Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I miss this place

With the news of KB Toys closing I started to reflect on the state of the "toy store" and it made me sad to think about these specialty stores disappearing. How awesome was Child World, for example? I mean, the goddamn building was a castle! The place just screamed, "The Disney World of toy retail!" We never realized how good we had it until it disappeared. In fact, we had one in Seekonk and one on Taunton (Newport Ave), that's two Child World toy stores within 5 miles of one another.

Child World, Founded 1974 and Closed 1992

Other lost toy retail,

Apex was awesome because the building was awesome. I mean, look at this damn place, it's a pyramid of dreams. Okay, the reality is that the store pretty much sucked but it was one of the places where we were able to locate the precious, and by then discontinued, Super Powers figures, the greatest action figure line ever created. This place also represents freedom to me - we were finally able to go on toy hunts because you earned your driver's license. For the first time we could say, "Let's go here, and then we'll go there..." Come to think of it, we did this as recently as a month ago.

Apex, Founded 1924 and Closed 2000

Ann and Hope, where I screwed up putting my initials in Jungle Hunt and 20 years later I'm still trying to live it down (JPX, damnit!). Ann and Hope was the only game in town when we were really young and it was a big outing in my household to go shopping there. It was the next best thing to Child World and generally well stocked with toy goodies. The "damaged" cart items was a favorite of mine - toys sold cheaper because the packaging was damaged, and it didn't take too long to figure out that you could do some of your own "toy damaging" to get the price knocked down on a desired item. I acquired many Star Wars figures there and a few video games.

Ann and Hope, Founded 1953 and Closed 2001

Ben Franklin is where I purchased my first Star Wars action figure (Darth Vader). It was such a random store and you never knew what you would find there. It was like a flea market disguised as a store. The joint was generally over-priced (Darth was like $3.50 at a time when everyone else had it for $2.50) but still it was a toy store in our home town and that wasn't a dreaded "educational" toy store masquerading as a fun place for kids.

Ben Franklin, Founded 1927 and Closed 1996

Ah, Lechmere. First the name, Lechmere, just sounds gross, like "Leech". Second, the truth of the matter is that the toy section was pretty weak - although we found NME there so it gets some points. It's also where we purchased those horrible pleather jackets, so it does hold a soft spot in my heart. Nothing spectacular but another retail store that was part of my (late) childhood and no longer exists.

Lechmere, Founded 1948 and Closed 1997

Caldor - I always want to call it Caldors, which rolls off the tongue more easily. Like Lechmere, Caldor(s!) was nothing special. In fact, it was so non-descript I'm actually having difficulty conjuring up any specific Caldor-related memories. Still, it's another example of a lost retail/toy option. I've started to notice that toy selection is shrinking and aside from Toys R Us (still the best) there are very few options. I'm worried about the state of toy retail and I fear that most of our future purchases are going to be at conventions or online where we will have to pay a premium.

Caldor, Founded 1951 and Closed 1999

Ames was another non-descript Caldore-like retail store. Occasionally I'd find some good stuff there such as some Star Trek Playmates action figures. The last time I was in an Ames was 1999. It was the height of Star Wars prequel fever and I purchased a Darth Maul on Speeder Bike for way too much money. Like K-Mart, Ames had the appearance of savings, with it's long rows of flourescent lights and no frills decor. Yet, the place was pretty damn expensive.

Ames, Founded 1958 and Closed 2002

Man, remember Zayre? I barely remember this chain although I know there must have been one near one of the places I lived (Geneva, New York?) because I recall looking for toys there once in a while. Actually, I believe this is where I found the rare Galoob Star Trek action figures. There's nothing special about Zayre - it's just another example of a place to hunt for toys that no longer exists. I want to call it "Zayers".

Zayre, Founded 1956 and Closed 1990

Bradlees was another one of those non-descript retail outlets that had an okay toy aisle. Bigger than Ames and Caldor, Bradlees was a good place to look for toys if you also had 6 other places on your list to look that same day. You would never say, "Let's take a trip to Bradlees", rather you'd say, "I think there's a Bradlees on our way to Toys R Us, we might as well check it out." I am unable to provide a single Bradlees memory.

