The magic of toy stores

Across the plaza from where the Rockefeller Christmas tree is still surrounded by scaffolding, a thin line of shoppers snaked past the brand new New York toy store, waiting to enter. Although it threatened to rain, children in brightly colored coats eagerly pressed against the store windows, where oversized bears and letters to Santa were prominently displayed.

It was the scene of my first return to FAO Schwarz since my local Seattle store closed due to bankruptcy in 2003. The chain of high-end toy stores closed entirely in 2015 and reopened in New York last week after a three-year hiatus. His new motto? “Back to wonder.”

It’s an appropriate little slogan, though I never left FAO Schwarz with the things I wanted as a kid: the 7-foot-tall stuffed giraffes, the stuffed bears the size of a bed, the take-out version of the famous Tom Hanks piano played in Big. A visit to a real toy store, however, is truly a return to a wonderful childhood dreamland, like a visit to a real Santa’s workshop. The wave of wonder and excitement that washes over me every time my family walks through the doors of FAO Schwarz is unforgettable.

Wonder is rare these days. After Toys ‘R’ Us liquidated its remaining 800 stores in June, creating “toy desertsacross the country, competitors eagerly sought opportunities to move in. In August, Walmart announced its ambition to become “America’s Best Toy Shop”, increasing its toy offerings by 30% in stores and 40% online. “I mean, think about it: why would anyone go to Toys ‘R’ Us when they can go to Target and Walmart and buy toys at the same time they buy pantyhose and celery?” Professor of Brand Management Kelly O’Keefe explained to The Washington Post.

It seems practical. You know what’s even more convenient? Doesn’t go to the store at all. And indeed, online toy purchases doubled between 2011 and 2016, from 7% of all toy sales to 14%. Amazon has even rolled out a 68-page printed toy catalog to introduce its products to young eyes.

But we pay a price for this convenience. When we lose physical toy stores, we lose serendipity, imagination, and wonder.

In its heyday, FAO Schwarz was rightly criticized for being almost cartoonishly expensive, his offerings more appropriate for the children of the Monopoly man than a middle-income household: among his selections were a $15,000 “mini-Mercedes” and a $1 Etch-A-Sketch $500 dazzled with 10,000 Swarovski crystals.

A visit to a toy store, however, should not fundamentally be about purchase toys. Toy stores are imagination factories. Many toy stores hold children’s book readings or puppet shows; FAO Schwarz is assisted by actors disguised as toy soldiers. Moscow’s legendary Central Children’s Store has more than 100 toy stores spread across its seven floors and is packed with costumed actors, stages and play areas. “You have to have other reasons people want to shop at your store than the product,” said Jeffrey Weiss, owner of Georgia’s Learning Express Toys, Recount The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When making a space magical for children, gross sales cannot be the only goal; the general atmosphere also matters. New York’s Enchanted Forest toy store, which closed in 2015, was described by New York as “reminiscent of a jungle scene from Rousseau, with real trees growing inside and a bridge for the children to cross”. Half the time, walking through the reopened FAO Schwarz, I didn’t even know where the prices were listed. Around every corner, there seemed to be something new to interact with: booths where kids could watch science experiments, a flashing clock, an accessible spaceship, a play kitchen with miniature shopping carts. While a life-size gorilla in an upstairs window could have easily cost several thousand dollars, it might as well not have been for sale – just something else to be dazzled by.

The greatest magic of toy stores is that they are free to explore. As a child, I begged to go to toy stores, not in hopes of getting a present, but because it was the closest thing to a trip to Disneyland, somewhere I could leave behind. free rein to my imagination.

There are few such spaces in the world that exist solely to excite children, and those that do exist are treasures. They may not be reproduced in the aisles of a Walmart store or from the pages of a catalog. And when a toy store is done right, it’s as much an experience for parents as it is for children, a reminder of what it once was to have our own unfettered admiration awakened by heaps of stuffed animals. and people dressed as toy soldiers. .

Yet even adults can sometimes forget this feeling. “How do you stay happy all day? I heard a buyer on stage whisper to a toy soldier who was waving to the children lined up in front of the new FAO Schwarz.

“I work in a toy store,” replied the little soldier, surprised. “What do you mean? It’s the most beautiful place in the world.”