I have a soft spot for toys and toy stores. I am a child of the ’80s and of course that means I grew up in the golden age of both action figures and the cartoon TV shows that went along with them. Back in the day the animated accompaniments to the playthings put out by Hasbro and Mattel and other giants of the industry were often derided as “thirty minute commercials” by people who neither bothered nor cared to see the effect that these actually-pretty-damned-well-crafted stories and characters had on American culture. The toys wove into that as touchpoints for young imaginations to send Optimus Prime or He-Man or Duke from G.I. Joe on their own adventures and have their own stories. Additionally, the 80s into the 90s were a golden age of Legos and other building toys (before every set had to have a Star Wars or Marvel tie-in) and saw the birth of home video game consoles like the Atari and in particular the Nintendo. Of course timeless treasures like stuffed animals and bicycles and baseballs figured into playtimes as well. It was a great time to be a kid.
During this era, big box toy stores like the recently-bankrupt Toys R Us shone like cities of gold in the distance, full of wonders one could see and touch, and if one was very lucky could even take home. I might sound like I’m embellishing but I remember visits to the big stores as being almost like trips to a theme park, and the highlight of our shopping outings that made it possible to patiently wait through my mother’s seemingly-interminable stops at the fabric store. In those days the arrival of the Sears Christmas Wish List catalog was a herald of the holiday season, loaded with pictures of shiny things to captivate young minds on idle Saturday afternoons and form the basis for extravagant requests of Santa Claus that (usually) got pared back a bit somewhere around Thanksgiving. But even that didn’t compare to actually going to the store and seeing these wonderful things in person, picking up the huge box containing the 1000+ piece Futuron monorail Lego set, gazing longingly through the plastic bubble in which a Decepticon or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle waited patiently to be taken out and played with, even being able to play Sonic the Hedgehog or Tetris or Street Fighter II on the display consoles in the video game aisle. Seeing it all, immersing yourself in it all, had its own kind of magic, even if you were just there to look and figure out how many more weeks you needed to save your allowance.
Some folks have commented that the people upset about Toys R Us going out of business shouldn’t be acting like it was part of their childhood, “you know your parents were too poor to shop there,” but in a way that’s the entire point. I don’t know anyone who grew up with the ability to walk into a toy store and walk out with whatever they desired, but that didn’t change the fact that it was there. Maybe you could only get one or two at a time, but you could see them all, and you could imagine what you would do if you could only have the princely sum of a hundred bucks or so. Some of us became collectors as adults and put this childhood daydream into practice, but for all of us, the place itself stood as a source of happiness and joy as much as the toys gave us inspiration in our playtime and comfort in our darkest moments. It didn’t matter that nine times out of ten we were “just browsing.” Looking at the wall of video game boxes or the long racks of bikes in every color of the rainbow or the deep bins of plush creatures let you see a world that was possible. Watching that all fade into the past is like looking at an amusement park that’s fallen into ruin, and I don’t think it matters if the park’s a place your family spent lots of time enjoying or was a place you always dreamed you’d take your children someday to make up for what you missed.
Now I want to be clear, I very much understand the economics of why this has happened. The buggy whip manufacturer must give way to the rise of the automobile. I am as “guilty” as anyone else of ordering online, buying at Wal-Mart, or otherwise taking advantage of other ways of buying gifts and collectibles that did not involve going to the big box store as often as I might have otherwise. I know that Amazon.com and other retailers are like having the Sears catalog year-round and in the final analysis I know that if people like me had valued the Toys R Us walk-in experience more than the convenience of shopping on the internet or ducking down the toy aisles at department stores then Toys R Us would have survived longer. We didn’t. The market made its choice. I can be a little sad that my Lego-loving nephew will never get to see the huge display at Toys R Us and will have to settle for the crammed Lego aisle at Wal-Mart, and at the same time acknowledge that the convenience and lower prices that come with this kind of progress will mean he can have a bigger collection of his own. We outgrow things. Sometimes that’s bittersweet.
Like with Ben Shapiro.
I know I’m probably getting a “where did THAT come from?” right now, but I was thinking about doing a post on Toys R Us already when I went looking over Shapiro’s Twitter feed and found his latest legally-ignorant piece of NeverTrumpism (i.e. a retweet of someone claiming that the FBI putting an informant in the Trump campaign was not “spying”). I’ve said on many occasions, I’ve liked Ben Shapiro a lot. I have thought highly of him, I’ve watched his podcasts and read his articles, I’ve stuck up for him on comment boards and argued his points with Cenk Uygur fangirls, hell, I almost bought one of his books. I think it’s because I have seen what Shapiro does and does best that I understand where he is now so well. He’s not so much a political prodigy as he is a snark comedian, and his personal routine doesn’t really work unless he’s sniping from the minority. The evidence of this is that while his humor is still very much there (although I don’t find his jokes as funny as I once did), his prognosticating skills and analytical ability have been clouded with a strange combination of self-serving defeatism and hundred-proof Trump Derangement Syndrome. I mean really, you have to remember that Ben Shapiro was the lone voice early in the Republican primaries predicting that it didn’t matter who the GOP nominated for President, nobody was going to be able to defeat Dr. Pantsuit. Now the “impending blue wave” which Shapiro has referred to like it’s an assumed fact (and which any third grader with a passing awareness of politics could have told you on November 10, 2016 was going to be the Democratic narrative this year) appears to be evaporating and the tide just might be turning on the anti-Trump witch hunt that Ben is suddenly cheering for. I know he still has a lot of fans who remember the glory days when he wrote for Breitbart and owned Piers Morgan, but that was then. Now, looking to Shapiro like he’s some kind of intellectual titan is like making stock picks based on the advice of a broke weatherman.
It makes me sad to look at what we leave behind sometimes. I don’t really miss musty library research or travel agents or the carbon slips for credit cards, but in the years to come I’ll remember the days when Toys R Us held out the promise of a little frivolous happiness whether that was after a tough history test or a long day at work, and I’ll remember back when Ben Shapiro was credible, and I’ll smile. But I and the rest of the world have moved on, whether we wanted to or not.