Bradlees, Founded 1958 and Closed 2000

I honestly can't recall whether or not I shopped at Woolworths. I believe there was one at the Warwick Mall. I thought I'd include it here because it goes along with the theme of closed retail.

Woolworths, Founded in 1878 and became Foot Locker in 2001

We love to make fun of it, but I'll be sad when this place inevitably disappears. Sure they never have anything of value and despite it's "Come in we're cheap" appearance it is nothing of the sort. Still, there's something very retro about Benny's and I find myself venturing in them occasionally in order to travel back to a time before the K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target existed.

Benny's, Founded 1924 and Closed ???

Wow, when I started this editorial I never appreciated how many retail stores have closed over the past 20 years. Singularly none of these stores were very impressive (Child World excluded, of course), but taken as a whole they offered an arsenal of opportunities to find those rare toys we often sought. If we didn't find it at Ann and Hope, for example, chances are we would find it somewhere along the way given the many options at hand. It appears that the golden age for toy hunters was in the late 80s/early 90s. Searching for toys in 2009 is a bleak endeavor. Sure we always have Toys R Us (for now), but what else? Today we have very few places to locate desired treasures. Walmart, Target, and K-MART are pretty much the only game in town. However, as noted above these places seem to be limiting the amount of toy choices. Why is it, for example, that only Target carries Justice League Unlimited action figures? Of course I am thankful that we have The Toy Vault (3 of them!) but in some ways it takes the fun out of the "hunt". In the age of Ebay and specialty stores like The Toy Vault, it’s almost too easy to “collect”. True I love quickly filling holes in my collection but with that luxury also comes a feeling of malaise. I remember how excited I was when I finally completed the Super Powers collection after a 20-year pursuit. This elation quickly turned to a post partum feeling when I suddenly realized, “I have the whole collection, and there is nothing else to collect”. A paradox indeed.

I love you so much, Toy Vault!


Octopunk said...

So I've decided to contribute in a series of comments instead of muddling with your excellent post.

First of all, yes, I too feel sad about the fate of the toy store. My friend Brooke told me that a friend of his in Germany saw a 150-year-old toy store go out of business.

The memories of these stores (and especially Child World) are very close to the heart of this blog. Like, I assume, a lot of adult toy freaks, I went through a dark time when I didn't buy toys because nobody else I knew was buying toys. Except for JPX.

If you remember, that Child World in Seekonk showed up after Taunton. That plaza started with Heartland Food Warehouse and grew in stages, with Child World at the opposite end of the the storefronts. Which means it was there either right before or right after I got my driver's license.

Star Wars figs would be on the way out, Super Powers in full force. I got the Rancor there for under five bucks in a red tag sale.

I stopped buying Lego stuff after 1983, but I would always wander through the aisle to see what they were up to. I started buying Lego again in 1989 and returned to Seekonk to snag some of the choice things I'd missed. I got the Futuron Stardefender "200" there, and no less than four Blacktron Invaders.

I hope JPX still has a picture of me sitting in the kiddie seat of a shopping cart outside Child World. We'd taken a bunch of pictures of weird Heartland customers, and then that one. It was so difficult getting in and out of the cart that JPX had to stand there so I could brace myself.

And as a matter of fact, after he took the picture, he came over to help me out and instead grabbed the handle and ran like hell, propelling me, terrified, backwards down the sidewalk. Good times.

In some unsubstantiated way I want to demand that Child World was better than TRU, but they were probably about equal, TRUs being way cooler back then, too. Although it did look like a castle, that's pretty unbeatable.

Do you have thost pictures still? I'd even like to see the too-dark Heartland ones.

JPX said...

I recfently found a bunch of negatives from my old Kodak camera (it was a brief attempt at a new kind of camera/film where the film was on a circular disc and very tiny. I couldn't tell what was on some of the negatives and now I'm wondering if the famous shopping cart picture is on there - I never throw anything away so it's very possible that I have that picture (I hope I do).

By time I was really aware of Child World in Seekonk I think I was in my early teens and not as into toys (it must've been a very brief period of time). By time I really spent any time in that Child World it was closing and everything was heavily discounted. In the early days of the discounts I scored 3 Mego "World's Greatest Superhero" dolls. I also managed to get almost the entire line of Pee-Wee action figures/playsets for pennies because the nation was freaking out over Paul Reubens' masturbation.

