Across the plaza from where the Rockefeller Christmas Tree is still shrouded in scaffolding, a thin line of customers snaked around the front of New York City's newest toy store, waiting to get in. Though it was threatening to rain, children in brightly colored coats pressed eagerly against the store's window displays, where oversized bears and letters to Santa were in full view.
This was the scene of my first return to FAO Schwarz since my local Seattle store closed due to bankruptcy in 2003. The high-end toy store chain shuttered entirely in 2015, and reopened in New York last week after a three-year hiatus. Its new motto? "Return to wonder."
It's a fitting little slogan, even if I never left FAO Schwarz with any of the things I wanted as a child: the 7-foot-tall stuffed giraffes, the bed-sized teddy bears, the take-home version of the famous piano Tom Hanks played in Big. A visit to a true toy store, though, really is a return to a wondrous childhood dreamland, like a visit to a real-life Santa's workshop. The swell of wonder and excitement that surged through me every time my family walked through FAO Schwarz's front doors is unforgettable.
Wonder is in short supply these days. After Toys 'R' Us liquidated all 800 of its remaining stores in June, creating "toy deserts" across the country, competitors have hungrily sought opportunities to move in. In August, Walmart announced its ambition to become "America's Best Toy Shop," pushing its toy offerings up 30 percent in stores and 40 percent online. "I mean, think about it: Why would anyone go to Toys 'R' Us when they can go to Target and Walmart and buy toys at the same time they buy pantyhose and celery?" brand management professor Kelly O'Keefe explained to The Washington Post.
That does sound convenient. You know what's even more convenient? Not going to the store at all. And indeed, online toy purchases doubled between 2011 and 2016, rising from 7 percent of all toy sales to 14 percent. Amazon has even rolled out a 68-page print toy catalog to get its products in front of young eyes.
But we pay a price for this convenience. When we lose physical toy stores, we lose serendipity, imagination, and wonder.
Back during its heyday, FAO Schwarz was rightly criticized for being almost cartoonishly expensive, its offerings more appropriate for the children of the Monopoly man than a middle-income household: Among its selections was a $15,000 "mini-Mercedes" and a $1,500 Etch-A-Sketch bedazzled with 10,000 Swarovski crystals.
A visit to a toy store, though, shouldn't fundamentally be about buying toys. Toy stores are factories of imagination. Many toy stores host children's book readings or puppet shows; FAO Schwarz is attended to by actors dressed as toy soldiers. The legendary Central Children's Store in Moscow has more than 100 toy shops across its seven stories, and is filled with costumed actors, stages, and play areas. "You have to have other reasons for people to want to shop in your store than just the product," Jeffrey Weiss, the owner of Georgia's Learning Express Toys, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In making a space magical for children, raw sales can't be the only goal; the overall atmosphere matters, too. New York's Enchanted Forest toy store, which closed in 2015, was described by New York as "reminiscent of a Rousseau jungle scene, with real trees growing inside and a bridge for children to run across." Half the time, while wandering through the reopened FAO Schwarz, it wasn't even clear to me where prices were listed. Around every corner there seemed something new to interact with: booths where kids could watch science experiments, a winking clock, an enterable space ship, a play kitchen with miniature shopping carts. While a life-sized gorilla in an upstairs window might have easily been several thousand dollars, it could have just as easily been not for sale — just something else to be dazzled by.
The greatest magic of toy stores is that they're free to explore. As a child, I would beg to go to toy stores not ultimately out of the hope of getting a present, but because they were the closest thing I had to a trip to Disneyland, a place where I could let my imagination run wild.
There are few such spaces in the world that exist solely to excite children, and the ones that do are treasures. They can't be replicated in the aisles of a Walmart store, or from the pages of a catalog. And when a toy store is done just right, it is as much an experience for parents as it is for kids, a reminder of what it once was like to have our own unfettered awe awakened by piles of stuffed animals and people dressed as toy soldiers.
Still, even adults can sometimes forget that feeling. "How do you stay happy all day?" I heard one shopper stage-whisper to a toy soldier who was waving to kids lined up outside the new FAO Schwarz.
"I work at a toy store," the toy soldier replied, surprised. "What do you mean? This is the greatest place in the world."