As I start this, it’s close to midnight on Thursday, June 28th, 2018. Tomorrow is the last day that any Toys R Us is operating in the United States. I guess it’s still around in Canada, but for all intents and purposes, it’s gone. There’s a litany of reasons, but I don’t want to go into that. I just want to categorize and detail all the memories I’ve made over the years at the stores around the country.
It’s weird to have such an attachment to stores, but then again, people my age used to spend the start of their weekend wandering around a Blockbuster or Hollywood video trying to figure out what game and/or movie to rent for the weekend. Stores are where you go to begin something. I’m in my 30s and my desk at home is covered end to end in small little toys. I have a shelf above it that’s just as packed. Each one of them, I could tell you where they came from, what story and memories I have.
Years ago, during Haunt at Knott’s Scary Farm, there was a carny-style magician named Aye Jaye. I’m not sure how I’d categorize his show, but I’m super glad I went into it. I was one of the 4 people that did the “Sit on each other’s lap and no one falls down” stunt. Throughout the entire show, Aye Jaye was talking about the history of the carnival, and at the end of it, he talked about the prizes you won. I got a small little purple dolphin. Of course I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of what he said was that “It wasn’t about that being a dolphin anymore, it’s now imbued with the memories of the day.” And he’s right. I still have that little raggedy toy. Not because I’m particularly fond of dolphins, but because it serves as a memory of that day at Haunt.
Toys really do more than just distract. They’re a visible extension of ourselves. We pose them, collect them, play with them, organize them, sell them, buy them. What’s interesting is certain ones stay with you forever. But if you lose them, because so many copies are made, finding a clone of it at a garage sale or thrift store will bring those memories right back. Toys really stick with us. My wife grew up dirt poor. She never had a Barbie doll of her own. I was in the complete opposite camp. I never worried about not getting what I wanted. My mother was obsessed with Barbie dolls, so me being the oldest child and most into toys, made frequent trips to antique shops, toy stores and big box stores, and anywhere else that had a specific Barbie doll. I remember looking for a black Barbie doll, part of the Safari (Oh, that doesn’t sound good now…) set, that was only sold at K-Mart. I remember one time looking for some party costumed one at a Vons supermarket, of all places. And as thanks for going along to the antique stores, I’d usually be rewarded with picking out a toy or action figure for myself. Usually a TMNT, Transformer or Masters of the Universe figure.
Because I was dragged along and visited toy stores so frequently, I picked up on the lingo. Way back in the very, very early 90s, on our old 286 computer in the closet, we’d connect on Prodigy and its BBS. That’s where I learned terms like “TRU” for Toys R Us. Of course, nowadays a ton of gamers know that thanks to Cheap-Ass Gamer’s forums, Slickdeals, Fatwallet and wherever else the bargain hunters are. It always felt like being able to casually spell out TRU was an acknowledgment of my lifestyle. I go to Toys R Us so often that I abbreviate it, like McDs, BK, or any other fast food joint. (That’s a whole other story)
The first Toys R Us I remember was in Chino, CA. That one I went to countless times. I remember one day I asked my mother how far a mile is and the example used, as we’re getting off the freeway, was “About the distance right now to that Toys R Us”. The lawn to the side of the car and the big boxy store in the distance was forever sealed in my mind. Just a small thing like that is really a go-to memory of mine about the store.
Of course, the inside of the store is critical. I knew the layout. To the far left side of the store was the Lego aisles. Plural. Because one whole area was dedicated to Technic. I would always look at the race cars and construction equipment that you could make with them. It was just so expensive as a kid, and I always wanted to get old enough to be trusted to make them. I eventually did, but I only ever got a few of those sets, with the pneumatic pumps and suspension kits. But they taught me so much. Walking down that aisle was like walking down the liquor aisle at a supermarket. I was always too young to get anything and I was always afraid I’d be caught there and asked why I was wandering around in it.
