Growing up in suburban America in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Toys R Us was the closest a kid could get to stepping inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The place was massive—thousands of brightly-lit square feet dedicated to a consumer toy appetite that could never be satiated. My mom would take me to Toys R Us as reward for patiently accompanying her on a day of errands, or as a salve for a particularly traumatic doctor visit. In between those trips, I negotiated the childhood equivalent of a balloon-mortgage. (I’ll sweep the driveway every day for the rest of the year in exchange for 20 minutes inside the store. Anything you want!)
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If that didn’t work, I begged.
Now, the company is bankrupt and, according to The Wall Street Journal, poised to liquidate, meaning it will close all its U.S. stores. There are a few reasons, The Atlantic recently noted. It’s partly digital competition—namely Amazon—and the company’s own inability to capture e-commerce dollars. Mismanagement is also to blame: Toys R Us is saddled with billions in debt.
But those trips to Toys R Us remain an indelible part of my childhood. Once inside, I would calculate what I could procure with the dollars in my pocket or the credit I’d negotiated with my mom. G.I. Joe was my first love. He was the plastic alpha male among a cabal of Ghostbusters, Gobots, Army Antz, LEGOS, Micro Machines, Rambo, WWF stars, Starting Lineups, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
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It wasn’t long before my desires shifted, to sports, video games, high school crushes, beer, studies, women, jobs, apartments, the love of my life. Then I had a kid, a daughter named Stella, and nearly three decades later, and a thousand miles from the stores of my childhood, it’s Saturday afternoon and I’m 36 and standing in a Toys R Us among a cluster of other big box stores in New Jersey with my two-year-old, and it all comes flooding back. The smell of plastic. The florescent light gleaming off the packages. The feeling nothing matters as much as this moment, right now.
Stella, who’s spent her entire life in the confines of Manhattan, is simultaneously overwhelmed by the enormity of the space and unhinged with delight. It was a joyous experience for both of us.
That was probably her first and only trip to Toys R Us. Children’s habits have changed. They spend more time with screens and less time at play with physical toys. Plus, the screens they are watching rarely have commercials, so they don’t even know Toys R Us exists. (Meanwhile, the Toys R Us jingle is so deeply embedded in my brain that I still find myself humming it occasionally: “I don’t want to grow up. I’m a Toys R Us kid…”)
The reason Stella doesn’t get to Toys R Us is because both her parents work. Though my mom had the luxury of staying at home with her two boys, my daughter goes to daycare Monday through Friday while my wife and I head to our jobs. On Saturday and Sunday, we recover from the week, play with Stella, and try our hardest to carve out precious hours for ourselves, our relationship, and our friends. There’s nothing leftover for Toys R Us.
But once Toys R Us is gone, what will I have to offer her after a particularly traumatic doctor visit? Amazon.com, for its speed and selection, is ultimately a hollow experience—a menu of infinite choices and a package delivered by USPS (or drone) doesn’t have the same feeling of zipping through the aisles on a brand new Huffy, or dreaming up the possibilities a 1000-piece box of LEGOS contained. It’s because Toys R Us was never really about the act of buying toys (as satisfying as that was). It was the promise of fun and the chance to spend a little time forgetting about whatever else was going on. We need places like that more than ever these days.