The crinkling is what I remember most clearly. Sprawled out on the floor of my family room, perusing the Toys ‘R’ Us catalog like the Sunday Times, I flipped through the thin pages, pen in hand, circling play sets and Nerf guns and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
As a kid who came of age in the nineties, the Toys ‘R’ Us catalog was my bible and the store my church. Who could blame me? I couldn’t discern the undertow of marketing and I watched a lot of television. What I knew was that there was a place where aisle after aisle of action figures awaited me, where stuffed animals with stitched smiles stared at me from wire cages, where a left would lead me to neon bats and Vortex footballs and a right would lead me towards super soakers and slip n’ slides. If there was a place that captured the Eden I saw through my nineties orange, green-slime-tinted filter, this was it.
Actually visiting Toys ‘R’ Us was a rare experience for me. I didn’t cross into its threshold but once or twice a year. Trips were confined to the post-holiday sale where I could spend my Christmas money or the occasional birthday present trip where I could select a single gift. (Was there any more nerve-wracking a phrase for a kid than “You can pick out one thing that costs no more than 50 dollars”? The pressure!)
Scarcity drove demand. Also suspense. I would usually be informed a week ahead of a Toys ‘R’ Us trip and spend the next five or six days sweating over what I might like to see in person and figure out. Any other time, you couldn’t get me to plan on anything. For a Toys ‘R’ Us trip? I would bust out the catalogs I’d collected over the months and make lists that I’d cross check and deliberate for hours. At school, I’d ask friends their opinions on whether they thought it was better to buy Donatello or Duke, Star Stream or Lady Scarlett. These things were important.
In short, I loved Toys ‘R’ Us in that way only a kid can. This exists?!? I’d think. What a world.
When I read the news yesterday that the company will be closing all of its 800 U.S. stores, unable to bounce back after it filed for bankruptcy six months ago, I winced. Sure, it could’ve done more to modernize and stabilize itself in the face of online competition, but Toys ‘R’ Us was, whatever its shortcomings, a place for and about kids. The catalog made extravagant promises and the store backed them up.
Will I miss the store? Sure, the same way I miss sitting up on Saturday night watching Are You Afraid of the Dark and going to sleepovers with friends. But the store is more than a store. It was also an origin story. It was also where my friends, including a stuffed bear named John, came from.
The loss of Toys ‘R’ Us was, perhaps, inevitable. Retail is struggling and the business never really expanded online. Still, I feel none of that sweet corporate schadenfreude. It feels like a genuine loss. It’s something from my childhood that’s gone. And another thing, too. Youth, maybe. Like a lot of other children, I didn’t want to grow up. I did. That’s not bad, it just is what it is.
The next generation of kids will find ways to be kids. But they won’t be our ways — walking for hours and touching action figures and Atari systems. It’s not good, bad, or other. It’s just different.
It’s sweet to remember having an uncomplicated relationship with a business that was trying to sell me something. It’s sweet to remember that sort of pure purchasing pleasure. It’s sweet to remember being young and thinking, this was made for me. I know it wasn’t. But it felt that way. I was a Toys ‘R’ Us kid. That was something.