by Jerrod Kingery
AUSTIN, Texas — Indulge me if you will as I, a grown man who will be 40 years old in less than six months, eulogize a toy retailer, the venerable Toys R Us, in an essay.
By now you probably know that the 61-year-old toy retailer is shuttering all of its stores, with the last remaining locations--just mere shells, really, selling everything to the bare walls--saying their final goodbyes tomorrow.
In the times we live in, it might seem a little trivial to wax poetic about a giant retailer forced to close its doors because of a perfect storm of internet competition and bad leveraged buyout debt, but this is a real piece of Americana—and to kids of a certain age, let’s say, one of the most tangible connections to our childhoods. Heck, it was the store Nickelodeon gave away shopping sprees to, which was every '80s kid's dream to win.
As a child of the ‘80s to a pop culture-obsessed teenager of the ‘90s and on to my status as an obsessive toy collector today, Toys R Us was always the holy grail of shopping.
The memories of long, parallel aisles filled with pegs and shelves overflowing with Transformers, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, and various other short-lived toys from the 1980s, are some of my warmest of all.
As it’s always been a part of my life, I’ll never remember the first time I went to Toys R Us. The store closest to my childhood home was a special destination in my youth, my sister and me trucked there by my mother for some sort of reward—or on a bad day, to only buy a birthday present for a classmate or cousin.
The anticipation would build as we wound through the serpentine corridor into the store where the shopping carts lived that then spit you out into the seasonal section. From there, it was a beeline to aisle 7C--the action figure aisle--for me, while my sister looked at Cabbage Patch Kids or Popples or Strawberry Shortcake, stuff I wasn’t interested in at the time (oh how that changes when you become an adult toy collector!)
And don’t even get me started on the video games, how you had to glean whatever information you could on the hundreds of Nintendo Entertainment System games available by reading the back of a flap attached to the wall before taking a paper slip to a cage at the front of the store to make your purchase.
By the time I morphed into an awkward teenage nerd big into comic books, my tastes evolved from playing with toys to collecting toys. Toys R Us was ground zero for me to pick up the loads and loads of X-Men and Marvel Comics toys released by Toy Biz—many of which are still in my possession, forever entombed in their blister packs. Naturally, my parents didn’t understand why I would buy a Generation 2 Optimus Prime toy just to leave it in the box, but here we are, 26 years later and it’s still never been touched by human hands.
Of course, as the new millennium dawned, Toys R Us changed for me. Gone were the mile-long aisles, replaced with an open layout that seemed to favor kids clothes and other stuff I wasn’t interested in. Also, mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe was made over, from a friendly, round headed cartoon into a photo-realistic giraffe that talked. Ick.
Despite that, the modern iteration of Toys R Us still catered to me, adding special collectibles to appeal to obsessives who liked to browse. You could buy “Evil Dead 2” and “Clerks” toys there, for crying out loud—those are R-rated movies!
If we’re being honest, though, the last decade has felt like one giant swan song for Toys R Us. Sure, they were doing okay, but you had to wonder how long it would last in this e-commerce era. So when the chain filed for bankruptcy last September and made the liquidation announcement in March, it wasn’t really all that surprising.
During this 3-month wind-down process, I’ve gone to multiple stores multiple times. I picked up some deals, sure, but my goal was to salvage some little piece of the store’s soul to live on in my home, which resembles a toy store in a certain fashion. When the time came for the fixtures to go on sale, I begged and pleaded for the remaining store staff to let me buy anything that remained with a Toys R Us logo.
Mostly, I was turned away, something about corporate rules ordering all such things destroyed. Still, I managed to talk them out of a sign labeling the action figure aisle for two bucks, which I’ll take as a win.
I paid one last visit to the nearest store to me on Wednesday, taking photos to document the sadness at hand, which you can see in the slideshow above. But none of them can top this photo that’s gone viral as people express their sadness, taken by Rene Johnpiere, a now-former TRU employee:
That’s Geoffrey the Giraffe, in his latest star-spangled incarnation, looking like the freed Genie at the end of “Aladdin,” packed for his next adventure. Maybe at the San Antonio Zoo?
So yes, I’m wistful about a guy in a mascot costume with a suitcase as it represents the first time in 40 years I won’t be getting a birthday gift from Toys R Us--which is a big deal for a man-child like myself.
Goodbye, Toys R Us. I'll close out our life together by quoting the anthem of my youth: I don't want to grown up, 'cuz if I did, I couldn't be a Toys R Us kid.