The other facet of the store was the video game system. And I mean system as the means to get the titles. The long lit-up aisles of game titles, attached to cables, and all you could do is grab a paper slip. I don’t even know when they phased them out. But that was critical, especially when reserving games became a thing. That was the all-important certificate, even if sometimes it was just a $5 down reservation. To this day in my top drawer next to me, I still have an unclaimed reservation ticket for Turok 2 on the N64. The ink on the receipt stapled to it has faded away, but you can barely make out some of it.
Once you bought it, though, it was the retrieval system. You didn’t just pick up the game, you cashed in for it. Like at a pharmacist.
–Honestly at this point, it’s been decades since I was a part of this system, and I’m sure I’m wrong on a few aspects. But I’m just going off pure memory right now. I don’t need to inject other thoughts into this.–
So, you’d walk past the register, slip in hand, to a tower of games near the exit of the store. Like one of those small kiosks in strip malls that copy keys and things like that. Except all 3 sides of it (one was against the wall) were just plastered from floor to ceiling in game boxes. I don’t think they ever used those. I don’t know if they were decorations, fake, empty, or just unsold stock. I just remember that area being the playpen of my dreams. You’d give that slip to the guy through the small window in the tower and in a minute he’d come back with the sealed copy of the game you wanted. That was special. Just being able to interact with the person in the tower felt like a privilege.
While I remember doing some NES-related things in the store, it wasn’t until I got the SNES that it really snowballed. The key memory being Donkey Kong Country. I was hyped for that game. It was a huge deal. Silicon Graphics SGI or whatever. I even got the promo VHS tape from Nintendo Power which I watched too many times to admit. I still have all those promo VHS tapes. I still have a lot of this stuff.
But the reason I remember it was the release date. As a kid, I was obsessing over the game, and I memorized the release date. I can’t remember if it was on the slip itself, but I knew when it was from all the promo material, all the TV commercials, and the issues of Nintendo Power detailing everything. So the day it came out, after school, I get into the family car, I ask to go get the game. My mother says it’s not out yet or some flimsy excuse. The next day I bring it up again after being picked up at school and I got the same excuse. By the third day I think she gave it to me because I wouldn’t shut up about it. She responded that she was hoping I’d forget and that I’d get it for Christmas or something as a surprise. Yeah, that was never going to happen. I was at the store when we got the reservation for it.
So this one gets a bit dark and personal, but I it needs to be told. Obviously after the SNES came the Virtual Boy. That passed quickly but everyone’s focus was on the N64. THAT was the future. It had two games. Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings. I remember they had the demos setup at the store for them. But they were all single player. Who the hell was going to launch a console with 4 controller ports and only launch it with two games and neither of which have multiplayer? I have a brother who plays games with me. But that wasn’t the memory I wanted to bring up.
The real memory was picking it up on the day it came out. See, by then, the stores had finally gotten wise to the whole pre-order gimmick, giving out free stuff like shirts or posters or whatever. But this was also the first console to not have a pack-in title. Our NES came with Super Team Games/Duck Hunt/Super Mario Bros. Our SNES came with Super Mario World. The N64 had nothing. But we reserved both games because why the heck not.
While we had everything reserved, it came back to the claim tickets. And those were in the trunk of the car. While the keys we had been using to drive the car worked, they didn’t open the glove box or the trunk because they were the “Valet keys” intended to protect your valuables when dropping the car off with a valet. This is the kind of thing you wouldn’t realize until it’s too late.
What’s weird is that while I wanted to pick up the N64 on the day it came out, and I was super excited to, because it was locked in the trunk, I knew I’d have to wait. I did before for Donkey Kong Country, and I knew that it was reserved so it wouldn’t sell out. They were holding one just for me. My mother had different plans. She took a power drill to the keyhole on the trunk of the Jaguar and just drilled until the trunk popped open. I really just remember being really scared at that moment. Years later, I’d use it as a bit of pride to talk about how much she approved of my video game habits, but telling the story now it just sounds insane and irresponsible.
