You could argue I had already grown out of Toys R Us by the time I first set foot in one.
It was 1991. I was 13, a Hungarian immigrant, new to America. New to breakfast cereal, to dozens of channels on the TV and to big stores with endless shelves of toys.
Now that it might be nearly gone, I feel a strange pang of nostalgia. Even though I am a teeny bit to blame for its demise, thanks to my penchant for one-click ordering and free two-day shipping. As a working parent, I rarely go to physical stores any more. Shoes, toilet paper – and yes, toys – are all ordered online, arriving at my doorstep in a brown cardboard box.
Weekend trips to Toys R Us used to be a special treat. We were allowed a lot of special treats that year because my mom felt bad for uprooting us from our comfortable, closed-off lives behind the quickly crumbling Iron Curtain. I also think she just wanted to get out of the house.
We had moved from Budapest, Hungary, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Everything was different, even the thick humid southern air that seemed to sit on your chest and try its best to keep you from breathing. Then there were the huge cars, air conditioning and endless aisles of brightly packaged food in supermarkets. It was in New Orleans that I learned the purpose of breakfast cereal, that it wasn’t some strange candy to savor piece by piece but something you poured milk over and ate by the spoonful.
My mom rarely bought us anything at Toys R Us in those first months. She didn’t have to. The pure experience of it was like Disneyland to us – in fact she probably could have told us we were in Disneyland and we would have believed her.
Sure, we had toy stores in Hungary. A few hundred square feet, peeling vinyl floors, staffed by sour-faced ladies (smiles were another American thing we were not accustomed to) who rang up your purchases wordlessly. The toys were fine – I had a comfortable 1980s childhood that rarely left me wanting. But without Toys R Us, there wasn’t as much want. Each year, as the West pushed in more and more, there seemed to be more kinds of toys to choose from and pine over.
Eastern Europe had a toy shortage in the early 1980s, my mom reminds me, and Legos were not only extremely pricey but they could only be acquired through connections. We had a lot of Legos – apparently my parents had the right connections. By 1989, I also had a Barbie, along with her sister Skipper and several knockoffs. I had more My Little Ponys than any other girl in my class.
But until we moved, I’d never seen anything like a Toys R Us. We couldn’t have dreamed it up if we tried. It was an entire palace dedicated to celebrating childhood.
By January 1992, we were speaking English and grew accustomed to “shopping” for the sake of shopping. We started to want things at Toys R Us. We became, almost, closer to becoming American.
As the years passed, half of our family stayed in the U.S., the other half returned. I remained and started a family of my own.
Hearing about the closings, I realized that I’d never taken my 2-year-old daughter to Toys R Us. I suddenly imagined her running around the aisles as I did with my brothers, this simple experience fusing my past with her present.
But I’m not even sure I would have ever taken her. It’s just not how we shop. Maybe this sadness is not about her childhood but mine.
A few weeks ago I bought her first doll. I searched for a while on Amazon until I picked out a few with good reviews and two-day shipping. I showed her my phone and let her point at the one she liked.
I clicked “Buy Now” and that was that. Two days later, she was opening another brown cardboard box.