The year is 1994. I am five years old. In those days my only job was to play games. That was the job of every kid at that age. Besides I couldn’t watch Disney movies at every waking hour and I had to do something with my life after the credits rolled.
I first thought about this in depth when I used to babysit my niece when she was five and I realized how she was very similar to how me and her dad were when we were kids: every single minute of the day was a game. Back then I didn’t have anxiety or misery or all the things that came when I got older. The only things that mattered were having fun.
So when your entire being revolves around the idea of having fun and playing games, what is the most important place in the world besides Disneyland? For a long time it was Toys”R”Us.
I’ve never gone there as a child but I begged to go constantly because I used to flip through the catalogs.
Getting a new toy when you are a kid is nirvana, but I had to settle for Christmas, which I was perfectly fine with. Although the countdown to December was excruciating as well, at least I knew when it was coming.
Speaking of winter coming, the American toy retailer has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy back in 2017 after doing dismal business for years, and is now on the precipice of closing down and selling its many stores around the world.
I’m not entirely sure why I felt such a strong need to write this article since the Toys”R”Us train had come and gone like a flash in the pan in my childhood and I had never actually gone there! It may as well as have been located somewhere over the rainbow! But there was something about the news of the company’s demise that stirred up emotions, and I think it had to do with the fact that the allure of the place made such an impression on me as a kid that it never really left me, even when I became an adult and had no desire to go to toy stores anymore. Once the store closed down, it was like a very dim light deep in the core of my heart had just faded away, and even though I neglected it, I somewhat missed it when it left.
In 1948, a man named Charles Lazarus founded a furniture store called Children’s Supermarket in Washington, D.C. The store had success, but he was getting requests to sell baby toys along with the furniture, which eventually led to toys for older children as well.
The toys were the biggest sellers in the store and so in 1957, Lazarus reimagined the brand and opened the first Toys”R”Us dedicated exclusively to selling toys in Rockville, Maryland.
Lazarus was the one who designed the company logo, including the backwards “R” which indicated a child’s handwriting.
At the height of its popularity, the company operated 800 stores in the U.S. and around 800 outside the U.S. as well, even branching out to include other chains like Babies”R”Us and Kids”R”Us.
The Toys”R”Us mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe was first known as Dr. G. Raffe in the 1950s ads for Children’s Bargaintown, but his name changed after Interstate Department Stores, Inc., the owner of Children’s Bargaintown, bought Toys”R”Us in 1966 and merged the two retailers. Geoffrey has been their mascot since 1969 and went through several design changes through the decades.
Toys”R”Us was so popular that it was considered a category killer, a business term that is used to describe a company that is so successful in its field that other similarly-themed companies, in this case toy companies, could not compete. Toys”R”Us was THE toy store in America.
So what happened?
The first sign of trouble came in 1998 when the company fell behind Walmart in toy sales for the first time. In fact the popularity of Walmart, Target and Amazon has contributed significantly to the fall of Toys”R”Us.
Things seemed fine on the surface at the start of the new millennium, but there was nothing Toys”R”Us could do to compete with online sales, not even when the company started its own online service. By that time, Amazon had already claimed the throne, and public stock in Toys”R”Us closed in 2005 after three firms bought out the company to save it from bankruptcy. When a company as big as Toys”R”Us was in the 20th century goes private, you know it isn’t confident it will make its money back.
They never went public since. 2013 was the last year they had made an annual profit, which means they had been losing money annually for 4 years in a row before they filed for chapter 11. The company reported its biggest net loss in 2017. Months before they went bankrupt they had lost $164 million. That was when they decided to liquidate and sell all their stores. 735 locations around the U.S. will be no more, along with most locations in Canada, the U.K. and others.
It’s always sad when a huge company goes under because of the thousands of layoffs. But this is the way business works and it happens all the time. Sometimes you can stay relevant if you constantly evolve (Disney, Apple, Nintendo) but sometimes you just don’t fit in the market anymore and you have no choice but to scale back (MGM, Radioshack, Sega).
I think many pop-culture obsessed film geeks like me have always played with stuffed animals and action figures when they were kids. Those games were our first fan fictions. They were our first crossovers. They were our first journeys into the realm of fantasy.
I think that’s why Toys”R”Us matters to me. It was the first geek pantheon before I knew what being a geek even meant.