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RIP Toys R Us: Remembering brand new Barbies and green plastic soldiers in the age of e-commerce

Shoppers wait on a check-out line in the

Shoppers wait on a check-out line in the Times Square Toys R Us store in Manhattan on Nov. 22, 2012. Credit: AP / John Minchillo

When I was about 4 or 5, I discovered the Sears Wish Book. I’d sit at the kitchen table and page through all of the amazing toys that Mom Mom and Pop Pop could be snookered into buying for me, since my parents were a bit more impervious to my dimples. That book was the blueprint for many joyful birthdays, where happiness was found at the end of a 60-watt light bulb screwed into my Susie Homemaker oven.

Many of the people reading these words will have no idea what I’m talking about. Sadder still, they won’t understand why I was devastated to hear that Toys R Us will shutter its doors forever.

It might seem strange that a woman who has passed the half century marker on her mortal journey is mourning the death of a retail store that sells toys. And why in the world is she reminiscing about pretend ovens and glossy throwback magazines filled with advertisements and hope?

But this column isn’t for those people.

This is for the women who remember what it was like to wander down the aisles of vast “kiddie kathedrals” filled with dolls that blinked and sang and pirouetted on one pink plastic slipper. This is for the people who, despite nascent wrinkles and sprinkles of silver in their hair, can locate that inner child who exulted in delight when a benevolent adult said, “Let’s go check out the new Barbies!” This is dedicated to the now-middle-aged boys who knew exactly where to find the shelves that held shiny tin sheriff’s badges, pop guns that made authentic sounds and filled the air with sulfer, and those bags of plastic green soldiers frozen in combat poses and deadly when you accidentally stepped on them, barefoot, at three in the morning.

When I heard that Toys R Us had been forced to declare bankruptcy after years of obvious mismanagement and billion-dollar debt, I didn’t think about our market economy and how profit was king. I thought about the world that was disappearing, one that faded deeper into the mists with the loss of this franchise.

Some will say that waxing nostalgic for a giant chain store is stupid, because Toys R Us and Kiddie City and even the magnificent FAO Schwarz, were anachronistic monoliths that sold things you can get elsewhere for much cheaper and without the surly employees cracking gum in your face.

But those people don’t get it, and I have a sad suspicion that they never will.

We long ago entered an age where human contact and experience were expendable, and virtual exchanges were more efficient and economical. Why get in your car, waste gas, look for parking, trudge into a store, stand in line at the checkout, pay retail and head back home when you could sit down at your computer with your skinny chai latte and surf the web for everything that money can buy?

Except that money can’t purchase the beauty that comes from tangible, tactile experience.

The other day I was looking at a photo of my grandfather from an afternoon that we’d spent at Wanamaker’s in 1968, when we picked up my princess vanity set from the children’s department and then carted it home to my bedroom. Meghan Markle may be marrying Prince Harry, but I doubt she’ll ever feel as royal as I did 50 years ago, brushing my hair in front of that mirror and setting out my empty bottles of pretend perfume.

I recall going to Kiddie City and running toward the aisle that held the Chrissy doll, the one who had an auburn pony tail that would flow in great waves out of her plastic scalp when you pushed her belly button. (I eventually pushed it so hard that, to my horror, her hair fell out of the gaping hole in her head and landed at my feet.)

And when I got older, I took my godsons and nephews and nieces to the toy stores just to see, reflected in their upturned faces, the same joy my grandparents had seen in me. It’s a magic that dies when you click on a mouse and use PayPal. It’s a world that’s been lost in Jeff Bezos’ Amazon jungle.

Childhood is a fragile tower, built on dreams and wishes. Toys are its bricks and mortar. Building that tower, choosing those bricks with our own hands, was always a labor of love.

Now, with a shallow and economical click of the mouse, we’re done. How sad.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.