JSP and I went to Child World during its final days and it was a mad house. Most of the aisles were closed off with police tape and the sections that were open were just a mess - we were ankle deep in toys!

Octopunk said...

Apex mostly stands out for me because of the one in the Swansea Mall, in which I had my only sighting of a series 3 Super Powers figure on sale in a regular retail store. Mr. Miracle, which neither of us bought because he didn't seem as cool as the other ones we had. The back of the blister card, however, held amazing treasures like Plastic Man, Cyborg and Shazam (I was going to write Captain Marvel and then I read the comments here).

I remember an Apex in Pawtucket that we drove past on the highway but never went into (and who actually goes into Pawtucket if they can help it), and another one that we'd see off the highway that was way up above us. I have no idea where that second one was, probably in the wilds to the west of Providence or maybe even in Connecticut. I'm pretty sure the only one I set foot in was the one in the Swansea Mall.

Octopunk said...

Or am I wrong about that? Reading what you said about our first solo exploits in my car (soooo nice to have a driver's license when just a sophomore in high school), makes me wonder/half recall that there was an Apex out by the Warwick Mall-area mall sprawl.

In fact, I'm suddenly wondering if it was an Apex parking lot we were trying to escape when I decided to get to the road by riding up the curb and crossing the grassy median. How I didn't rip the muffler off the car I'll never know.

JPX said...

"I'm suddenly wondering if it was an Apex parking lot we were trying to escape when I decided to get to the road by riding up the curb and crossing the grassy median."

Yes, that was totally Apex! I remember finding Super Powers figures there, although I think at that point all they had left were Robins.

What about Woolworth, should that be in the main article?

Octopunk said...

Do you have any Woolworth-related memories? I can't think of where one was.

Ann and Hope, however, was huge. Probably where I got most of my Star Wars figures. I recall one time I was scoping out the pegboard and some parent was standing there with their kid saying "these cost a dollar less at Toys R Us. These cost a dollar less at Toys R Us."

I was seething, because my dad was standing there too and there was no Toys R Us that we could go to. This was before the Swansea TRU and I didn't even know where one was. I didn't want this fool screwing up an imminent toy purchase. Sure enough, my dad says "what about Toys R Us? That guy says they're a dollar cheaper." I pointed out that there was no TRU to go to, which miraculously worked. I'm sure that other dad was full of crap, too.

I have to correct you on the origin of JPX, however. That happened over two games of Tempest at Rainbow Farms (Rainbow Farms's short stint as Barrington's first and last video arcade probably deserves its own post).

A&H's Jungle Hunt game was the one on which I enacted tough, necessary justice on your jungle ass when I hit the jump button during the swinging vine stage and dropped your guy into the grass. This was, it must be noted, direct retaliation for your savage and unprovoked downshifting of my race car in a Pole Position game I'd just been playing.

I know what you're going to say: despite the fact that I could see the finish line, I wasn't going to make it. But that doesn't matter! You interfered, and so you sacrificed a little Tarzan for your wanton act. And you never did it again, either, so I know I did the right thing.

Another A&H memory comes from much later -- actually as I look things up, it happened the last year they were open. I was home for Xmas and borrowed my brother-in-law's big, old Jeep wagon (basically an SUV before they became so popular, like an SUV with wood paneling). Known as The Beast, this vehicle had an unreliable reputation. I had just bought the Lego set Watto's Junkyard, and when I got out to The Beast it wouldn't start. By amazing luck the woman parked next to me had just locked her keys in her car and went in to call AAA. When the tow truck came, he jumped The Beast and I was on my way. While waiting for him I sat in the back and built my Lego set, happy as a clam.

For many years before it closed I recall A&H being one of those obligatory stops that never yielded anything good, but back in its heyday... it was probably top gun.

Octopunk said...

Speaking of Super Powers and Apex and all, we spent SO much time hunting for toys in those days, but how many Super Powers figures did I actually have before the days of Ebay? I think five. Martian Manhunter, Dr. Fate, Green Arrow, Batman and Hawkman. Isn't that funny to realize?