So with the slips finally in our grasp, we drove down to the store to pick up the hottest game console in the world. We go straight up to the tower of fun and the guy hands us the console and the two games. My mother then says “That’s it? No free stuff?”
Ah, it finally made sense. She was in a rush because she wanted to make sure I got whatever limited edition goodie was being given away for getting it on launch day. Only, there was none. The demand alone meant Nintendo didn’t need to sweeten the deal. But that didn’t stop her. She put the fear of God into that poor employee and he grabbed whatever he could just to get her out of there. To say I was embarrassed and scared was an understatement. I remember we got two XL shirts from Donkey Kong Country 2 and a few sweatbands for Killer Instinct. That was a day I’d never forget. I think I still have one of the shirts around here somewhere.
While I didn’t get my GameCube at a TRU, it was at a 24-hour Wal-mart where they didn’t sell it until 5AM that day, I got plenty of games for my GameCube at TRU. By the time the GameCube had launched, I had nearly finished with high school, so naturally that was the console I took with me to college. Knowing my monthly spending budget, I used a lot of my time and money going through the clearance games at Toys R Us. The fabled green tag. By the time the GameCube reached maturity, the console wars had hit the three tier system and Nintendo finally had a consistent system going. Games were solidly $50 across the board, as opposed to the stupid pricing of the SNES and N64 titles. And they were in uniform DVD-sized cases as opposed to being just loose cartridges.
I remember there were a few different colors of tags and you could manipulate the checkout system to get an even bigger discount because the 3rd title, if all 3 had the same BASE price (Before green tag discount), the 3rd would be free. So you could get a ton of games for really cheap. And as a college student, that was a big deal to me. I still to this day have barely played a fraction of my GameCube games because of how many I got. It’s really where my backlog began. That and my roommates ONLY ever played Super Smash Bros. Melee. ONLY. The ONLY game. For like hours a day. That was the ONLY game. They got impressively skilled at it, and would ask why I wouldn’t play with them. They were not smart people.
But I’ll never forget how the vast supply of games at the “R Zone” at Toys R Us really helped me broaden my game collection far beyond what I’d normally have been able to afford.
So the next console was the Wii. By the time the Wii was getting ready to have come out, I really had moved on from my Nintendo-worshipping days. I had a PS2, and I had discovered how AMAZING Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and God of War and other titles were. They beat Nintendo at the platformer game. The GameCube had Super Mario Sunshine and the PS2 was just a beast. I was a changed man. So I was hyped for the PS3. The tale of picking up and reserving the PS3 is a post I need to make again, but it deserves its own story. Thankfully it doesn’t involve the Toys R Us, rather 2 Gamestops, one of which is internet famous, a Target and a Fred Meyer store. Yes, that many stores.
But the Wii was in a similar boat, except while it would have more supply, it would have equally high demand. Funny, looking back, it seems weird to put the PS3 and Wii in the same timeline, but they definitely were, released just a scant few days apart.
So while I had moved to college with the GameCube, the Wii was coming out while I was still in college, in my final semester of taking just one class. I was relaxed and it was the perfect way to end my entire educational part of my journey.
But, as I went to DigiPen, I lived in western Washington, which is to say, Redmond, right next to Seattle, famous for its rain. The reservations for the Wii and PS3 were sporadically announced. GameStops, Toys R Us, CompUSA, Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, Target, Circuit City, I was monitoring all of them to figure out when I could reserve one. The earliest chance I had for the Wii was at Toys R Us.
And it was on that night I made some good friends.
So, to save time, and perhaps just be insane, Toys R Us decided to do all their reservations for that year’s hot toys all in the same morning. The Wii, the PS3 (20 and 60), and Tickle Me Elmo were all slated to be reservable when Toys R Us opened that next day. As I already had secured my 60GB PS3, and had no need for a Tickle Me Elmo, I knew what I was going for. I ate a quick dinner and I drove down to the Toys R Us in Bellevue. I parked my car in the lot and stood in the line. Very quickly the manager came out, explained the situation, and explained the stock on hand. It was like 6 PS3s, 20 Wiis and 40 Tickle Me Elmos. Each person could get one of each kind. There was a guy, about 7th or 8th in line. He took down everyone’s name and the order we were in. Thankfully I didn’t have any classes for the next day or so, so I was set to wait it out all night. I love doing it.
