This was a pretty big deal.
I grew up in Bangor, Maine. The nearest Toys R Us was in South Portland, about 2 hours away (probably a little longer, the way my dad drove). It might as well have been the moon. We didn't go a lot of places when I was a kid, partially due to a series of longstanding, serious health issues my parents had in the early 80s, but mostly because they never seemed to like to go anywhere other people went. Sure, they'd drive anywhere east, west, north, and/or wooded. Milo? Been there loads. Monson? I could draw you a map of the town from memory. Township 2, Range 9 (a.k.a. T2R9)? Not a lot to see since it was an unorganized township without so much as a proper name, but what there was of it we saw. But the greater Portland area? Forget it. Tourists went there. People from Massachusetts drove up to there. The highway had more than 2 lanes. There be dragons.
But we got a couple of Boston stations (WLVI and WSBK) on cable, so I saw a lot of the ads. And the Sunday paper (based out of Portland; Bangor's local paper never published a Sunday edition) would frequently carry the flyers, which were always amazing to look through, especially close to Christmas; they were like the Sears or JC Penney catalogs but they got straight to the good stuff. So as any little kid would be, I was keenly aware of what I was missing.
Granted, it's not like I lived in a toy desert or anything. Bangor was a decent-sized town, big enough to support two good sized malls and what easily a dozen or so smaller shopping plazas. We had several major national department stores and a number of smaller local ones. Hell, we even had a Kay Bee Toys in one of the malls, so we weren't even hurting for a kid-specific retail option. But as much as I loved them all, especially Kay Bee, such is the power of advertising that it didn't seem like enough. On TV, Toys R Us always looked so magical... so big you could see the earth curve away beneath it as you looked across the length of store while an anthropomorphic giraffe on his hind legs guided you down aisle after aisle of the latest toy and game offerings. Of course none of the kids in the commercials wanted to grow up. Who would?
I campaigned frequently, but to no avail. It was too far, we had places to buy toys closer to home, they wouldn't have anything I couldn't already find those places, did we mention the three lane highway and the dragons, etc. It was disheartening, to be sure, but I never gave up. Finally, after years of this, they miraculously relented. Probably just to buy my silence at long last, but that didn't matter. All that did matter was this: it was 1985, I was 9 years old, I was in 3rd grade, I was getting to go to Toys R Us for the first time, and this was a pretty big deal.
The decision came down maybe mid-to-late February, past that month's school vacation week: we would go down one day during April's school vacation week. It took 7 years for NASA to answer President Kennedy's challenge to go to the moon; it took my parents a month and a half to prepare to drive to South Portland. This was directly proportional, I assure you... today, prepping to go from Bangor to South Portland for them would be roughly analogous of the period between Voyager 1's launch in 1977 and the point in 2013 when it left our solar system. A month and a half seemed like it was years away in a 9 year old's sense of the reckoning of time, but at least it was a goal to have within sight. The plan was that in that time, I would squirrel away every cent I could from allowance, doing extra chores, any bottle deposit refunds that came my way, and any other funding opportunity I could find so that when the time came I could embark on what I imagined would be a scaled down version of Nickelodeon's Super Toy Run contest.
When the day arrived, I had amassed the princely sum of something like $53... which even then I knew was a long, long way from Super Toy Run levels of expenditure, but given the economies of scale and whatnot it still wasn't a bad wad of cash for a 3rd grader in 1985. If I wasn't walking out of there with shopping carts full of merchandise, I still had a respectable pile of plasticky goodness to look forward to, and I did. Eagerly.
Now, this is where the narrative falls apart a bit, because my memories of the day itself were kind of a blur. I wish I could describe the day in full and glorious detail, but mostly what I have are flashes. We got up super early, probably grabbed Dunkin Donuts, and headed south toward dragon territory. As we approached Freeport there was talk about stopping at L.L. Bean, but after expressing no small amount of worry I was assured we'd stop there on the way back home. We pulled into the Toys R Us parking lot not long after the store opened and walked inside. It was smaller than I imagined, of course it would be, but larger than my more realistic expectations had envisioned, too, which is probably the best possible outcome. We wandered slowly through the store, I was desperate to take in as much of everything as I could... sure, we didn't own a computer so looking at computer games was probably a waste of time and effort, but someone we might and I wanted to know what was out there (oh, man, did I want to play that Questprobe Hulk game). Yes, my parents were right in that we saw a lot of the same stuff as everywhere else, but there were plenty of other things too... toys that had disappeared from local shelves long before (like a few remaining Mego World's Greatest Super Heroes dolls... why why why didn't I buy you, Reed Richards?), newer things that I had only seen in commercials thus far, and even some that I had no idea ever existed (TRU-exclusive variants of GI Joe figures come to mind).
I can't remember exactly what I got on that trip... with over $50, I was sure to get one of the medium-to-larger range Transformers, definitely a GI Joe vehicle, something He-Man-related to be certain, but specifics don't come to mind. I do remember getting some Toys R Us magazine, partially because that was special to the store as a memento (I think Emmanuel Lewis was on the cover, because 1985), but mostly because there were He-Man stickers based on art from the Masters of the Universe Little Golden Books and I always dug that artwork. It was hard to leave, but we also wanted to go visit the Maine Mall across the street, far larger than the Bangor Mall and offering strange, exotic stores we didn't have at home, and in an unfamiliar layout to boot (at that age, I always wanted to know where all the fountains were... I loved a mall water feature, what can I say). I think I used a little remaining money to buy another GI Joe figure at a Woolworth's that was still existent there at that time, and we even ate at the in-store lunch counter, which my parents found nostalgic and made me feel like I was visiting both their pasts and my own, since I remembered eating at similar places when I was little as the lunch counter was starting to fade away. Child and parent backstories connect so rarely, even more so when you have older parents like mine, so any crossover there feels especially significant.
We stopped by my Uncle Bruce's office in nearby Westbrook for a quick hello (the only time I ever recall seeing him in his professional setting... it was nice but unsettlingly out-of-context, like seeing a teacher at the grocery store), and began the drive back. We made that stop at L.L. Bean, and though I had little use for a giant sporting goods store I had to admit that the indoor trout pond was pretty cool. We eventually went home, I freed my toys from their blister-carded and boxed prisons, and played on an epic scale the rest of the evening. We'd all had a fun day, and decided this should become an annual occurrence, which it did for quite a few years, until it was generally decided that I was maybe getting too old (almost certainly their idea, not mine) and we were finally getting a Toys R Us in Bangor, anyway.
I remember the later trips in a little more detail, but mostly what I recall from those - and from every TRU trip I have ever made, in many towns, states, and even a couple of different countries (Salzburg, Austria, had an awesome Toys R Us, you guys) - is that they all still had a little bit of the same feeling as that first day, at least a little of that same sense of occasion. Probably because for me it was an occasion, and kids who lived closer to one of the stores probably missed out on that part the experience, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell since most kids are psyched to be there. We live maybe a mile or two from one right now and my son loved it every single time, even if we didn't leave with anything (which, let's be honest, rarely happened).
This is why the news of Toys R Us closing is hitting so many people so hard, above and beyond the fact that over 31,000 people are losing their jobs with little warning (and let's be clear here, that is the real tragedy of this situation, and my heart genuinely goes out to them). This isn't just another box store corporation going under in the wake of changing shopping habits and economic woes. This is a part of people's childhoods, going back decades. This is super toy runs, not growing up, more games, more toys, oh boy.
In some part of my brain, and I know I'm not alone here, it's still 1985, I'm still 9 years old, I'm still in 3rd grade, and I'm still getting to go to Toys R Us for the first time. That will always be a pretty big deal.