JPX said...

It is true, I think we've been having a "widow's memory" when we consider how little all of our toy hunting actually netted us (at least when it came to Super Powers). When I really think about it I acquired most of the collection from Toy Vault and Ebay about 5 years ago. I actually have every single toy from the series except the Bat Copter, which I intend to pick up at some point.

That Ann and Hope memory is so funny! Can you imagine if you're father had decided not to purchase any Star Wars figures because of what that other father said about Toys R Us? You would've killed the guy (or the guy's kid). Ann and Hope was always a bit pricey. Acquiring Star Wars figures was a painful experience because my mother would never buy more than one at a time. I think that's why I buy entire sets at once because I can't stand not having them all (at least that's the way I used to purchase things before things became to lame and expensive). I remember first seening the game Venture at Ann and Hope - I was so blown away buy it! We had it for Atari but of course it only included the first two levels and it sucked. Stupid Atari.

Thank you for correcting me on the JPX memory! Rainbow Farms, wow! I wonder if any picture exist from that place? Looking back on things I wish we had taken more pictures. I have a great Rude Ralph picture of us in Toys R Us, I need to get it scanned.

Catfreeek said...

Child World was such a magical place to me. My god parents would take me there once a year to pick out a birthday/christmas present. I was always in awe looking at the seemingly endless rows of toys.

Rainbow Farms, wow! I was probably amongst that group of teens hanging around outside that place trying to look way tougher than we were while you guys were inside having real fun.

Octopunk said...

Ben Franklin Five and Ten! The home town toy store, right next door to Almacs where we did all our food shopping (well, we got our meat at Chellel's). I was going to that toy store probably when I was two years old.

I remember a pack of plastic dinosaurs I got there, just a bag stapled together with a cardboard fold-over top. Some were dinosaurs and a few were original monsters. Years later I would see two of those monsters show up in the D&D Monster Manual (apparently Gary Gygax got the same bag of dinos).

For a while BF was selling "Mixed Up Zoo Animals," which were just little plastic statues of an animal made from two animals stuck together. I called them "miximals," which my Mom thought was better. I recall a cow with a big rooster head, and there was probably a jackalope.

BF had a rotating display of Matchbox cars, and the cars came in a little box you would use as the car's garage until it got squashed or lost. Thinking about this I remembered some larger-scale Matchbox toys called Speed Kings which we got at BF (Speed Kings will get its own post later).

The thing about the Barrington Ben Franklin was that guy who would watch all kids so they wouldn't shoplift. He was freaky obvious about it, parking himself at the head of the aisle with his arms folded and his feet planted apart, giving you the stink-eye. I'd seen him do this a number of times before some other kid griped about it and I realized for the first time I was being scrutinized with suspicion. Which was weird, because stealing had never even occured to me before then.

Because I did steal a Super Powers Superman from there, and then decided that SP Supes wasn't worth the karmic hit and actually placed him back inside his blister card and sneaked him BACK into the store. Why, why, why? asks JPX. I did wind up getting Superman again later, so I have no good answer.

And of course, Ben Franklin's was where we got google eyes and other art supplies for the original Jeff and Jeff Pandemonium films. What a wacky store.

Good candy selection, too.

Octopunk said...

I'm glad you remembered NME and those pleather jackets (I wore mine to school once and was laughed right out of wearing it ever again by one of my fellow theater-people. A girl, of course -- and I should've thanked her).

Because I can't really think of anything about Lechmere to say. You're so right about the name, sounds like "leech" but looks like "lech," what a mess.

Was there another Lechmere besides the one adjacent to the Seekonk Child World? Where Target now stands? I can't recall another. So when you say Lechmere I think it's a place where we went after visiting Child World, probably to pick up a pack of cassette tapes to make mixes on.

JPX said...

“we got our meat at Chellel's” That’s so funny, my family did the exact same thing! I always wondered how Chellel’s stayed in business given that their prices were more expensive than Almacs’. Well, they’re not in business anymore; Chellel’s is now an Ace Hardware store. I don’t think they sell meat.

