Last week we learned that our local Toys R Us, along with 182 others around the country, will soon close its doors. The very same day that the news hit, I found myself at Toys R Us with my 11-year-old son, Lindell, who needed to buy his friend a birthday gift. Going to Toys R Us is one of his favorite things to do. It hasn’t always been mine. Maybe that’s the point. But this time, as I walked through the store, I saw it anew, and I realized that of all the store closings that have happened in recent years, this one might signal the biggest cultural shift.
When my older boys, Ford and Owen, were little, I spent what felt like hours chasing Lindell around Toys R Us while they picked out Star Wars action figures. And even before that, I took Owen there to get toy trains. Lindell was never into action figures the way his brothers were, but later, I would spend equal amounts of time standing around, waiting for him to pick out Star Wars Legos.
During these shopping trips, I was dreadfully bored. There was absolutely nothing for me to do, aside from chase a toddler down the aisles. I was never fascinated by the wall-to-wall displays of Legos and Star Wars toys, and when I looked at the shelves full of board games, I only saw the ensuing fights that would definitely follow, should we buy the electronic Battleship, over who would get to play whom first.
My kids have always seen Toys R Us differently. Actually, Ford and Owen, now 17 and 15, no longer feel the awe, but their little brother does. In fact, I was a little sad the first time Ford or Owen didn’t jump at the chance to come along with us for a Toys R Us run.
It’s that kind of place, where kids can feel like — kids.
And soon it will be gone.
People will say that we can buy toys online, or that we can get them at Target and Walmart. People will even say that buying toys should not be a central point of a child’s life. I agree. But even when my kids bought nothing at Toys R Us, they left with something special — the feeling that the store was meant just for them.
Target is the kind of place where you spend your allowance buying a toy, and then your mom says, “Okay, now we need to go get paper towels, and your brother needs to try on pants, and I need to get dad some new socks.” Before you know it, you’re dragged through the entire store, when all you really want to do is get home and tear into your new toy.
And buying toys online just isn’t the same. There’s no display showing you all the things you never dreamed of (A Lego set that is a replica of the capitol! A remote control R2-D2!), and you can’t push the buttons to hear things beep and roar. There’s no looking on the back of the box for all the features, or stumbling onto an aisle you’d never considered before — like the Matchbox cars. And when you’ve got $20 of birthday money burning a hole in your pocket, you don’t even want to wait for Amazon Prime shipping.
Plus, toy boxes from Amazon sometimes arrived crushed and broken.
The worst part: a local, small business could never fill Toys R Us’s place and compete with the prices of Amazon, Target and Walmart.
Basically, we’ve online-shopped ourselves into a boring corner.
Sure, Toys R Us customer service was always lacking. I never could find someone to help me when I needed it. And the rewards system was a complete failure for me. I’ve been a rewards member for years and I’ve never received anything except more advertisements and a $3.00-off ($3.00!) coupon once in a blue moon. And then there was the electronics situation. Waiting for someone to open the locked window that housed video games was tedious and often fruitless during the holiday season. And let’s not get started on Toys R Us’s failed marketing and website.
Still, there is something to this big-box store that is just for kids.
As Lindell and I walked through it last week, I noticed the music. Even it is geared towards — and often sung by — kids. The colors are gaudy and loud. The displays are tacky and sometimes silly. But if you can see all this through the eyes of a child, you realize what a special place it is — a place where mom can’t get paper towels, too. A place where you can touch all the buttons and squeeze all the bears and kick the soccer ball down the aisle.
A magical place for kids, not adults.
When my older boys venture into Toys R Us with me to shop for their brother, I see how sentimental they get for a time when the Lego display seemed 4-stories tall and all the action figures in the world were at their fingertips. But they aren’t really sentimental for the toys. They are sentimental for their childhood.
And Toys R Us, for many children, has been a big part of that.
Someday, I think, we will regret that there is no longer a place for this.
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