“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid, they got a million toys at Toys ‘R’ Us that I can play with!” – Intro to the Toys ‘R’ Us jingle.
No child of the ‘80s needed a reminder of the existence of Toys ‘R’ Us. It wasn’t only “The World’s Biggest Toy Store,” but a true haven where kids of all ages truly felt that they belonged. The TRU jingle is etched in the minds of a generation of kids and opens the floodgates filled with cherished memories.
Newly returned from WWII, Charles Lazarus opened Children’s Bargain Town in 1948, which specialized in baby goods and furniture such as strollers and high chairs. But in 1957, he decided to instead focus on toys and renamed his business Toys ‘R’ Us – with a reversed ‘R’ as If a child wrote it – becoming the first “category killer.” Before TRU, big-box stores were unknown and astonished customers with their size and extensive merchandise. TRU took a super-market style approach to toy selling and, in time, buried many mom and pop run operations who couldn’t compete with TRU’s prices and inventory. Child World and Lionel Playworld came close but also crumbled beneath Geoffrey The Giraffe’s hoof by the early ‘90s. Ironically, years later in 2018, TRU suffered the same fate trying to compete against Walmart, Amazon, and to a lesser degree, Target.
I have many toys from my childhood that I recall buying at TRU. My young eyes couldn’t focus on the sheer amount of toy greatness TRU stores used to contain. The smell of plastic permeating the air, the towering shelves, and spacious aisles made a kid feel small and overwhelmed. You wanted it all!
The first toy I ever recall buying (or at least as memory serves) was in 1985. My mom got me a 13” Godzilla by Imperial because I got an “A” in math – a subject that soon became the bane of my existence for years to come. My earliest holiday season memory is from a huge dinosaur playset my aunt and uncle bought me. It contained an immense plastic mat with painted rivers and trees, two large plastic volcanoes, and many assorted dinosaurs and cavepeople. I coveted this more than life itself. I sure loved dinosaurs and kaiju monsters.
All stellar memories. Memorable and with me forever. But as a kid, you don’t realize that you can get paid to work in “The World’s Biggest Toy Store.” In the winter of 2003, I did just that, but not before making a short detour to work for a TRU competitor named Kay-Bee Toys.
KB Toys or Kay-Bee was mostly in malls and looked to entice customers to make impulse purchases. KB bought opportunistically from manufacturers and displayed their closeout merchandise prominently in front. The toys were piled high for all passing mall-goers, and at startlingly low prices. Once inside, KB sold conventionally priced regular season merchandise, and behind the counter, they had a wide selection of video games.
Memories of KB Toys aren’t as fond because I became aware of them only as a teenager roaming the malls, when I was mostly into sports and video games, and no longer “kiddie things” like toys and action figures. The stores mainly served as a place to kill time until my parents showed up. I rarely bought anything but enjoyed browsing the toy selection that had been duds and peg-warmers before ending up at KB and sold at deep discounts. The “hot toys” were usually more expensive than TRU and of course Walmart.
After graduating from St. Thomas University in Florida, with a degree in Sports Administration in 2001, my first job in sports was with a minor league baseball team in northern Virginia called The Potomac Cannons. Besides pitcher’s mound, dugout, and infield maintenance, I had gameday duties and other assorted jobs like mascot work at schools. But during the off-season, I was tasked to call over 200 people on the phone every day to sell them ticket packages. Yikes!
Sure enough, after hundreds of rejections a day, I developed a phobia of making phone calls, and anxiety consumed me every morning I’d arrive at Pfitzner Stadium, colloquially named “The Pfitz.” I didn’t even want to leave my car and hoped the ground would swallow me whole to avoid making those dreaded sales calls.
It was in those introspective moments that I decided to quit. In hindsight, maybe I should’ve stuck with it. But the angst of making what felt like millions of calls a day, plus the constant rejection, was too much to bear. Working in sports was a dream I’d worked hard to attain, but it soon became a nightmare I quickly needed to escape.
At the time, my second love was Star Wars, and my obsession for collecting action figures returned with the Star Wars Special Edition in 1997. Episode II Attack of The Clones is a movie disdained by many fans of the franchise, but during the summer of 2002, I saw the film eighteen times in theaters, and it became the sole reason I transitioned from VHS to DVD.
