I was part of the generation that was the prime target of one of the first regulation repeals of the Reagan Administration. For a long time, the FCC had a policy stating that cartoons couldn’t serve to just advertise toys, and although many skirmishes had been fought between the FCC and corporate America over this policy — most notably with ABC’s Hot Wheels cartoon — the policy was quickly scrapped after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, when I was just four years old. As with pretty much every attempt at deregulation in my lifetime, conservatives claimed that this would “allow companies to innovate” and all that gobbledygook, and while I can’t speak to how much toy manufacturers “innovated” in the resulting decades, I can say that I could have spent the rest of my life apologizing to Mom for whining at her to buy me all the ten million toys I saw on TV back in the day, and it still wouldn’t have been enough to make up for all the grief I must have given her.
In fairness to me, I was a very young kid, I didn’t know any better, and I was probably going to get hooked on toys (albeit to a lesser degree) anyway. The first toy store I remember going to wasn’t a Toys “R” Us, though; Lionel still had one of their Kiddie City stores close to my house, near one of the last A&P Supermarket locations in Toledo. I think I was aware of Toys “R” Us back then, but the idea of a “kiddie city” just appealed to me more, especially because I was young enough that I didn’t understand the whole thing about my parents having to pay for all the toys I wanted to take home from that “city” for kids like me. The slant rhyme of “kiddie city” probably tickled me as well, because I’ve been a word nerd ever since I can remember. (After that A&P closed in the early 1980s, its location became the home of our regional Chuck E. Cheese clone, Major Magic’s All-Star Pizza Revue, where I played most of my Dance Dance Revolution games when I was in college. Video games were always just there for me throughout my life.)
There were other toy stores in Toledo, like Children’s Palace and Kay Bee Toys, and even a local chain called Hobby Center Toys, but Toys “R” Us quickly became a focal point of my childhood. Especially once I got into console video gaming, I loved going there to browse the display tabs for each video game, then buying a ticket that I took to a closed-off booth near the exit, where I traded the ticket for the game that I wanted. Part of the reason I rented old Koei NES games like Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms were because Toys “R” Us sold them for $70 and $80 respectively, and even a $50 video game was a huge purchase for me back then. I saved nearly all my video game receipts over the years — my first console game purchase, Bubble Bobble for NES, was at a Highland Appliance (egads, I am old) — and I managed to save not just the receipt, but also the ticket, when I got Final Fantasy VII on 1997.09.07, the day it came out in America. (Yes, I knew that without having to look it up. I just knew about that game, okay?)
One of my happiest memories of Toys “R” Us doesn’t even involve toys. Mom drove me there one day so I could do some video game shopping, and as we were pulling into the parking lot, the DJ on the car radio said he was about to play a new Meat Loaf song. Mom was a huge Meat Loaf fan, and even though she’d been disappointed by his 1980’s work, I came back to the car just as the final notes of “I’d do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” played, the first collaboration between Meat Loaf and songwriter Jim Steinman (whom Mom loved even more than Meat Loaf) since the first Bat Out of Hell. I don’t remember if I bought anything at Toys “R” Us that day, but I can still remember the look of pure bliss on Mom’s face when I came back to the minivan after I got done with my shopping.
I remembered that moment almost every time I went to that Toys “R” Us, even decades later. More than that, though, that toy store still made me feel my own bliss whenever I went back there. I don’t have that many happy memories from my early years, but trips to toy stores are definitely on the list, and those joyful feelings still haven’t left me. I don’t recall going to Toys “R” Us that much after I finished college, just because I didn’t have a lot of time for video gaming when I was so busy getting my teaching career off the ground, but that store was in such a central location in Toledo that I’d end up driving past it at least once every few weeks, and even that made me recall the memories I had of being in that store when I was younger.
That Toys “R” Us isn’t the only one in Toledo, and I sometimes went to a different store in the suburbs, but I never felt the same warm feelings when I was in that store that I got from the one that my parents took me to back in the day. Physical places have a tremendous capacity to evoke memories and feelings, and I never had a significant emotional attachment to any other toy store. It makes me wonder about younger generations, whose parents might have bought all their toys online, and who might have just digitally downloaded their video games from the comfort of their homes. Since so many of those young people just don’t have the same experience of going to a physical store dedicated to toys, I don’t know if they’ll ever really understand the emotional pull that toy stores have on those of us who are older.
There are bigger tragedies being caused by the end of Toys “R” Us — the tens of thousands of jobs soon to be lost, the growing fear that the entire American retail sector is about to suffer a significant collapse (and as we’re due for another cyclical recession, no less) — but the emotional sucker punch that so many of us old Toys “R” Us kids feel right now just can’t be ignored. The fact that so much analysis is pointing to the possibility that the chain could have survived if it hadn’t become a dumping ground for debt just makes the loss all the more unbearable, because if that analysis is accurate, then Toys “R” Us didn’t have to go under. Rich people, who just wanted to become richer, ripped out a part of our childhoods and threw it in the trash like so much Styrofoam packaging. They don’t care how much we’re all hurting, just as long as they make some more bucks, and while there might not be anything illegal about that, it damn sure doesn’t feel right.
The cravings I felt for certain cartoon-based toys when I was younger might have been manufactured by corporate America, but my love for toy stores in general, and Toys “R” Us in particular, is just a normal byproduct of childhood. I’m far from alone in feeling hurt by this loss, as all the other online tributes to Toys “R” Us this past week have shown, and as these same corporate behaviours continue to be condoned (if not championed by the current administration and its supporters), it makes me wonder which part of my childhood will be the next to be destroyed. Even worse, it makes me wonder if today’s kids will really have an opportunity to even be kids in this messed-up world they’re living in, and what will become of them if they never get to know the simple joy of being a kid in a great big toy store.