Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~
Nostalgia is a powerful force in popular culture. The very thought of losing Toys “R” Us has sent many people swirling back through their own recollections to a time when their lives seemed to play out to the chain’s iconic jingle. Gilded memories of a place that seemed larger than life because it was seen from the low-angle perspective of children flash before their eyes.
Of course, toy stores have been vanishing for a while now. Every mall used to have at least one. The good malls had two. Toy stores have been consumed by competition from the so-called big box stores and the convenience of internet shopping. That’s the Darwinian competition of business. Juvenile Sales, my own beloved childhood toy store chain from Annapolis, was no doubt devoured by the efficiency of larger chains like Toys “R” Us. Understanding the economics offers little to salve the pangs of loss.
At least part of that feeling is a testament to Toys “R” Us’ advertising campaigns. Toys “R” Us has identified itself as the place “where a kid can be a kid.” Therefore, the loss of this toy store chain represents a loss for children. Something is being taken away from them. Childhood in America is so conflated with innocence that the removal of anything for children feeds into a larger story about the end of that innocence.
Conversely, toy store chains are commercial spaces. Where they do continue to exist, they feed a continuing criticism that there are no parts of a child’s life that are free from consumerism. Kids should be running free, playing outdoors and expressing their creativity. This counterstory has its problems too. Yours truly has many nostalgic memories of a childhood exactly like that. I also ran afoul of local troublemakers, got bitten and stung by every insect imaginable and had considerable sun overexposure that have already led to too many adventures with skin cancer. I’m not sure this so-called idyllic childhood was available to all. Other children grew up in places where such opportunities did not exist as they did in my suburban ramblings.
Culture is complicated – popular culture doubly so. Ultimately, kids will still be kids. Adults will strive to keep them innocent and be unable to protect that innocence.
To me, the end of the era of the gigantic toy store is the erosion of options. The toy sections of big box stores do not offer the shelf space that a toy chain does. I was reminded of this at Christmas when I got the insane notion that my son should have all the action figures from his beloved Ben 10 series. Those familiar with the show know that young Ben Tennyson wears a device that lets him turn into ten different aliens with different abilities.
My son already had the most popular four aliens. I got a few more at Toys “R” Us. For the rest, I was left to the mercy of the internet. In cyberspace, I discovered that hoarders had already outsmarted me. The hardest to find figures were available, their prices doubly or triply jacked up. For the money I spent to bring chlorophyllic alien Wildvine home I could have started a small flower garden.
I didn’t know it, but all that was standing between us and those marauding speculators was Geoffrey the Giraffe. When he’s gone, who will protect us?