Yesterday, I drove up to Toys “R” Us in Woburn, just as I had for years to get my kids’ car seats, gear and way too many plastic toys to count. But this time was different: There was a gigantic “Going out of business”-type banner flapping in the wind. The stores are bankrupt, closing forever, and everything is on sale. I wish I could be happy about those discounts, but mainly I’m sad that my kids will never again know the joy of marauding down a wide aisle lined with Big Wheels.
It hasn’t been a great month for the brand: In addition to going out of business, the store’s Jewish founder, Charles P. Lazarus, died just days after the closure was announced. He returned from World War II and capitalized on the American Dream: He knew that Baby Boomer families needed cribs, carriages and high chairs.
And now those Baby Boomers are grandparents, and I shop at Amazon Prime.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that a part of me died, too, pulling up to the store one last time. I feel as though I contributed to its demise. Instead of shopping at brick-and-mortar toy stores as in days of yore, I resort way too often to online convenience. Who doesn’t?
But I registered for both my kids at Babies “R” Us when I was swollen and pregnant. I bought packets of onesies, too many bibs and obscure gear that I probably didn’t need (bottle warmers got old after the first week or so). I dutifully traded in my car seats there for new ones with their exchange program, and I saved coupons (which usually went unused and tacked to a board in my kitchen). I bribed my older son with trips to the store when he did his chores, saved his allowance and earned a treat. What am I going to do now? Treat him to a free click or two on Amazon?
There is an upside, though: Seeing what happened to Toys “R” Us makes me more compelled than ever to shop at my local toy stores whenever I can, even if it feels like a detour instead of a routine part of the day. There’s a great one in my town, Henry Bear’s Park. There’s another one nearby, too, Magic Beans. Both are small, manageable and friendly. They make me feel like childhood hasn’t become completely commodified. Here, kids can manhandle and test-drive toys instead of picking them out on a screen. I’m happy these places still exist, and I’m going to do everything I can to support them (even if that means dashing inside 10 minutes before a birthday party and begging for gift-wrapping).
Toys “R” Us, though, in all its neon garish glory, was the pioneer. It was where 1980s kids rode Big Wheels through the wide aisles, ogled gigantic boxes of Legos, dismantled blocks and begged for Barbies. It was the original, the treat, the special excursion and the biggest and best of them all. It was an accessible Disney World. Did your parents have enough money to spring for a toy? What would it take to earn one? There’s no mystery or build-up like that with Amazon; everything is done behind closed doors after a couple glasses of wine after the kids go to bed.
But I’ll be honest: When I pulled into the Toys “R” Us parking lot, I had a different mission in mind. I was headed to the Whole Foods next door (I know; I’m part of the problem). And when I got home from my errands, there was a gigantic Amazon Prime box wedged in my door, full of gear for our upcoming April vacation.
My kids giddily tore open the boxes, high on instant gratification. They didn’t know what they were missing. But I did.