The last Toys”R”Us store will click off its harsh fluorescent lights today, leaving Geoffrey the Giraffe in the quiet dark of his decimated retail cave. Never again will the goofy giraffe smile over frustrated parents at the checkout line or over their children as they beg through tears for the toy that was left behind. Never again will he observe placidly from on high as a child crashes a bike into a rack of toys, only to abandon the scene like a drunk with a bench warrant. The plasticine savannah has gone quiet.
This is very sad. This is very sad despite the fact that Toys”R”Us was just another big box store. This is sad despite the fact that Toys”R”Us was just another terribly run business. This is sad despite the fact the Toys”R”Us never loved us back or lived up to the unattainable expectations we incubated as kids and attempted to mediate as parents. We wanted Toys”R”Us to be FAO Schwarz, which is now an Apple store. It wasn’t. It was a damn mess, but we loved it for that as well.
Toys”R”Us was both weirdly sterile and weirdly chaotic. The towering canyons of toys were garish and loud, but also merchandised without mirth. The toys waited behind the plastic windows of their boxes stacked on shelves that towered over our heads. Save for some random exceptions, there was little a kid could really get their hands on. And if a toy was somehow presented for sample play, you’d have to wait, staring holes in the back of some kid’s head so you could touch that train or that video game system before your parents made you leave.
For a kid growing up far from glamorous New York City toy stores, Toys”R”Us felt like some sort of blessing from the now dead retail gods. While it wasn’t a playground, fun could still be had. You could run from parents and hide in the stacks. You could bury yourself in the stuffed animals. You could sneak open a toy’s box and play furtively. You could hop on a bike or skateboard and cause all sorts of havoc.
The cool thing about Toys”R”Us was that it was for kids — unapologetically so. Toys”R”Us was basically what a store designed by children would become. That’s not a compliment, but it’s also not fully an insult.
There were many years as an adult when Toys”R”Us was a non-entity to me. There was just no reason to go there. And then I returned as a parent. While little had changed at the big box store in the interim, the lack of care had really started to show. There were broken displays and littered aisles. The store always seemed understaffed, and those employees I did come across had the dead zombie eyes that can only come from days spent in the brutal kid chaos.
The was no proper path to child discipline at Toys”R”Us. I watched parents close-talk to their kids in enraged whispers. I watched children dragged limp and wailing from action figures. I saw kids get whacked upside the head. And yet the kids never seemed to mind. I know mine never did.
Without fail, the second my kids were through the door they were possessed by the fevered spirit of consumerism — a force so powerful that no amount of parental threats, pleading, or warning could get them to chill. Eventually, you just stop trying.
The last time I was at Toys”R”Us, I left the children behind to buy a birthday present. I’d also just left a fight at home, walking out the door full of bad feelings while my wife seethed on the couch. I can’t remember what the issue was, but I remember the fight continued via cellphone while I stood in the stuffed animal aisle. I was being loud. My voice was cracking as I spoke to my wife, who was crying in anger on the other end of the line. Kids and parents milled around me. They didn’t give a shit. I didn’t give a shit. Toys got broken at Toys”R”Us and broken people — or parents in various states of disrepair — were always welcome.
I say with a tinge of guilt that I’m likely one of the reasons the retailer is closing. For the last three years, I’ve done my toy shopping online. That way, my kids can play downstairs while I secretly purchase their gifts. It’s better — well, easier anyway. I don’t have to hear them nag. They don’t have to suffer temptation and disappointment. Sure, they also don’t get to experience the toys before they arrive at our home. But frankly, YouTube is littered with unboxing videos that more or less fill that particular niche.
So, while I feel a nostalgia for the passing of Toys”R”Us, I also understand that sometimes the world does need to grow up. Even if it doesn’t wanna.