I have had a longstanding relationship with toys and their power.
Yes, their power. They have it, or at least children grant it to them. Toys give children—-and the emotionally underdeveloped of all ages—-a sense of control in a world that feels beyond them.
A family fight that a child cannot repair can be cathartically eased through the playing of stuffed animals or the like, through the child’s own narrative of relationships in crisis, forgiveness, and coming together for the win.
Schoolyard bullying that leaves a young boy feeling weak can be exorcised through a Marvel or DC character formed from plastic, fighting for justice and standing up for the oppressed.
A young man wrestling with constant rejection from his female peers can insert himself into the action figure adventure, pass the tests therein, and win the girl.
And a writer looking for clarity for a concept can play out the beats and hear their own dialogue spoken through miniature actors.
During these games, the participants may not even know what they are doing. The emotional weight of the experience may be completely lost on them in the moment. It’s not until years later that the revelation hits, while staring at a box of old trinkets and figures with which they just cannot bear to part.
Of course, these are just the experience of one collector looking back on his own collection, and they are romanticized experiences at that. On a more conscious level, toys teach us to socialize; they stimulate the imagination; they serve as tangible reminders of a simpler time. And they’re fun. Even as an adult who collects figures and respects the roll of toys, I’m amazed at how much FUN they can be when enjoying them alongside my toddler. In a way, adulthood has rightfully forced me to engage toys with reservations, but my son—a Hot Wheels fan at 22 months—has shown me how much fun there is in the very act of seeing toy trucks race down a ramp. When I think about it, the very experience for a tiny child to see a truck shrunken down to smaller than himself must be harrowing. To see that miniature imbued with life as it rolls across a table must be a thrill.
So what does this have to do with Toys R Us. Not much. But also everything. Toys R Us was a dream factory for many of the nostalgia-obsessed adults of today. It was a store that seemed painstakingly designed to be built for children to see, to dream, and to enjoy. The floor to ceiling assortments of toys from the day’s hottest properties and last year’s holdovers provided infinite possibilities for laughter, romance, and assorted adventures. A Toys R Us kid was not one who merely loved to buy toys, they loved to be in the store itself, imagining all the fun to be had. And back in the brand’s heyday, a kid could do chores for two weeks and feel very rich when going though those familiar sliding doors.
I don’t know if it was even remotely the same for our children. While I am a later parent, several of my peers have kids inching toward a decade, and I am uncertain Toys R Us carries the weight for them that it did for us. That’s sad to consider, as they will be the last children to know the store as a ubiquitous part of the American retail landscape. My son, not yet two, will likely have no memory of the store and know it only in pictures of us.
And this loss is negligible compared to the trials that await the Toys R Us workforce, the full-timers who’ve given themselves to the company, and the part-timers who needed it to make their car payments. Yes, I lament the end of a niche American brand and the role it once served for at least one generation of children, but that seems silly compared to the real loss of jobs and some level of community stability that some TRU’s provided by anchoring strip malls and shopping complexes.
The end of the brand will, of course, also mean major changes at the large manufacturers like Hasbro, Mattel, and possibly even Lego. And let’s not forget that TRU was a key ally in keeping movie-related figures from the likes of NECA at brick and mortar locations. These companies will feel the lost orders and lessened visibility. The end of a brand like Toys R Us is far more than a sentimental one.
And yet I am feeling the loss deeply, far more than anyone to whom I’ve spoken, because I feel in my own way responsible. I have spent years walking the aisles of Toys R Us for the sheer experience without putting up the cash to ensure I could have that experience again. I attended the Midnight Openings to reveal the latest Star Wars goodies to accompany a new film. I took lunch breaks to walk the aisles and hunt for rare chase figures. At times I parted with my cold hard cash; but mostly, I just enjoyed the walk, a trip through a real life catalog of the mainstream toy landscape. It’s been a part of my life since before I learned to drive nearly 20 years ago.
And while I know I’m taking this all a bit personally, I think that my response is the whole point. Toys R Us may have been a large brand that failed to keep up with an incredibly fast-changing retail environment, but for some folks it was also one of their favorite stores in the wide consumer landscape, a place for a walk, and maybe even a gift or that next shelf decoration for the office. It was not just a place to shop but a place to go. A place of escape and a little respite. Toys R Us was hardly perfect but beloved, nonetheless. Just like most of us.
Farewell Toys R US, and thank you.
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