Romano: The day the Muzak died at Toys 'R' Us

A shopper leaves the Toys R Us store at 1900 Tyrone Boulevard N in St. Petersburg in January, one of two bay area stores targeted for closing at the time. Now the retailer plans to close or sell all its stores. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times file]
A shopper leaves the Toys R Us store at 1900 Tyrone Boulevard N in St. Petersburg in January, one of two bay area stores targeted for closing at the time. Now the retailer plans to close or sell all its stores. [SCOTT KEELER | Times file]
Published March 17, 2018

She walks with purpose, all 35 pounds of her. Ignoring everyone and everything else, she zeroes in on a shelf slightly above her reach. Discovery is followed by an audible gasp, and several bouncing leaps.

"They have it! They have it! They have it!"

Thanks a lot, Amazon.

The online retailer has already swallowed up record, book and electronic stores, and now it is threatening to take childhood exuberance from us too.

I spent a few hours in two Toys "R" Us stores this week, and can promise you, even in 2018, that life is rarely as pure as a child leading a parent on an expedition of Hasbro and Mattel. I can also tell you few things are quite so sad as a dying toy store.

Six months after filing for bankruptcy protection, Toys "R" Us has indicated that it will begin liquidation and the potential closing of its more than 700 stores in the U.S.

This isn't a shock, and it doesn't signal the end of days. It also isn't entirely Amazon's fault. Walmart became the industry leader in toy sales nearly 20 years ago, and Toys "R" Us has been scrambling to rediscover its niche ever since.

Truth be told, there is a poetic vengeance to this tale. It was Toys "R" Us that drove a lot of mom-and-pop toy stores out of business in the 1970s and '80s. By the '90s, it had chased Lionel Playworld, KB Toys and even FAO Schwarz into premature extinction.

The difference now is there may not be a franchise to fill the void. It's possible smaller toy stores will once again be valued, but that's no guarantee.

Meanwhile, when the last Toys "R" Us is gone, it will mean the end of something special for many. For Nana and Poppy spoiling the grandkids. For moms and dads prepping for Santa. For kids who no longer have a store they consider their very own.

"When this closes, there will be nothing left,'' said Lisa Julian, who brought her daughters, Cora and Marisa, to the Tyrone Boulevard N store in St. Petersburg on Thursday to use gift cards sent by relatives up North.

"You can get toys at the other big-box stores, but it's not the same experience. This place is focused 100 percent on them. When this goes, it will be the end of an era.''

The closing of stores will not all be uniform. The Countryside store, in Clearwater, was operating as usual Friday afternoon. Workers were still handing out "I'm a Toys 'R' Us Kid'' stickers, and a sign advertised a two-hour family game day celebration this weekend. A Muzak version of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah was playing on the PA system, and employees said they had not yet gotten word about the going-out-of-business sale.

The store in St. Pete, on the other hand, was a stark vision of what was to come. That location had been tapped for closure more than a month earlier, and the shelves were a corporate buyer's nightmare. The popular toys were almost gone, and the duds were stubbornly ignored even with 40-percent-off tags.

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Natasha Coles, a fifth-grade teacher at Madeira Beach Fundamental, had come with her 6-year-old son, Ashton, hoping to find a good deal on a bicycle. Instead, they found mostly empty shelves.

It wasn't the lack of stock that bothered her, it was more the realization of what it all meant.

"Everybody is doing everything online because it's easier. Amazon is taking over,'' she said. "That stinks because once this place is gone, there won't be any stores left for kids. There will be some learning toy stores, but they're not the same thing. I'm a teacher, so I'm allowed to say that.''

The kids, for the most part, didn't seem to notice anything was wrong. They still treated half-empty aisles as something to behold. They still held gift cards in their hands as if they were gold.

"I remember getting birthday money when I was a kid, and I couldn't wait to come here and figure out what to spend it on,'' said Sara DeJulio, 28, who was with her 2-year-old daughter, Emilia. "She's not going to remember any of this and, silly as it seems, that's devastating to me.''

No one was handing out stickers anymore, and no family game days were planned. Even the PA system had gone silent. At Toys "R" Us, it was literally the day the Muzak died.