When I read the news that’s been trickling out over the past few weeks about the impending demise of Toys ‘R’ Us, I wasn’t surprised.
We’ve all seen it coming. Big box stores are closing locations, downsizing, and going out of business entirely. Some of it is competition by the Targets and Walmarts of the world, because if you need to grab a birthday toy, why not pick up groceries at the same time? Some of it is Amazon, that boogeyman of a retailer that seems to make gain after gain, and only leave abandoned corporate real estate behind.
Still, surprised or not, this hits very close to home, as I’ve been going to this store for my entire life, and it’s a large nostalgic slice of my childhood.
As a kid I used to spend a great deal of time at my Grandparent’s houses – weekend visits, sleepovers, all the normal stuff. One tradition my Mom and Grandma had was going out to breakfast with a visit to Toys ‘R’ Us afterwards if I was being good. I can still remember the agony of watching a waitress refill a coffee cup for the umpteenth time, as I tried to wait patiently to get to that toy nirvana.
You think reality tv started with Survivor? Fat chance. Reality TV for me was a Nickelodeon contest called the Super Toy Run – a shopping spree held every year where two lucky kids would get five minutes to grab as many toys as they could from Geoffrey Giraffe’s shelves.
I threw my name into the hat for this contest every single year, and I even had a plan if I won, like a scratch ticket addict dreaming of what he’ll spend his big lottery score on. “First, you go straight to the video games, and load up on one of everything, then you empty the place of Transformers and G.I. Joes! The neighborhood kids will treat you like a GOD!” The only thing that would have been cooler than this, was winning on Double Dare, but we all assumed that was fixed.
My parents tradition for my Birthday? Take me to TRU the day before whatever party my family was throwing, and allow me to pick something out myself. Christmas? I’d spend hour after hour pouring over the TRU catalogs, circling toys and making notes to myself to make sure Santa would know the exact item I wanted. This catalog tradition passed on to my sons, and now I’m wondering what they’re going to do this holiday season.
Toys ‘R’ Us was also my first real job. With a freshly printed license in hand, I jumped into my parents car and convinced the local store to hire me first as a cashier, and then as a stock runner when the busy Christmas season began.
I loved that job. Stocking shelves, running incredibly heavy swing-sets out to cars for families, and then refusing tips because my boss told me I couldn’t take them? I was young, dumb, and putting money in my pocket to spend on all the dumb s--t a teenager could want. Also, I got in incredibly good shape climbing up and down racks of storage, with something that weighed more than me wedged against my shoulders.
I dated a girl there (Hi Julie!), met a crazy cast of characters, bought an N64 with one of my frist paychecks, assembled bikes, sold wrestling toys to the early ebay adopters, and had an absolute blast.
I was so dedicated to that job, and the hilarious people who were my bosses that I used to only clock out long enough to eat something, and then clocked right back in to get back to it. I continued this pattern for weeks, and was so nose to the grindstone that I was named Employee of the Month my first full month working there. This was slightly tarnished when the corporate office had to open an investigation on my behalf for child labor laws, as I was working full shifts with only a 10 minute break – but some paperwork, and an affidavit saying that I was not forced to clock back in, but that I was just so damn dedicated cleared it all up.
The most epic moment of my time there, was during the Tickle Me Elmo craze. Christmas 1996, and Elmo was THE hottest toy of the year. Parents were getting into yelling matches with managers, and some were getting to the store at 4am to line up at the door hoping to grab one of the few that came in.
I was working Christmas Eve, loving the energy and buzz in the store while dragging heavy items down from backroom shelves, and helping harried parents track down that one last perfect gift. At about 9pm, we received notice that a truck had arrived for us to unload, so I headed back to start the process. When I opened the door, 300 pairs of Elmo eyes were staring back at me from a pallet.
A fantastic plan immediately formed in my head, and snagging one Elmo, I ran up to the manager’s office and asked her if I could make an announcement on the PA system. When she saw the little monster under my arm, she started laughing, and told me to go for it.
I clicked the PA on and said, “Attention Toys ‘R’ Us Shoppers. Attention Toys ‘R’ Us Shoppers. I think you’ll want to listen to this,” and then squeezed the high-pitched fuzzball right into the microphone, and let loose with his giggling.
I handed out every single Tickle Me Elmo to some of the most incredibly thankful parents of all time, and felt like the greatest human on earth.
Finally, over the last 2 years when we were trying to potty train my oldest son, the only thing that enticed him enough to keep trying? A trip to TRU. There’s a big one a few miles away from our house, and we made a deal. You keep trying the potty, and when you are fully potty trained, we will take you there and you can take as long as you want to pick out anything you want.
His eyes lit up so bright, they could have been seen from space. True to our word, as soon as he waved good-bye to the world of pull-ups, we jumped in the car and wandered the store for a solid hour as he hemmed and hawed over his reward. The trip, and the unlimited time to just be in a store filled with every toy imaginable without Mom and Dad telling him to hurry up was more rewarding than the toy he eventually picked.
Look, I understand it’s just a store. The staff was generally absent or unhelpful, and in my own store – too busy flirting with Julie. The stock was incredibly uneven in supply, and the lines were long as hell to check out. Still, it’s been one of the only stores that I’ve continued to shop at for nearly my entire life, and watching my kids be amazed when they walk into a store dedicated to them has been so rewarding.
I’m sad to see you go TRU. Childhood is going to have a very big giraffe sized hole in the future.