by Dorie Chevlen
We didn’t know it at the time, and I don’t remember exactly when it occurred, but one day my siblings and I went to Toys ‘R’ Us for the last time. We probably assumed that we would return soon, as we always did, in my mother’s cluttered minivan, listening to a Harry Potter audiobook for the umpteenth time. We were too young then to recognize the lurking onset of adolescence, too unaware to anticipate the apathy we’d soon feel for the toys that once shared our beds and baths. How could we know that in a few months the very notion of visiting that store would fill us with flush-faced embarrassment, dread over being labeled a “big baby”? How could we then know that childhood was already waning, already on its way to becoming a wistful memory?
Unlike us, many children will soon be making their last visits to Toys ‘R’ Us knowingly, aware that the megachain has announced plans to shutter its remaining stores in the coming weeks. It’s already ceased to be the place of their happier memories: by now the shelves have been picked over, the remaining pink boxes encasing Barbie and Ken dented like botulism-infected soup cans. Even the employees won’t seem the same: the anxiety of impending unemployment, of where to go next, is detectable even by children too young to pronounce “bankruptcy.”
These children will continue to receive toys, of course. This is America; their parents can shop elsewhere. But it’s not about the toys, really, so much as it is about the store, which, like an overflowing cornucopia, offered those toys to an awed clientele standing shorter than 4-feet tall. Toys ‘R Us encapsulated the very best parts of childhood – excess, to be sure, but also innocence and the special privilege of receiving something you want from someone who loves you. The store embodied unconsidered privilege so powerfully, in fact, that, in the naiveté of our childhood, my siblings and I actually thought the name of the store was “Toys FOR Us.”
And for many years it was just that, for us and so many kids. Surely, there were countless youngsters who rode past the leviathan face of Geoffery the Giraffe plastered above the storefront who never stopped in. But for us, the store was both the site of toy procurement, and a fountain of joy in itself. At Toys ‘R’ Us, my sister and I would scramble to reach the “pink aisle,” home to all things heteronormatively feminine, where we held and analyzed our wares like jewelers assessing diamonds, until finally landing upon that perfect doll which absolutely had to join the family. Meanwhile our brothers would borrow bikes with tinseled handlebars and zoom down the aisles until our distracted and perpetually sleep-deprived mother would call the chaos to a close.
Thanks to loving parents and doting grandparents and aunts, we four had every Beanie Baby and Barbie and Lego a child could want. We had more board games than we could get through on a snow day – Monopoly and Life and Sorry! and countless others that we would inevitably lose the pieces to, or simply grow tired of.
Many of those old toys have long since been given away, tossed, or lost, sacrificed to the sandboxes and sleepovers of our youth, perhaps cried over once, and then forgotten. Others of those old toys still languish in our labyrinth of a basement, unused, unneeded, and unwanted, yet for reasons hard to understand and explain, heart-wrenching to discard.
When my older brother texted us the announcement of the store’s closing, he included a sad-face emoji, and it wasn’t a parody but a reflection. Toys ‘R’ Us closure is not the most potent symbol of our childhood’s demise, not by a longshot. Years ago, the ice rink where we learned to skate burned to the ground. The trampoline on which we spent our summers bouncing was discarded after it tore a hole. Elementary school teachers have died, babysitters have married and borne children of their own, and of course the four of us have left home, gone to college, and started careers of our own. No, the store’s closing is not the most potent symbol of childhood’s end, but it is the freshest cut overlying the older scars.
We’re not good at letting go of things in my family. I’ve mentioned our basement, a graveyard of love-worn toys, dried up craft materials, and unfinished art projects that we intend to return to someday. We may have long outgrown Toys ‘R’ Us, but there was a comfort in the store’s still standing, reminding us of what was. Each toy, each store, each tangible relic of our childhood carries a memory, and I think there’s a fear that when we lose one we inevitably lose the other—that the joy of our childhood, long over, can fade from our memories, the vibrancy and the color draining until it’s blank.
I don’t remember the last time we shopped at Toys ‘R’ Us, but I do know that when those automatic doors closed behind us, we didn’t look back. We didn’t need to. It would be there forever.