So after the guy kept a list of our names, we felt a bit more relaxed. We didn’t need to fear line cutters or not securing a copy. Obviously there was always a chance the manager was wrong, miscounted in either direction, or on release day the stock would be incorrect, but we felt no need to mistrust him.
The Internet is an amazing tool. I can look up things even if I don’t remember it exactly. Like in this case, the temperature that night. I can’t remember the exact night because I don’t want to spend too long looking it up, but it was about 48F that night, and it started raining a bit after midnight. The reason I remember Toys R Us so vividly with this was because their stores have no awnings. They’re just lifeless boxes on the outside, save for the colorful logo. This meant the rain was falling straight down and we had no shelter.
Just like now, back then I drove a Ford Explorer. So the few of use who drove SUVs, backed our vehicles up towards the front of the store and popped the back gates open. That provided shelter for the night. And the guy who kept the list? Turns out his wife worked in the building across the street. Why was that relevant? Well, he had the keycard to get in. After a few shady people left, we made a small group, at around 3 or 4 in the morning, and went over there to use the bathroom. There weren’t any other open places around, so it was perfect. We all marched together, obviously realizing how lucky we were, and one by one used the stalls nearby. It was a lifesaver. I’m not sure how the rest of us would have managed if we hadn’t all worked together.
So as daylight finally broke, we got re-energized. The rain dried up and we re-parked the cars to be less like a tent city. As the hours counted down, predictably a bunch of people were driving up, hoping that arriving an hour early would be enough to guarantee them a Wii or PS3. Surprisingly, there were still a few open spots for Tickle Me Elmos with about an hour left, but that was about it.
The hour of opening arrived. It’s moments like that where you really understand the concept of a second wind. The lights of the store turned on. We all walk single file to the register. Two were open. While we had spent the entire evening outside in the rainy cold weather, these employees were chipper and ready for the day. I handed over the credit card, got the receipt and I went on my way, on a tired, slow drive home to crash on my bed.
On that night, I bonded with all those other people in line. I don’t know where they’ve gone in life or who they are. We never really got names or kept in touch, but I’d like to think they’re out there with the same memory of that evening.
A few weeks later, it came time to pick up the Wii. I guess it was going to be some launch party there. Being the closest TRU to Nintendo’s own headquarters in Redmond, there was a lot of attention there. I had been trying to make room in my apartment, so I loaded up my car with some promotional goodies I didn’t need anymore like oversized Gamecube boxes and that kind of stuff. I pulled up around 9:30PM, knowing that at 10PM the console would go on sale. I gave out some of my stuff to a few of the people in line to hopefully buy it that night. Given that I had already suffered myself, I knew what that was like, and I also knew I didn’t have to go through that again. We had a dedicated entrance and got to go in first. Obviously, I saw a few people from the original night there, but man, we got some stink eyes from the other hungry gamers waiting in line. But while the initial group of us was less than 2 dozen, the line of people here to buy it was around the entire store.
Shortly after getting the Wii, I graduated. I spent a year looking for a job, and also a lot of time at Alki Beach, going to karaoke at a bar, and playing Guitar Hero on the PS2. It was a good year, but my budget was limited. I found other ways to occupy myself, but spending money at Toys R Us was not one of those ways. Eventually I met the woman that would become my wife, and I got a job down here in Los Angeles. I kinda had grown up by then. I was no longer playing games, but making them. A backlog got severe, I had to start paying back my student loans, and my work had crunch time to get the games out the door on schedule. I didn’t want to grow up, but I did. Hell, that was also at the peak time of the recession, and SHOCKER, I was laid off not long after. I think it was the 3rd or 4th round of layoffs at my work.
