End of an era: Toys R Us is going the way of stickball
For decades, children ran down the sprawling aisles of Toys R Us in awe of the Barbies, the bikes and other toys laid out in front of them. Parents lined up for the latest Christmas fad, even if it meant standing in the rain. And, of course, there was that jingle that bored into your brain: "I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys R Us kid ..."
But all of that looks as if it's coming to an end.
Toys R Us is going out of business in the U.S., announcing plans Wednesday to close or sell its 735 stores across the country, including its Babies R Us stores, in a move that jeopardizes more than 30,000 jobs.
The superstore chain could no longer bear the weight of its heavy debt load and relentless trends that hurt its business, namely competition from the likes of Amazon, discounters like Walmart, and mobile games.
At shopping centers around the country, the news was met with sadness and nostalgia.
"My first toy came from Toys R Us when I was young, and I had a Barbie Corvette that you could drive," recalled Raven Cornell, 29, at a Toys R Us in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Sidney Corum, 4, was with his grandfather at the same store when he heard the news.
"Mad. I go so angry. I fight. I will fight them," he said.
Plenty of other toy chains have gone out of business over the past few years, among them KB Toys and Zany Brainy. But with the likely demise of Toys R Us, a piece of Americana is going away. (Toys R Us still has more than 700 stores outside the U.S., but those, too, are contracting fast.)
Toys R Us traces its roots to 1948, when its founder, Charles Lazarus, opened Children's Bargain Town, a baby furniture store in Washington. Lazarus opened the first Toys R Us in 1957, and in 1965 Geoffrey the giraffe became the company's mascot. He appeared in his first TV commercial in 1973.
Toys R Us dominated the toy store business in the 1980s and early '90s, when it was one of the first of the category killers — big stores that are so totally devoted to one thing and have such impressive selection that they drive smaller competitors out of business. Lazarus, who remained at the helm until 1994, stacked the merchandise high to give shoppers the feeling it had an infinite number of toys.
But it wasn't just the stuff that Toys R Us sold; it was the feeling parents and children would get when they roamed the aisles.
"You weren't just buying a toy. You were going into a magical experience. It was like going into Santa's workshop," said Jim Silver, a longtime New York-based toy expert.
Over the decades, children used Toys R Us as a playground where they would meet others they wouldn't see in the schoolyard. In the 1990s, when Pokemon was hot, children would bring shoeboxes filled with the cards, and they would trade them in the store.
Toys R Us was also the launch pad for what became some of the industry's hottest toys, such as Zhu Zhu pets in 2008. Other retailers like Walmart wouldn't take such risks on new toys from little-known brands.
"It will be a little sad," said Serone Francis, a mother of two who was loading her car at the Toys R Us in Fayetteville. She said her kids "like to just come and look around even if I don't buy anything. They're going to miss it. I'm going to miss it."
Erin Finney of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, was at her local Toys R Us with her two of her three sons, ages 2 and 4.
"This is the toy store," she said, noting she comes with her boys because they love to play with and actually touch all the toys. "The look in their eyes is ooooh," she said.
But over the past decade, Toys R Us had been losing ground. Shoppers were increasingly using the stores as showrooms: They would check out the toys and then buy them cheaper online at places like Amazon.
"I grew up at Toys R Us," said Bryan Mann, a father of two who was at the Fayetteville store. "Things came out new. You go to the stores and grab them. Fight in line to get things. Kind of glad I won't have to do that anymore. It's nostalgic, but I understand why they struggle."
Associated Press writers Joseph Pisani in New York; Marina Hutchinson in Fayetteville, Georgia; and Michael Catalini in Langhorne Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.