Fare-thee-well Toys “R” Us.
Your end came, in my opinion, not just because of a changing era but because of a private equity firm that bleed you dry, sucked what profits they could from you and who in the end proved what I’ve always believed, they care little for the workers or companies they purchase, just for the profits that can make from them.
This is perhaps part of why it is a bittersweet last day for Toys “R” Us and for better or worse, the day the world bids farewell to the world’s largest and perhaps last major brick and mortar toy store.
There are also stories of how many rank-and-file workers, some at the stores for over 30 years, are leaving with nothing, as severance pay was stopped during the liquidation. That is a part of bankruptcy, all monies are frozen and paid back to creditors in a certain order.
What doesn’t sit well with the anyone is how the executives drew millions in bonuses just days before filing for bankruptcy, therefore their bonuses would not be frozen by the bankruptcy proceedings, not to mention how Bain Capital, which allowed Toys “R” Us’ demise, is leaving with around $475 million in profits.
As all of this news, as memories of more innocent times at Toys “R” Us, Kay-Bee Toys, Lionel Kiddie City, float into mind, my feelings and thoughts tend toward what my Japanese sensei referred to as 物の哀れ(mono no ware), an awareness of the transience of things, mixed with a transient gentle sad wistfulness at their passing and a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.
Most of my memories are of happier moments from childhood, of moments in time, people, places and events, I haven’t thought of in years.
Such as Toys “R” Us’ classic Christmas catalogs, that like the old Sears catalogs, were thicker than a Manhattan phonebook and came, once upon a time, unsolicited to mailboxes. I remember the excitement of looking through the catalogs and braving decorated stores with my parents to meet Santa and ask for my favorite items and of Christmas ads.
Those now classic commercials showing houses decorated as to make the Christmas Vacation house blush, of trees everywhere, of grandparents bringing presents, of Santa delivering gifts, of snow angels and snowmen, of families opening gifts around the tree, and children trying to sneak down to see Santa deliver presents and of seeing new ones each year that feature the latest toy or gadget.
Admittedly, these commercials primarily aired during Christmas shows like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and, now that I think about it, rather ironically during The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
With these shows in mind, I can’t help but think of my family gathering by the television near the Christmas tree, not only for the annual tradition of seeing these ‘classics’ of Rankin-Bass and Hollywood (It’s A Wonderful Life, Bishop’s Wife, White Christmas, Shop Around the Corner, etc.), along with some ‘newer’ not so classics that have mercifully been lost somewhere in time and space, but also of live musical holiday events and the occasional throwback variety show that was still just clinging to life in the early to mid-1980’s.
However, these moments were merely part of the holiday season crescendo, as the season started with the annual mid-October, Kirby’s Mill Fall Apple Festival.
The Kirby’s Mill Apple Festival was a place to witness the process of how apple products were made and purchase freshly made Apple Cider and Apple Cider Doughnuts before touring craft booths of all kinds (I still have two marionettes purchased there) and visiting the old gristmill which at the time was undergoing now completed historical renovations.
Even just part of a day spent there was a lot of fun walking around and seeing the leaves starting to change, feeling the air cool and watching everyone bid a welcome to fall and a fond farewell to summer, all while enjoying the live music, arts and crafts stalls, enjoying the many apple themed dishes and speaking to historical interpreters demonstrating the gristmill in operation.
Closely following either on the Saturday or Friday before Halloween, if Halloween was a Saturday, was the annual Halloween Parade.
For several decades that whole time period was a spectacle to behold. Around the middle of the month, Main Street filled with scarecrows, carved pumpkins, witch’s hats, silhouettes of black cats, orange lights strung across the street and businesses hanging those curtains to cast ‘monster shadows’ in their windows at night.
On the day of the parade, Main Street closed around noon to allow the gathering of, at times, around 100 floats and countless costumed people, who would either ride or march. These were the days when the only guidance on floats or costumes was a recommendation on how scary things could appear and even that was a very generous limit by any standards, which was wonderful as it allowed variation and creativity.
To this day, I haven’t truly seen anything to equal the parade or atmosphere in any location I’ve been or lived since, though the Woodhaven section of Queens, New York came the closest with nearly every house decorated for Halloween. As for the parade in my hometown, I can happily report, according to family and friends still in the area, it remains strong today.
No much can be said about any town celebrations for Thanksgiving. While I do vaguely remember decorations along Main Street and a few craft booths selling wooden pumpkins and other items for the Thanksgiving table that were popping up in a park across from a local branch library about two weekends after Halloween, even 30 plus years ago there wasn’t much else in the town crying out that it is Thanksgiving.
