The first Toys R Us I ever visited was the one at the North Shore Mall.
The mall also housed the only barbershop my grandfather trusted to cut his hair. On the third Saturday of the month, he’d load himself, my grandmother, Lil Bro and me into his oversized tan Chevy and make the long swear-filled journey up Route 128 to tame his jet black mane while the rest of us did some shopping in Peabody’s exotic temple of commerce. My grandmother preferred to stick to J.J. Newberry’s, whose basement toy department was a Sargasso Sea where Major Matt Mason accessory packs and Wonder Woman Presto Magix sets collected dust alongside other oddies of unsold inventory from the previous two decades.
Eventually, through the power of incessant pleading, we convinced her to take us into the Toys R Us store across the concourse. I was twelve at the time, and a little long in the tooth when it came to plastic playthings, but the place still filled me with awe. An entire aisle dedicated floor-to-ceiling to Star Wars merchandise. Massive endcaps devoted to Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe figures. A long wall of videogame cartridge boxes sealed behind plexiglass and purchasable through tear-off tags redeemed at a booth near the store’s entrance.
It put the anemic toy aisles at Bradlees and Zayres to shame. I was so bedazzled by the sheer volume of stuff that I equivocated about what to spend my grandpa-allotted five dollars on, but finally settled on the freshly racked Blowtorch and Mutt figures and used some on my own scraped-together pocket money for a deeply discounted copy of Vanguard for the Atari 2600.
After my grandfather found an acceptable barber closer to home, Lil Bro and I would cajole our grandmother to take us to the Toys R Us at the Woburn Plaza, across from the Osco Drug (now a Rite-Aid transitioning into a Walgreens) and Star Market (now a Whole Foods). My grandmother wasn’t thrilled about making the trip, because it involved passing through the nightmarish “Four Corners” intersection on the West Side, but its proximity to the local KFC made end-runs possible through my extra-crispy bucket-lovin’ grandpa.
On one of these visits, I was heading to the booth to pick up a 2600 Time Pilot cartridge when I tripped over a rope barrier set up to segregate the throng of Cabbage Patch Kid seekers from the general population. I landed hard on my kneecaps, kicking off the long and painful degenerative process that plagues that part of my body to the present day.
When I lucked into a geeky circle of pals in junior high, we’d make the trek to the Toys R Us on our bikes. The easiest and safest route involved cutting through the conservation area around Horn Pond (“Hahn Pahn”) and approaching the plaza through an slightly marshy area behind the store itself. We had to adjust that after the city erected a small dam at the pond’s outflow stream and raised the water level by six feet. We only found out about it after we screamed down the slope next to the marsh and found ourselves and our bikes mired in thigh-deep murk.
My first copy of Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set came from the Osco next door, but the ever-shrinking RPG display at Toys R Us was where I picked up my copies of Oriental Adventures, Unearthed Arcana, and The Temple of Elemental Evil.
I bought my Sega Master System at Toys R Us with Christmas tips from my paper route in 1986. I bought my Nintendo Entertainment System there (and a copy of Metal Gear) in 1989 with money made from working split shifts at the hospital. I blew most of my high school graduation gift money on a Sega Genesis there in the summer of 1990. It was also where Maura bought the Sega Saturn she gave me for Christmas in 1996 and where I bought my first Playstation and a copy of Persona: Revelations to celebrate landing my first steady “grown-up” job in 1997. When my grandmother was in the rehab facility next to the plaza in 2002, I swung by Toys R Us and bought a Gamecube and Metroid Prime on a whim.
Toys R Us was a regular stop during the years I hung out with my geek-pal Damian, where he would infuriate me by staring at the videogame section for an hour hoping something new and exciting would magically manifest. When rumors emerged about some hot new game hitting the shelves, I would ride there solo from the hospital after work in hopes of scoring the last copy and driving Damian mad with jealousy. (That was the case with the first Zillion game.)
One of my favorite articles of pre-punk clothing was red and white striped button-down shirt from L.L. Bean I found at Filene’s Basement. Every single time I visited Toys R Us while wearing it, some harried looking mom would ask for my opinion on some plaything or to pull something down for her from a high shelf. It always ended the same way, with an embarrassed “I thought you worked here” while gesturing at my shirt. Lil Bro and I had a similar thing happen a decade later when we cut out of my great aunt’s funeral and went — still dressed in our dark suits — to browse the store’s videogame section. From mistaken for a stockboy to mistaken for an executive — who says the American dream is dead?
After cashing my first excess check from my college scholarship, I went to Toys R Us and bought Herzog Zwei for the Genesis and Mission Impossible for the NES with a portion of that unexpected windfall.
I was on a first name basis with some of the staff there from the late Nineties up through the first couple of years of the new millennium, due to my weekly visits to check out the new videogame releases and pick up some interesting doll or action figure for Maura’s collection. I scaled back those trips after we got married and other priorities emerged, but Toys R Us remained the final stop on our “pizza and comics” dates at the (now shuttered) Papa Ginos in the plaza.
It may be ideologically suspect to get sentimental over the demise of a retail corporation, but it’s still truly bizarre that such a prominent entity in my life since the early Eighties is going to simply cease to be. The abrupt redaction of all things familiar and comforting has been my least favorite part of hitting middle age.