Toy (Store) Story + podcast
(link to podcast version at bottom)
No, this has nothing to do with Woody or Buzz. It has everything to do with red ink, Chapter 11 and the loss of places parents could rely on to be tortured by their children.
In other words, it’s sort of sad, but not in an Old Yeller way. The only guns shoot water or air and nothing dies but mom and dad’s sanity.
What’s sparked this HO-sized train of thought is the news that Toys R Us is liquidating. Yes..every Barbie, Monopoly set, pop gun, billion-pack of Pampers, two-wheeler, three-wheeler, Big Wheeler, doll house, swing set, bouncy ball, battery and jump rope..out the door at deep discounts before the giant toy chain closest its doors forever.
That news comes in the wake of the closing recently of beloved Detroit-area Doll Hospital and Toy Soldier Shop and who knows how many other independent toy stores around the country.
Yeah, sure, it’s cool for parents to find something their kids want by searching online or prowling the neighborhood Walmart, and probably spending less money, but what’s missing here is the chance for children..and sometimes adults… to be children. To explore the shelves of cool stuff, pick up a doll or ball or Super Soaker or puzzle and feel it, imagine what it would be like to actually own it and play with it and show it to your friends then beg your parents to buy it, pleading you just HAVE to have this or your life will instantly become meaningless.
My first recollection of going into a toy store was a little place in the line of stores pictured above on Union Turnpike and 248th Street in Queens, where I grew up. Stuck in a strip near a bar, booze shop and deli, It was called Mitchells. Yup. Owned by a guy named Mitchell. Wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name and didn’t care as long as the names he carried included Mattel and Remco and Parker Brothers and Hasbro, Lionel and Ideal and Gilbert. Mitchells wasn’t a big place. It was about the size of a small deli, only instead of pickles and pastrami his shelves were stuffed with toys of every kind. I hardly had more than a buck on me, a week’s allowance, when I’d pop into Mitchells. He knew all I could probably buy was a Tootsie Roll or some tiny water gun he sold for a nickel. Sometimes I’d buy a box containing a couple of rolls of caps for my toy Matt Dillon six-shooter. Bang! Bang! Bang! Those caps were awesome because most anything that made noise was awesome.
Mitchells lasted only a few years before he was bought out by a dry cleaner. How boring is that! But all wasn’t lost. A mile or two down Union Turnpike, just over the city line in Nassau County, was a cool place called Hush-a-Bye. It sold lots of furniture for children’s rooms, but the lower level was all toys. The coolest toys. Toys that wouldn’t fit in Mitchells’s small space. Knock hockey tables, elaborate electric train sets, all sorts of bikes, pogo sticks and Hula hoops. All it took was 20 cents to get on the bus, take it to the City Line stop and walk about three block to Hush-a-Bye. When you’re talking cool toys, that’s a small journey. My friends and I were almost always too broke to actually buy anything, but just plying the aisles of this new wonderland was entertainment in itself.
Fast forward to a time my older brother and I were in college. We decided to go into Manhattan and the flagship FAO Schwartz store where Tom Hanks jumped around on a giant keyboard in “Big.” We needed to buy a special toy for one of our cousin’s birthday. But we became hopelessly lost in the giant store, forgot our mission and started tossing around a football my brother picked up from one of the shelves. The other customers were smart enough to realize neither of us were adept at passing accurately…or catching the ball, for that matter and got the hell out of the way. The nonsense finally ended when a smartly suited salesman suggested we remove our sorry selves from the esteemed purveyor of playthings. Ha! We never did get around to buying that gift. The poor kid received a nice card and our best wishes.
By the time my two kids were born in the 1980’s my wife and I never forgot the wonder of exploring toy stores and let our son and daughter take all the time they wanted when we hit the neighborhood Toys R Us.
The stores sold these big plastic playhouses and had the samples lined up like little Levittowns in a center aisle. Our kids would check out every one of them and, like adult lookie-loos, would advise us of which one best suited their dreams. One year we actually bought on of them. It sat in a special corner of our basement and the kids filled it with balloons…naming the plastic cottage the Balloony Goony House. They had a lot of fun in it until they outgrew the three-foot high doorway and we sold it to our neighbors at one of our garage sales.
Maybe it’s true today’s kids would rather bang on a keyboard, fry their eyes gaping at one screen or another or perform every task on their little phones…just like adults. As Joni Mitchell wrote, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” but I hate to think of a time when kids never know of places where fun, exploration, surprise and discovery were were right out there. Not online on a screen. But right there…to touch and see…sitting on shelf..and shipping was always free..because it came home with you, in your parent’s car.