To be honest, rather than Thanksgiving town events, I have more memories of family gatherings to eat out on Thanksgiving Day, first at a National Historical Site, the ‘largest log cabin in the world’ until it sadly burned down due to an accidental electrical fire, and thereafter at a café which was designed to appear as an artist’s studio with rotating displays of local artwork and stunning views of the Delaware River, at times made even more beautiful with views of falling snow and large ships brightly lit against the gray skies, slowly moving along the river either toward or from Philadelphia.
However, in all fairness, even without major town Thanksgiving celebrations, 30 years ago was not as bad as it is today where at times it feels as if we go from Labor Day, if not the 4th of July, right to Christmas.
While I can only speak for the public elementary and middle schools and Quaker high school I went, they put on Thanksgiving plays, sold turkeys for local charities and had charity drive ties to stores and food pantries. Through them it felt a lot less like Thanksgiving was just as stepping stone between Halloween and Christmas.
Now Christmas, that was a very different story within the town which held an annual Dickens’ Christmas festival.
Each year around December 1st, Main Street became a winter wonderland with lights, wreaths and garland. Businesses showed their holiday spirit by draping lights across their windows, putting up trees, and having lit candles (believe it or not, some of the them were real candles).
From the moment the decorations appeared, shops along and just off Main Street would open their doors both to customers and merely to offer holiday cheer in the form of cider and cookies to those walking Main Street.
On the day of the festival, around noon booths selling handmade holiday crafts also popped up during the afternoon of the festival and in the early evening, Main Street closed (which happened a lot for various festivals) as people in Victorian era dress roamed the streets, interacting with visitors directly through mini performances and by encouraging caroling “door-to-door” to the various shops and homes that dotted Main Street
After dark but early enough for kids to still be present (no pun intended), Santa arrived in Victorian area costume, driving a horse drawn carriage to the main gazebo to help light the town Christmas tree and pass out a few early gifts.
It is actually the small parts of the festival which stand out the most to me, the moments which some people today might not do and were a bit throwaway but where also so unique.
One such event took place in a classic gothic style bank dating late 1800 – early 1900’s. The bank itself appeared to be something out of an Old West movie set, sitting behind a town clock on the corner of an intersection, and directly across from an old authentic stagecoach stop dating back to 1810.
Considering this was still a working bank at the time it was even more amazing how they would slightly alter the interior to appear like what ‘counting houses’ might have in the Victorian era and have someone dressed as Scrooge standing near the original bank vault, handing out chocolate gold coins to children who entered, before teasing them about being as bad as Cratchett for wanting their holiday pay.
My how times have changed… can anyone image a bank or any business having someone in costume handing chocolate out to kids? Of course, the fact such things happen so rarely if at all these days, to me, makes the world a sadder place.
On a side note, I recently learned that not only is the bank building sitting empty and up for sale but the old Stagecoach Stop caught fire and was unsalvageable so had to be demolished.
Yet, in some good news, thanks to a historical preservation mandate going back to 1973 for the downtown area, it was rebuilt as close to the original as possible, and from the photos I have seen it does look similar to the original.
But, maybe because I remember eating inside of the original, going to a tailor inside of it, going to a framing store there and remember all the quarks a (at the time) 170 year old building had, I see this new version as a mere shadow, an incomplete copy. I have never seen the new building in person and only seen a few photos and yet something about it just lacks the charm, not to mention the loss of 200 years of history… sorry I am digressing.
As these and other thoughts continue through my mind, it hits me as being rather funny that all these memories and feelings were triggered from a simple jingle that I’ve heard countless times over the years and yet only today do they trigger.
Perhaps given the mix of happy and bittersweet memories coming to mind this day, it is fitting that only on this day, a jingle for a company which did bring joy to so many people and that which come the next dawn will, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist, acts as a trigger for these memories and thoughts.
Maybe I am just being wishful, but I hope that someday future generations will have something that jingle to trigger memories within them some 30 years on. I also hope that in some shape or form, a small part of Toys “R” Us will survive, before it completely fades into history to become nothing more than a footnote in a book about brick-and-mortar stores of the 20th century or just a Wikipedia entry, much like Kay-Bee Toys (though I have heard there is a small revitalization for them) and Lionel Kiddie City (turn your frown… upside down).
Well, come what may, for now let me just say, here’s looking at you, Toys “R” Us, thank you for triggering so many memories this day of people, places, events and things, both happy and bittersweet, that I haven’t thought of in years.