplace, and it’s not one that I feel comfortable enough interpreting here. This also isn’t intended to be a eulogy piece for the chain. There are plenty of folks out there doing a way better job of sending off the toy store. In fact, if you want to read a short and incredibly poignant reflection, check out Matt from Dinosaur Dracula sharing some of his thoughts on twitter in a thread that sums up the way a lot of us are feeling.

Matt touches on this concept of the store acting as a sort of battery recharge station for our soul. This idea that just ducking in and scanning the aisles for a few minutes was way more important than actually shopping for toys in the store. I highly identify with that notion, having found myself practicing that very act on many occasions over the last twenty years. Matt is lucky (in my opinion) in that he’s lived his entire life in the vicinity of the same exact location and thus has formed a pretty tight bond with the store which I’m sure increases the sadness of losing Toys R Us. Having bounced all over the country in my forty years, I have a much more tenuous bond with any one location, but I have had some pretty emotional experiences revisiting the store that was located in Altamonte Springs, FL near Orlando. That was the location where I was first introduced to the chain, and one where I have some vivid memories of scanning through pegs full of G.I. Joe and Star Wars figures. Again, like Matt, it wasn’t so much the actual layout or aisles of the store that resonated with me as these have changed so many times over the decades that they are nothing like what I remember as a kid.  But it was the location, the building, sunken parking lot, and the ramp up to the front door. Those are things that have stayed exactly the same for the last 30 or so years.

Even more so than the end of Toys R Us in particular, what I’m really struck by in the wake of the bankruptcy is the end of the concept of wall-to-wall toy stores. The landscape is littered with the empty husks of fallen chain stores. Some of these buildings have found new tenants. There is a PetCo where the Duluth, GA Toys R Us store once anchored the Mall Corners strip mall. There’s a Goodwill Superstore where a Kiddie City once stood in Bel Air, MD. Sometimes these empty storefronts are just rusting cancers that are slowly draining the life out of once great indoor malls like a lot of Kay Bee store locations.

What I’m realizing as I try and look at this trend from outside of my own nostalgia is that this is a sign of the end of the golden era for my own generation. I can’t count how many times I sat and listened to my father talk about how different the world seemed in the first 40 years of his life. How much seemed to change during the 70s and 80s that obliterated the world that he was accustomed to growing up in the 40s and 50s. Institutions that he imagined would be around forever that had disappeared almost overnight. Soda fountains, local pharmacies, 5 & Dimes, seasonal burger or fry stands, car hops, diners, drive-ins or his favorite, smoking in restaurants. This is the way of the world. Things change, the center does not hold.

But I think what we might want to take away from this situation isn’t that things fall apart. Just that things change. It’s hard not to feel like the whole way of life we’re accustomed to is dying, and it is for the most part. But the next generation will not care. I think back to when I was a kid and there were still some institutions around like Drive-Ins and Woolworth’s. When they basically evaporated I was totally cool with it. I was a kid. There were still movie theaters to go to and even though the local Woolworth’s closed, there was still K-Mart, Wal-Mart and eventually Target. So kids these days, they’ll bounce back. There are still Targets and Wal-Marts with huge toy sections. Amazon is basically a virtual Toys R Us. And probably one of the biggest realizations that we as adults have to come to grips with? Kids just don’t play with toys the same way that we did 20 and 30 years ago. Video games, television and Youtube have superseded toys in a lot of households. Sure, we still buy a lot of toys for kids, but I’ve watched first-hand has nieces and nephews receive the kind of toys that I had as a kid and they just sit in their rooms collecting dust.

If we grieve for the loss of Toys R Us, we’re grieving for a past that we’re no longer living in. It’s the essence of nostalgia. Though it might seem like the world is falling apart, it’s really just shifting to accommodate a new generation. I’m not saying we shouldn’t get misty-eyed, or plan that big final trip to the store nearest us for one last hurrah, just that we shouldn’t worry too much about how the next generation is going to handle this. Those kids are going to be just fine and will be obsessing over something today that we could probably care less about. Just like our parents, who most likely didn’t like seeing Toys R Us dominate the landscape in the 70s and 80s, helping to usher in the age of the big box store and sending the death knell for all the smaller and more local shops they loved their whole lives. The wheel turns.