I wrote this piece on May 4, 2018. My inspiration came from the news that Toys R Us, one of my favorite stores when I was a little kid, had filed for bankruptcy.

I read “Memories of Toys R Us” on episode 036 of Words of Jen.

My first memories of Toys R Us are from when my parents would gather up all four of us kids and load us into their Chevy Suburban truck. It was blue with a thick, white, stripe going across each side. My youngest brother named it “the bye-byes”, because every time my parents put him in it, they told him “We’re going bye-bye”.

It had enough room for three adults to sit in the front, and a bench seat behind it that could easily hold four giggling, excited, children.  No one used seatbelts back then, although the vehicle did have a few of them. My parents stopped putting me, and my siblings, into car seats as soon as we got old enough to sit up by ourselves.

Back then, I remember thinking that Toys R Us was a magical place. There, on the shelves, within reach, was every toy we had seen on the commercials that played in between the Saturday Morning Cartoons we watched on TV every week. I think my parents used Toys R Us as a way to take a break from parenting for a while. They allowed us to wander around the store, mostly unattended.

We never left the store without making a purchase. Often, it was something small. My mom frequently bought bottles of bubbles. These would be stored on top of the refrigerator where we couldn’t reach them. When the weather was nice, my mom would take us all into the backyard and blow bubbles for us to pop.  One time, my mom and dad bought a kiddie pool for us.

Sometimes, we left the store with toys that weren’t for us. A visit to Toys R Us often happened shortly after I, or one of my siblings, got invited to the birthday party of a classmate. It was frowned upon for a child to attend a birthday party without bringing a gift for the birthday girl or birthday boy. Toys R Us was the most convenient place for parents to shop for a gift.

When I was in elementary school, most birthday parties were held at McDonald’s. Parents had to call ahead so the McDonald’s would set aside enough space everyone. The party included the equivalent of a “Happy Meal” for each child, an orange drink, and a large, rectangular, birthday cake. Parents could throw their kid a birthday party at McDonald’s, and come home to a clean house.

When a child at my school had a birthday party, his or her parent would invite all the kids that invited him or her to their birthday parties. Birthday invitations were made of paper, placed into sealed envelopes, and handed out at school. Parents found the invites in their kid’s backpacks, and everyone went back to Toys R Us to buy gifts.  They had unwittingly set up a suburban mom reciprocity system.

In 1983, Cabbage Patch Dolls became ridiculously popular. These dolls became the toy that every kid wanted for Christmas. I remember watching on the news scenes of full grown adults rushing towards the aisle of Cabbage Patch Dolls, and getting into fist fights with the other parents. They pushed, they shoved, they grabbed dolls from other parent’s hands.  It was terrifying.

The parents in my neighborhood likely went to the local Toys R Us to battle for however many Cabbage Patch Dolls they could get their hands on. I remember unwrapping a Cabbage Patch Doll that Christmas, as did all of my siblings. I tried not to think about what my dad might have done to get us those dolls.

I remember when Toys R Us started stocking video game consoles and the games that went with them. One of the most trafficked aisles in the store was emptied out and replaced with a wall of pictures of individual video games.  Underneath each one, there was a plastic pocket filled with paper video game slips. The amount of video game slips corresponded to the amount of physical stock of each game that the store had.

It was exciting to search the aisle in the hopes that there would be a video game slip for the game I wanted. At the time, games ranged in price from around $30.00 to $40.00 – which sounds cheap today, but was considered expensive at the time. If you wanted to buy a game, you had to take the paper video game slip to a booth where an employee would take it. Waiting to see if there really was at least one copy left in stock was stressful. The experience either led to success, or intense disappointment.

The games couldn’t be stocked on the shelves, with all the other toys, because it was believed that people would steal them. Game cartridges weren’t very big, and could easily be slipped into a purse or coat pocket.

I remember being annoyed that the sign above that aisle declared that video games were “boys toys”. I played video games, and I was not a boy! To me, this felt like one more battle to fight. As a girl who had been playing with Star Wars figures since kindergarten, I was tired of adults trying to shoo me away from toys I enjoyed and push me towards toys that they decided were for girls.

(As a note, Toys R Us eventually did stop labeling their toy aisles as “boys” or “girls”.  They did this in 2013.)

As a college student, who was broke and in between semesters, I was in desperate need of a temporary job. My mother’s second-cousin happened to be the store manager of the local Toys R Us. They were in need of seasonal workers, and I was hired immediately. It was the first time I worked in a retail store during the holiday season. This was in the early 1990s, and I had been eighteen-years-old for about six or seven months.

I loved it! I was given two specific tasks: pick up and put away the toys that got left on the floor, and bring more stock out of the back room and fill up shelves. It was easy, and fun. There was something about being allowed to organize the chaos around me that was relaxing.

The best part was helping confused parents try to find the toys their kids wanted for Christmas. I remember moms coming up to me and asking for help.  “My son wants a… one of those turtle ninja things?  Do you have those?  The one he wants is called…. let me see…”  The mom would shuffle through a handful of handwritten lists, looking nervous and terrified.

It made me happy to find exactly the toy the mom was looking for, and watch her visibly relax. What made me so good at this was partly because I was the one who had been stocking the shelves – so I knew what we had. It helped that I had watched several episodes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon on TV, too.

There was a manager at the Toys R Us who one day, out of the blue, asked for my help with something. My cousin the store manager said to do whatever the managers asked, so I followed him to the gigantic stock room. He moved a ladder on wheels, that almost looked like stairs, to one of the towering shelves.

The manager told me that a customer needed a specific toy, and the last one in stock was on one of the upper shelves. These shelves were more like platforms that extended across an entire aisle. He asked me go climb the ladder and get it for him, explaining that he couldn’t reach it and was too heavy to climb onto the shelf.

So I did. At the time, I was a starving college student who barely weighed more than 100 pounds. I climbed into the shelf, grabbed the box the toy was in, and turned around. To my surprise, the manager had climbed the ladder and was right behind me. I handed him the toy, figuring he was going to rush it out to the customer.

Instead, he stayed put. I moved towards the ladder, which was my only way down.  He didn’t move. This next thing I knew, his hands were on my legs, holding me down, and he was trying to kiss me. This was not my first #MeToo moment. It wasn’t even my first #MeToo moment that took place at work.

I kicked him. This forced him to back up, and he had a second where he lost his balance. I remember that the manager was angry about being rejected. He threatened me, saying that I almost made him fall. He said he was going to tell the store manager that I wasn’t following his orders, and that I would lose my job.

“Go ahead. She’s my cousin. Which one of us do you think she’s going to believe?”

The manager, who was probably about five years older than I was, became very pale. He got off the ladder, and I watched him walk away before I climbed down.  About a week later, I heard from the other Seasonal workers that he quit.  I wondered how many of us had been victimized by him.

I stuck with the job at Toys R Us until it was time to go back to school. My cousin was happy and promised to hire me back next Christmas, but I didn’t end up taking her up on that. In short, life got in the way. Instead of coming back to my home town in between semesters, I went with my boyfriend to his parent’s house.

Overall, it felt like my experience with Toys R Us had come full circle – from an overly excited little kid who wanted to run through the aisles of toys, to a young adult who was picking up the toys other excited kids left on the floor.

All these years later, I find myself feeling nostalgic about Toys R Us. My generation of “Toys R Us Kids” have all become grown-ups. The store that once felt magical is about to disappear.

Memories of Toys R Us is a post written by Jen Thorpe on Book of Jen and is not allowed to be copied to other sites.

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Posted in Podcasts, Words of Jen

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