After quitting the Potomac Cannons and reevaluating my life for a couple of months, I decided that the only thing that might make me happy was working with toys and action figures. While unemployed, I foolishly spent my money I didn’t have while frequenting a KB Toys in Falls Church, Virginia. After incessantly pestering the manager who insisted that they weren’t hiring due to lackluster sales, they finally gave in. They brought me aboard on a very part-time basis in October of 2003.
This location wasn’t the usual ubiquitous KB mall store. Instead, it was a KB Toy Works. It was spacious and located in a strip mall between two restaurants. With 3,500 square feet, they could really pack in the toys and felt like a small Toys ‘R’ Us. I loved working there and treated the merchandise as if it were my own. Of course, my favorite area of the store was the action figure aisle. I quickly became an expert, and even began selling some toys online when this business model was still in its infancy.
Even though the pay was minimum wage, it seemed like the perfect job to me. Unfortunate financial troubles loomed for KB Toys though – this store was having internal theft problems of money missing from the safe and stolen inventory – and after a couple of months of being hired, KB filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Out of 1,200 stores nationwide, 500 underperforming ones would close. My location began liquidation sales of their inventory, and on the last day, we were literally selling garbage/broken toy parts in plastic bags for pennies on the dollar. On February 9th, 2009, KB Toys closed its stores for good. It was a sad ending for a significant player in the toy retail business. I sure wish I’d kept the KB Toys training tape I’d acquired during the 2003 closings. It’s prime material for Pop Culture Retrorama.
Two weeks prior, KB informed us of their impending doom. So that same day, I went to Toys ‘R’ Us and expounded my dire situation. With a grin on his face, the store manager seemed happy they’d have one less competitor that 2003 holiday season to worry about. I guess he rewarded me for the “inside information”- that soon became public a few days later – and hired me as a seasonal associate. I was thrilled and relieved that I would still have a job somewhere, and with toys!
For two weeks, I donned the KB Toys navy blue shirt during the day, and the iconic red Toys R Us shirt at night. Even though I’d been with KB for only a couple of months, I felt like such a Benedict Arnold. The hours were hectic, to say the least, and sleep was at a premium, but I made good money and felt like I was making a difference. TRU’s main rival was Walmart, and everything that holiday season focused on having the merchandise on the floor, servicing the customers, and at least price matching what Walmart offered.
I had zero training when I started at TRU. Fortunately, my prior employment with KB Toys and my voracious reading of ToyFare magazine helped me sort it out. But imagine working for a giant toy store without any training and dropped right in the middle of the holiday season!
Although I was eternally grateful for the job, I was thrown into the lion’s den to fend for myself.
Multiple-Emmy award-winning artist Andy Williams trumpets that the holidays is “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” but I’ve seen ordinarily serene people become enraged during the holidays and unleash their fury onto lowly seasonal sales associates.
Hokey Pokey Elmo was THE toy kids demanded that season, and we’d continuously run out or be undercut by Walmart’s prices. In many instances, I helped no less than six customers at once. They weren’t sure what to buy their kids half the time, so this complicated things a bit. Offering a gift card so that their child could come to the store and purchase whatever they wanted was frequently shot down.
Every evening, getting the store ready for the next day was exhausting: Bicycles stuffed with the Legos, whole sections looking like a tornado, and an earthquake went through-a mountain of merchandise on the floor underneath the price checker. Good times!
Over the years, I had more than a few what I call “tours of duty” with Toys ‘R’ Us. Every time I returned, I saw minimal improvements. I had a first-hand account of a huge passenger liner with a false sense of security that was inevitably about to collide with disaster. Who would’ve thought Toys ‘R’ Us would ever close? In the summer of 2018, that happened in the United States.
Toys ‘R’ Us is forever in my heart but working there revealed to me that the writing was already on the wall. I was underpaid and overworked, but I’d accept employment at Toys ‘R’ Us or KB Toys in a heartbeat even with all the difficulties. There are worse things in life than being surrounded by toys and getting a paycheck. Seeing a kid smile is always worth any hardships one might endure. I remember on one of my TRU “tours of duty,” when an older lady surprisingly slapped my behind and enthusiastically yelled, “That’s the way to do it!” referring to my hustle and dedication to help the customers.
Don’t you think those memories are priceless? I do.