I also didn’t realize initially how criminally underpaid I was at my first job. Couple that with the rent I was paying and the fresh student loan payment of $600/mo dumped on me with a new(er) Explorer I had bought to replace the old one that had the transmission go out, I was strapped for cash for years. Because my parents mishandled my loans, my credit was shot and the only credit card I could get was at Target and it had a $300 limit. There was no way in hell I’d have any reason to go to a Toys R Us for the foreseeable future.
But that would change in 2010 with the advent of the Blu-Ray and my newfound grip on my financial situation.
Every time new media comes out, it’s initially expensive. VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. By 2010, I had gotten stable enough to begin my frequent weekly visits to Disneyland. This also rekindled my love for Disney movies. Part of that also came up because of a coupon that was on Cheap Ass Gamer. It’s hard to believe that Disney was very skeptical of Blu-Rays initially. They ignored HD-DVD because it had no region protection, but no one knew if Blu-Rays would stick around. So to ease people in, they had combo packs. So you’d buy a Blu-Ray and DVD together for a low price.
But the cases are different sizes. Blu-Rays are less of a waste of space and much… bluer. It was more prestigious to have. Toys R Us factors into this because of their discount. You could reserve Toy Story 1 and 2 together and get $15 or so off your purchase. AND the Disney Movie Rewards site also had coupons. And because store coupons can stack with manufacturer coupons, it worked out to be $5 per movie. The problem was, you had to reserve it to get the deal, so I did.
When it came time to pick it up, I drove down and the lady handed me my purchase. Except it was in a DVD case. I was livid. I tried to explain the difference and she couldn’t comprehend it. One was DVD + Blu-ray. The other was Blu-Ray + DVD.
I just remember doing the long walk of shame out of that Toys R Us. With the Movie/Game section way at the back of the store, but visible right from the entrance.
In the years that followed, every time I went into that store, I’d see that area, lit up with the fluorescent cabinets and remember the struggles I had trying to get my movies. I even left a bad review on Google Maps. It’s probably still there. And now, 8 years later, sounds incredibly petty and dumb, but I wouldn’t have changed anything.
Every time my wife and I make a trip to San Diego, we usually get a hotel room so we can rest for the night and make a mini-vacation out of it. There’s also a few Toys R Us stores down there that I’ve had a chance of going into.
I remember I was lucky enough to be near one that was doing a Pokemon card giveaway, which apparently became a semi-regular thing, but it was a fun little event. My wife not being born here has no clue about the impact of Pokemon, specifically the trading cards, on our culture, but she enjoyed it just the same. I could tell a story about my times at the Wizards of the Coast store and the Pokemon League they had. Another time.
When they initially announced they were closing stores, it was just a handful at first. I managed to go to that one from San Diego. I got an Optimus Prime Rubik’s Cube. That day, for reasons I don’t remember, we took a long walk afterwards. My wife and I took a long stroll up and down the streets near there, just taking in the nice weather, and relaxing a bit. So while that store may have closed down months ago, I’ll always remember that area as the place that I took a long walk with my wife.
I eventually made two trips to my local Toys R Us as it was closing down. It was everything I predicted. A locked down moment in history. A mish-mash of supplies, offers to buy shelves, over-priced markdowns and those scary looking signs that say 10%OFF, 20%OFF, etc.
I’ve been through store closings before. A K-Mart near me closed as a kid and I made off like a bandit there. That’s another good story. I remember Circuit City, CompUSA, Best, and many others. You usually can get a few good deals out of it, but by the time it’s near closing, it’s sad. You’re in the store hoping to find something new, but they’re locked. By the time stores have decided to liquidate, they’ve already lost deals with suppliers, meaning they’re not getting new stock in. You aren’t going to see the latest movie toys in there. You’re going to see 300 copies of the same toy on the shelf, emptying their warehouses. Customers will given constant pity to the employees, serving as a constant reminder they’re being fucked on their promised pensions. Some families are there hoping to give their kid a memory of what once was. Others are there to treat the kid because at least a few things will be within their budget. But looking around, there’s never much. The good stuff either is all gone or has a terrible discount. It’s a game of chicken, trying to wait to see what sticks around each time the percentage jumps.
