I remember the coming of the big Toys R Us store in Sunnyvale, over on El Camino Real near Mathilda Avenue. It was, in a somewhat conservative time, a brash statement of color.
And, more importantly to me at the time, if was full of toys.
More recently they transformed the building into the bland beige store front style so common on strip malls across the country. But for a while it stood out. And it was haunted.
Of course, as a kid, it was a big deal even without the alleged ghost. (There is a post on Snopes about the haunting, a recurring story here in the valley, which had to get mentioned one last time when the location was set to close.) But toy stores seemed to be a thing back then. We not only had Toys R Us expanding into the valley, we also had a local chain, Kiddie World, with a couple of equally sizable locations, and later another big store… King Something’s Kingdom of Toys I think… it was over off of Interstate 880 with a big wooden soldier on the front of the building … along with smaller local retailers and the mall toy stores that eventually all became KB Toys. And then there were the pseudo-toy stores, the hobby shops and the like, which grew in importance to me as time moved along.
I suppose it is in the nature of being a child, know where all the toy stores are and which retailer has a decent toy department and which does not. I recall being disappointed with the one at Sears back in the day.
But even before the internet began to thin the heard of brick and mortar toy stores things were changing. Silicon Valley was growing. The population has more than doubled since that Toys R Us location opened. Population pressures and a level of land scarcity (exacerbated by zoning laws favoring single family detached dwellings, leading the valley to be called a gang of suburbs in search of a city) began pushing up real estate prices, something reflected in retail rental costs, which killed off a lot of the small, independent toy stores.
Time, change, and competition send others packed. That big toy store off 880 whose name eludes me was gone by the end of the 80s. By the mid-90s Kiddie World, shrunk to a single location not too far down the road from the haunted Toys R Us, was trying to make its way by focusing on patio furniture and backyard play sets before it closed down. And, as I mentioned, KB Toys scooped up the mall toy stores… at least before land value made having as many malls as we did economically nonviable. And then even it fell over, as did the famous FAO Schwartz.
But Toys R Us seemed to be able to hang on and even thrive, scooping up fallen rivals and opening up Babies R Us in the late 90s, the go-to store for new parents. Gift cards to Babies R Us were very welcome at baby showers and the like. And in the age of Amazon the chain was able to strike a deal with wrecker of the status quo, even if Amazon reneged on the deal.
The chain was around for my daughter to grow up with. Trips there were fun for the both of us. There is something about being able to see and touch toys in person, to get their measure in reality, that surpasses any online purchasing experience. The web is for buying, but stores are for browsing. And Pokemon events. Toys R Us used to host Pokemon download events, and my daughter and I attended more than a few of those.
However the internet kept pressure on the company while retail competitors like Target and WalMart. Then they screwed up a couple of season of buying and were soon in deep trouble, needing to borrow more money for 2017 holiday season, a time of year which generates the lion’s share of their revenue. That did not pay off and, having not turned a profit since 2013, the company was in serious trouble.
And so it goes. Today, Friday, June 29, 2018, the last Toys R Us in the US is closing down. It has been reported that their overseas subsidiaries will follow suit and the company will effectively disappear. There is a farewell notice on their web site.
I am, at least theoretically, well past the need for a toy store, though I have persisted pretty well on the “don’t ever grow up” front. As well as can be expected.
My daughter too is past toy stores for now, but she was sad as well when she heard the news. She remembers going there when she was younger. It was a memorable experience, a rite of childhood, being able to go to a big toy store. And she has picked up some of my sense of nostalgia as she has realized that childhood doesn’t last forever. The only constant in life is change.
And so one more facet of my life, of my daughter’s life, of the life of the valley, passes into memory.
It will be a while… I hope… until grand kids are a concern. I wonder what will fill the gap for them? What will replace the toy store experience? Or will video and virtual be all they know?