Ben Franklin’s was great and frustrating at the same time. As a kid, it was a store with toys, which made it instantly awesome. As mentioned in my post, I acquired my first ever Star Wars figure there (Darth Vader for $3+). Ben Franklin’s was also my go-to place for trading cards. I’ve acquired a massive collection of non-sports cards over the years. I started with King Kong and later Star Wars, Superman, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Most of these were purchased at Ben Franklin’s and Dan’s Variety (“Thirty-five cents!”). On rare occasion I would get them at Bill’s Market (was that what it was called?). Anyway, I digress. Ben Franklin’s was great because it was the ultimate premack for going to Almacs (i.e., “If you go with me to Almacs you can go to Ben Franklin’s”). Of course, I was allotted very little time in the store but enough to keep me satisfied. I also associate Ben Franklin’s as an exercise in frustration. Ben Franklin’s existed at a time when I was old enough to be aware of toys, etc, but I had no money, for which I relied on my parents. My dad was always at work so I had to beg my mother for stuff. She made no secret that she didn’t care for boys’ toys and she was generally unsupportive when I wanted things like Star Wars figures. It would be a tease to go into Ben Franklin’s, see something I wanted, and then be promptly informed that it was “too expensive!” I blame these early experiences for my ravenous, unquenchable collecting/hoarding today.

Wow, I’m all over the place with this post!

The problem with Ben Franklin’s was that it was run by a surely, suck-bag, old man (at least he appeared old in my young eyes), who kept constant, near harassing, vigilance on any kid who happened to wander into the store. I think he would even inform you that he didn’t want you in there if you weren’t accompanied by an adult. I’m certain he assumed, and rightly so, that any kids without an adult had no money and would probably try to shoplift. Once when I was about 12 I attempted to steal some Star Wars stickers. Fortunately, and inexplicably, a kid from school who generally bullied me informed me that I was being watched by the suck-bag. I quickly put the stickers back and left.

What I loved about the store was its randomness. It was very difficult to procure any pictures of Ben Franklin’s, but the one I ultimately found is a good representation of what the place looked like (even the guy in the picture kind of resembles the guy that ran the Barrington store). It was a hodgepodge of items that most likely reflected the feel of a 1950s store (I think it was even referred to as a “five and dime”). There was certainly a nostalgic feel to the place and I’m sad that it’s gone. I would love to go in there one more time, even to be scolded by the old fart (probably long dead) who ran the place.

Octopunk said...

Although I recall the Caldor in Swansea Mall fondly (it's now a Wal-mart), I can't remember any specific toy purchases there. What I do remember is that there was an exit to the mall right after you passed the cashiers. I liked that because it seemed like a secret exit. No advantage to it, however, unless you really didn't want to walk past Bedazzled, Spencer Gifts and Kay Bee.

JPX, were you with me for this? My mom bought something big at the mall and we were having trouble getting the trunk closed, so she asked me to give her my shoe laces. This was outside the entrance by the movie theater, but several parking spaces away from the door. Having laceless shoes, I was getting my jollies kicking them off my feet and watching them fly -- and then one went up on the roof of Caldor, oops.

I realized later that the "roof" was actually just a wall and the truck loading dock was on the other side. So it's possible my shoe had fallen back to the ground, or maybe was trapped atop a truck trailer, but we didn't look. My mom accepted partial blame for taking my shoelaces.

Octopunk said...

I don't think I knew about Ames until you posted it. Ames? Vaguely aware of its existence but I never knew there were toys in there.

And while Zayre (and yes, "Zayre's" feels more right) was definitely on the landscape in some way, I don't think I ever went in one of those, either. Maybe I just recalled seeing their ads.

I clearly remember ads for Bradlees that featured Mrs. Bradlee herself, a rather humorless, arch-looking woman who would hawk her store's awesomeness.

Perhaps I'm recalling her unfairly, but there was one commercial in which she was riding shotgun with Santa Claus, and he referred to her jocularly as "Mrs. B." I had big doubts that Santa in all his finery would actually be that chummy with a woman in her fifties wearing drab brown office clothes.

While I don't remember a Bradlees from New England, there was actually one in NYC for a while. The toys were on the fourth floor, which was accessible by escalators that were in the front of the glass building. You got a nice view of Union Square as you went up. I think I can say that NYC Bradlees was often quite useful, at least for a while. I think the choices got fewer and fewer as it headed for its demise.