And it’s a loser’s game because you always end up buying stuff you don’t need just to have a memory. You feel pressure to take advantage of the situation, even though you know a lot of this merch is likely broken and there’s no longer any gift cards accepted and there sure as heck ain’t no returns. You walk around slowly, watching it fall apart, visit after visit, with opened toys and garbage piling up. It’s depressing to watch a store go out of business. You see commercialism at its worst.
The Final Day
Today, the inspiration for this article, I decided to drop by. I heard some stores would be closing today, as opposed to Friday, so I wanted to go while I could. Sadly, I missed my chance. Upon arriving, it was already too late. The signs were still up on the window. “1 days left”. A hand-scrawled piece of paper taped to the window says “TOYS R US IS CLOSED JUNE 28 2018 RIP TOYS.” The windows give a glimpse inside of stripped shelves, poster boards shoved diagonally into trash bins, and sales registers left on, waiting for a final purchase that will never happen. I drove to a second store, a few miles away and it was even more barren. I couldn’t see inside at all. But maybe it’s better this way. The final day would probably be just a mix of vulture ebay people and nostalgic fools like myself. I already got my kicks over the last few months, knowing this date was happening. And I’d be crazy to assume this covers all the stories over my decades going to Toys R us.
But it’s funny. Every single Toys R Us has a memory to me. Whether it’s the fear of the Technic kits, the camping out to reserve a Wii or just the anger at not understanding the difference between a DVD case and a Blu-Ray case. I looked at every store as a memory capsule. A place where I grew up. I know the song goes “I don’t want to grow up cuz if I didn’t, I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid”, but at the same time, I feel like even though I did grow up, I’ll always carry these memories with me, even if these lots become future Gold’s Gyms or Ashley Home Stores. I mean, how many other stores do you know of with that wide of a variety of emotions and memories attached to it? Toys R Us was more than a place to buy toys. You got movies, games, you went there for Pokemon trading events. You got baby supplies. You had registries for baby showers. You’d hunt for a specific Hot Wheels car.
And now it’s just going to be some crazy pipe dream to kids of tomorrow, trying to explain that there used to be a store bigger than Best Buys with nothing but entire lines of toys. Books, which I didn’t touch on at all, that basically DEFINED how kids planned for Christmas.
I want to thank the nostalgic websites out there like Roger Barr’s I-Mockery and Matt of Dinosaur Dracula for preserving this stuff beyond what my ramblings can do. It’s slightly self-indulgent, but seeing the reactions all around the web, I’m confident we’re all sharing memories together. Becoming closer with each other, even though many of us have never met. Like a silent pen pal.
I saw a news article out there saying Party City was going to try to use these spots as pop up shops from Halloween through Christmas. So instead of just being a Halloween store, it’ll be a “Toy City” selling the big toys during the most important time of the year. I’ll definitely go in, even if it’s a chance to see the Toys R Us I remember one last time in zombie form. But it’s important to remember these seasonal stores NEVER fill the space. There’s always just a curtain somewhere, cutting it in half, using oversized pegboards to vaguely define where they want some temporary walls.
I’m not sure of the best way to end this. More thoughts keep coming to my mind. We all know it’s ending. We all have memories of it. I tried to share a few of them. I guess the best way to end it is to ask for you to share your memory. I don’t really use this website as much as I should. And this goes well beyond the length of a normal tweet. Sharing on Facebook would have been too restricting, with most people just clicking a Like button and reading the first paragraph. So hopefully this recanting of memories helps in some ways to comfort you, too. As so much other crazy shit is going on around the planet because of bigoted orange fucks, it’s nice to just focus on a distraction every once in a while. And that’s what Toys R Us offered. Nothing more and nothing less.