I’m as filled with nostalgic yearning for the halcyon days of childhood as anyone else my age upon hearing that Toys ‘r’ Us has declared bankruptcy and will be shutting down. There are a number of stories that have come flooding back about how I would save both my allowance and the money I earned mowing and doing yard work for grandparents and neighbors to take to Toys ‘r’ Us, where I had something special in mind. Usually that was a G.I. Joe vehicle or Transformers figure.
The stories I’ve read in the last week have usually taken either that approach – wistful nostalgia – or examined the financial and marketplace reasons for the closing of the business. The latter seems to come down to how while yes, it faced challenges from Amazon and other competitors, those challenges may not have been insurmountable if it hadn’t been saddled with massive amounts of debt it could no longer service while maintaining a viable business.
There’s truth in all that, both the subjective memorials and the objective accounting. There’s also a reality that hasn’t been explored to a great extent, at least not in my reading, one that falls somewhere in between.
In “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby (or your singer of choice…which should be Bing Crosby) sings the lyric “…toys in every aisle” as if it’s unusual, an appearance which indicates the approaching holiday. Those younger than myself may not have memories of this, but that was very much the case back in the day.
The era of my childhood – let’s say prior to 1989 when I turned 15 – was one where department stores like Montgomery Ward, JC Penney and others were still a dominant retail force. They anchored shopping malls and offered just about anything you needed shy of groceries. Electronics, bedding, clothing, furniture, jewelry…it was all there. Outside of food there was really only one thing missing: Toys. Sure, you could find a couple cheap remote-controlled robots or something on an island in the middle of the Menswear section, but that’s about it.
So yes, as Irving Berlin said, the appearance of a toy department was a big deal. Something else was moved out of four or five aisles in one section of the store and a whole selection of toys were brought in starting right after Thanksgiving. Remember that this is before Black Friday was a three-day event, when most stores were closed on Thanksgiving and before Christmas items started showing up in mid-September. It was a sure sign we were getting close.
Toys only being in department stores for three or four weeks out of the year means that when our parents dragged us there because we needed new jeans or they needed pillowcases we were IN HEEELLLL. There was nothing for us there. And there were no portable electronics like Gameboys or iPhones or anything else to distract us. A trip to the department store means standing around staring at the carpet and hoping none of your friends from school would see you.
Department stores were limited to the realities of retail in the pre-internet era. They could only stock the items that were most likely to sell. Those realities haven’t changed. Even Walmart can only offer so much in-store. But in those days toys didn’t fall into the category of items that were worth devoting valuable floor space to.
(Side note: Everyone thinks being able to order something not currently in stock at a physical store is a new experience. It’s not. 40 years ago it just involved going to the customer service desk and paging through a printed catalog, at which point the person behind the desk would fill out a form and let you know when it was delivered. You then had to come *back* to the store to pick it up. It was a different time, but it employed a lot more people in better jobs.)
Maybe that’s because middle-class Baby Boomer parents were too frugal to be buying toys all the damn time, a financial mindset instilled in them by their parents, who had been born into the Great Depression and then lived through the rationing imposed during World War II. Maybe it’s because it was still a time when kids were expected to go outside and play year-round and so didn’t need an endless supply of indoor toys. Maybe it’s because babies were still assumed to be good with a rattle and some stuffed animals, not an entire gymnasium of stimulating play equipment.
Whatever the case, Toys ‘r’ Us was one of the only places you could get toys 365 days a year. The grocery store had half an aisle of toys, sure, but finding something good there was rare. K-Mart had a couple aisles of toys regularly but the selection still wasn’t great.
So walking into Toys ‘r’ Us was a magical experience, though now it’s obvious the unique position it enjoyed was one that was dictated by the market forces of the time. That toys were not seen as a valuable asset created a scarcity of availability that bestowed special status to Toys ‘r’ Us, as well as the few other retailers devoted solely to toys.
That’s what’s different now. Not only can you buy anything you can think of from the online retailer of your choice but “big box” stores like Target, Meijer and Walmart have adapted to meet demand. They’re not wholly unlike the department stores of old, just different. Instead of being on two or three floors, everything is on one level. Instead of a quarter of the second floor (it was always on the second floor) being devoted to dining room and bedroom sets, there’s a massive footprint for toys of all kinds.
Kids may no longer have the experience of walking into a cathedral devoted solely to toys, an oasis that was designed for them while the rest of the world was designed for their parents. There’s something lost there, to be sure. But those my age and older only had that experience because scarcity made it happen.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.