Octopunk said...

Have I set foot in a Woolworth's? Can't recall. It's such a ubiquitous name, but perhaps I've only encountered it in stories that take place in the 50's, in which characters can not only shop there but get drinks at the soda fountain.

Okay, here's some weirdness. I was trying to remember what the big department store was in the Swansea Mall that was across from Waldenbooks's original location. There was a bunch of indoor landscaping and crap in front of the entrance. Well I googled Swansea Mall and wouldn't you know it, it's got a Wikipedia page. So I think that store was Edgars, which on separate occasions is where I bought some die-cast Star Wars vehicles, a Godzilla toy of some giant bug (not connected to any particular movie, I don't think) and one of those Kenner Star Wars figure 3-packs that cost more than 3 separate figures would have. It had two figs I didn't have yet, and a snowtrooper.

Funny I can't remember who the two new figs were. Bounty hunters, probably. A quick google search hasn't helped, except to confirm that there were 3-packs sold exclusively at department stores. Even Rebelscum was no help.

My mom was pretty irked at the 3-pack price, but got it for me anyway.

Octopunk said...

Ah, Benny's. Reading this post I feel grateful that they actually had the courtesy to put an apostrophe before their letter S, unlike Ames, Woolworths, Bradlees and Edgars who I just mentioned.

Amusingly enough there's a Benny's in Bristol near where a number of my siblings live, and I of course poked my head in there over Christmas. I'm pretty sure I found something good in there as recently as my year in RI (2003), but not last year.

Entering Benny's you are instantly struck by the smell of tires, since their automotive section is larger than that of most department stores. It really contributes to the low rent feel of the place, and also headaches. Terrible smell.

The day the Blizzard of 1978 hit my mom was going to take me to Benny's so I could get a Micronauts Baron Karza. When she told me the weather would prevent the trip I started to cry, at which point she angrily reminded me that my father was probably going to be stranded in Providence that night and my priorities were out of whack.

She was right, because although I say "reminded me" I really didn't realize that was the case until right then, perhaps because I was so preoccupied with my delayed toy purchase. My dad spent the night in the Civic Center with a bunch of other strandees and got home the following day. Later I got my Baron Karza, which I still have. That was some blizzard.

Octopunk said...

It's taken nearly two months to complete my half of the discussion on this excellent post. Amazing to think we sit here mourning department stores as if they were mom 'n pop joints forced out of business by the big stores, even though in a large-scale food chain way that's kind of what happened.

There aren't as many toys on the market that appeal to me as in the old days (old days = late seventies to mid nineties), but nevertheless I miss the breadth of choice we used to have.

If those stores still existed, it's difficult to say what toy hunting would be like because the market is so different now. Between the horde of nerds like us who are out for the same goodies and the sneaky insider employees who sock the best stuff away, would we get any luckier at Ames or Apex? Maybe not, but I still miss them. Or maybe I miss being the only two toy freaks I know, tooling around in a noisy Chevette trying to find something cool to spend our too-few dollars on. Which is pretty much why I still make sure JPX and I do exactly that at least once a year.

Which brings us to Toy Vault, which grows greater in my estimation the more west coast stores I discover. If anything brings back the thrilled, relaxed feeling of Child World's vast fare it's the Vault, high prices or not. As for the ease of collecting, I will quote myself from my long-ago post about Battle Beasts:

"When I say the old line about how it's better to have stuff still out there to find than to ever 'finish' collecting, it's [Battle Beasts] I usually think about. Someday a Fed Ex robot will deliver the last needed Laser Beast to my future self, and then I'll tuck my long white beard under my arm and roll my wheelchair into the ocean."

Mr. Paulus said...

Wow...this post brings back a lot of memories for me. I am about 10 years younger than you guys, but I share a lot of the same memories of toy collecting in my childhood and teenage years. Some great commentary about stores that I miss including Child World, Apex, Ann & Hope, Lechmere, etc. I'm sure we probably crossed paths at the Swansea Mall or Seekonk Square at some point in the 90s.

VIG said...