Toys R Gone.
Her smock said “Last of The Toys R Us Kids.” If that was any kind of honor, the cashier didn’t wear it like one. I knew they were closing, but it didn’t sink in until I saw it. The place that enchanted me as a kid more than anywhere else within driving distance would soon be gone. The only thing like it was the movies.
And it didn’t occur to me until I was in line for the last time at my childhood toy store: We’re not going to see them in movies anymore, either.
Movie scenes set in toy stores are immediately elevated. They are the disappointingly narrow center of a Venn diagram formed from two simple joys. Not only do you have whatever is actually, you know, happening in the scene, but you also get to ignore that in favor of straining your eyes at all the hottest period-appropriate action figures. And there’s an 83% chance something’s going to send those toys flying.
The Blues Brothers is responsible for most of that 83%. It also earns bonus points in this pretend game for showing an honest-to-God Toys R Us. Kind of.
In an accidental forecast of a similarly dying childhood staple, the Dixie Square Mall was dead and mostly buried by the time the production team found it. They didn’t mind, considering their intention of wanton destruction, and fabricated enough storefronts to sell an open shopping center. So while the Toys R Us is a Toys R Us down to the cartoon Geoffrey on the customer service sign, it was never an actual Toys R Us. But it’s still a choice glimpse of what was occupying the colorful shelves at the time.
“Will there be anything else?”
“Yes. Do you have a Miss Piggy?” asks the customer, already holding a Grover. This split-second reference to the legendary Frank Oz, who voiced both characters and had cameoed earlier in the movie, cues the Bluesmobile barreling through a wall of sporting goods. Kicking off a mall-leveling car chase in a toy store might’ve just been a plastic alternative to the tried-and-true fruit stand crash, but it feels like a snickering nudge in the ribs — forget Hot Wheels; here are the real toys.
The Blues Brothers kicked off what would be the golden age of toy stores in movies — the 1980s. It’s convenient that a decade that inspired such fetishized nostalgia offers so many peeks at the playthings of the day. In The Color of Money (1986), Paul Newman passes a wall made entirely of Care Bears to meet Tom Cruise at his day job, a sales associate at Child World, another toy chain gone. In Big (1988), Tom Hanks loses a tense match of Photon Laser Tag between Lego displays in the flagship FAO Schwarz store in New York City. It closed in 2015, the last of its kind, when the company that owned it couldn’t afford the lease anymore. Toys R Us had bought the FAO brand in 2009.
But what about the small (fictional) businesses? Horror might’ve embraced toy stores more than any other genre. Playland Toys, the literal birthplace of Chucky, has some classics on display if you squint, from Thundercats playsets to the Cadillac of action figure automobiles, the Cadillac from The Real Ghostbusters. Ira’s Toys from Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) complete the ‘80s pantheon of plastic with a surplus of Return of the Jedi figures at the peak of their demand and a stray Castle Grayskull. A case could be made about the ending of Gremlins (1984), considering Gizmo drives a remote control car down the toy aisle, but that’s a department store and, thus, disqualified. Technicalities aside, the combination makes cruel sense: There’s something inherently unsettling about dropping something scary into a kid’s holy land.
As the 1980s faded into the 1990s, the biggest chains faded, too. Child World and Children’s Palace, two heads on the same monster, filed for bankruptcy in May 1992. An attempted eleventh-hour merger with the competition, Lionel Kiddie City, fell through, and Child World folded by August. Kiddie City started liquidating its stores the following June.
What was left?
Jingle All The Way (1996) doubles as a hectic historical document. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desperate search for a doll to buy his son’s conditional love takes him to all manner of toy store, and in the proper proportion. There’s a Toys R Us analogue, Play Co. Toys, that has everything except the season’s hottest toy, but plenty of otherwise pointless accessories for the season’s hottest toy.
From there, he runs to the other 1990s standard, KB Toys. No retail chain has ever carried a more accurate slogan: “The Toy Store in the Mall.” Every mall had one, and, appropriately, Mall of America had one the size of Rhode Island. Arnold hurries past the neon letters that give it away as a KB Toy Works. Not a major distinction, but worth noting because KB Toys merged with The Toy Works — another toy chain down — and borrowed the name for some outlets. Most KB Toys weren’t that big, yet somehow always had crates of leftover Congo and Skeleton Warriors figures for literal pennies on the dollar. Most shoppers went to the mall and walked into KB Toys because it was there. Few shoppers went to the mall for KB Toys, so the inventory never moved as fast as the warehouse-sized competition across the suburbs. Maybe bad for business, but great for discovery. I still remember finding a sealed copy of the NES game StarTropics for $3 sometime around 1999, nine years after its release and three years after the Nintendo 64 was introduced.
All KB Toys stores closed on Feb. 9, 2009. The brand was bought by Toys R Us, who let the trademark lapse in 2016, when corporate debts started to mount.
Beyond KB, Arnold montages his way through smaller, local toy stores. The movie doesn’t spend much celluloid on them, but fortunately another late-1990s movie would shed a little light on why.
Like most Joe Dante movies, Small Soldiers (1998) doesn’t get enough credit. The studio did it no favors by greenlighting it as grimly goofy descendant of Gremlins, then letting Burger King and the other marketing tie-ins bully it into a feel-good follow-up to Toy Story. The result is a satire of consumerism that flickers between biting and toothless, and is still a little too cruel for kids anyway. And it’s about a tiny toy store that bends its knee to a corporate system and almost gets decimated as a result.
Inner Child is the kind of small-town toy store that sells more puppets and sailing ships than Green Army Men or Nerf Guns. It’s also the kind of small-town toy store that nobody comes into much anymore. So they take in a shipment of what must be this year’s hottest hunk of plastic. It’s only bad luck that the hunks turned out to be murderous. Furbies might’ve only looked murderous, but the metaphor still works — independent toy stores had to try to compete with the big chains, even though there was no way they could.
Because the awesome sprawl of Al’s Toy Barn in Toy Story was too great. The franchise that accidentally neutered Small Soldiers best showed the allure of the Toys R Us scale. When Buzz and co. wander down the aisles and see monumental towers of not toys but friends, they see it exactly as a kid does (plus the troubling concept that toys have souls). Everything in a Toys R Us is its own character, its own adventure and its own make-believe world. And nobody had more everything than Toys R Us.
$247.88. That’s how much the man in front of me saved on a two-cart haul of deeply discounted Batmen, electronic hamsters and Dark Tower Funko Pops. I couldn’t even guess how much he’d be making off them on eBay. So goes the naysayers’ refrain — it’s easier online anyway.
Why go to the store when I can buy it at home?
Why go to the theater when I can watch something at home?
Going to the movies and going to the toy store have the same fatal flaw: other people’s kids. And while the multiplexes aren’t going anywhere just yet, I don’t expect to see any Toys R Us analogues on the big screen again. But just as independent theaters are finding their audiences, independent toy stores are finding an opportunity. One can only hope Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium proves eerily prescient. KB Toys is even gearing up for a Hail Mary comeback to fill the Toys R Us gap.
There will always be toy stores, one way or another. But likely never so big, so many, or so profound. Sure, I’m eulogizing a business aimed at selling shiny junk to children. But I’d also eulogize the business that sells me two hours of staring at a flickering light on a really big screen. Whether or not it meant anything to the people behind it, Toys R Us meant something to every kid who walked its gilded aisles. We’ve lost something tangible, and there’s not much silver lining to that.
I’ll always be a Toys R Us kid. I’ll never see one on the big screen again, but at least I’ll always have the movies.