Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys "R" Us and What It Means to Me

Short and sweet or wordy and heartfelt? Let's go with the latter.

Never could use one of these things.
I haven't felt much like writing anything over the past few days. I've had a lot going through my mind and a lot of things to deal with, so things I was working on have kind of been put on hold. But I kind of feel that I should say something.

I am an employee of Toys "R" Us. I have been for quite some time, actually. If you want to know exactly how long, well... I've worked there for 18 years.

When I was very young, Toys "R" Us was a mythical land. There wasn't one anywhere close to where I lived, so I'd see commercials for it on tv and it looked and sounded like such a magical place. Sure, there was K*B Toys, but it didn't have the scope that this place had. It wasn't this enormous stand alone complex with toys as far as the eye could see. Bikes to trains to video games and all that.

At the time I lived in Crainville, IL. Crainville is a small town (I believe they actually call it a village) sandwiched in between two larger cities: Marion and Carbondale. At the time, Carbondale had a mall, but Marion had nothing. Carbondale mall was really nice in its heyday. It had a big fountain in the middle of it, a hot pretzel place, an arcade, and of course the aforementioned K*B Toys. Eventually a mall was built in Marion in, according to Wikipedia but not my memory, 1991. Today that mall is now little more than an empty husk. Then a little miracle happened to this kid and in front of that mall a Toys "R" Us was built. I actually thought the Toys "R" Us store was built in 1990, but I also thought the mall predated the store, so I guess my memory isn't right. It's not important. Anyway...

I helped put up the big graphics on the right.
I can't tell you how many memories I have of visiting this store as a kid. My grandma would take me there about every week. I'd spend the weekend at my grandparents' house and on the way home on Sunday we'd typically stop by. We'd walk through the aisles and I would fill the cart with X-Men figures, Spawn figures, Star Wars figures, and more. I guess I was spoiled, huh? I remember going there with my mom and getting Wonder Boy in Monster World, which is one of my favorite games of all time. I assume my parents bought my Sega Genesis there. I assume that's where my Super Nintendo and Game Boy came from, too. Needless to say, this particular Toys "R" Us has been a part of my life for a long time and is the bearer of many, many treasured memories.

When I was a kid, I thought it would be so much fun to work at Toys "R" Us. You'd get to see the toys before anyone else did. You'd get to talk about toys all day with people. It was such a fun atmosphere, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I was a kid. The bar wasn't set very high.

I graduated high school in 1999. I took the summer off before I began looking for a job. Well, I don't know if I would say I was "looking" for a job. Toys "R" Us was the only option in my mind. I had a relative working there who was what would now be referred to as a supervisor (World Leader back then), and three of my good friends worked there as well, so I thought I would be able to get a job there for sure. I went in and filled out an application, and then I got the call back for an interview shortly thereafter. I got the job and was officially a Toys "R" Us kid on October 29th, 1999.

I did ticket maintenance in this aisle many times.
I was so nervous. I remember that. I remember sitting in the training room with one of the other supervisors named Sheila (who would later become the store manager) and another new hire who I believe was named Tim. We watched a video and filled out some paperwork. When we were done, I think they sent Tim home, but they brought me up to the register. They showed me how to do a few transactions and then stuck me behind the counter. I struggled with it. I just couldn't get the hang of it for some reason. I was then asked where I would feel most comfortable, and I told them the sales floor. So I was put out onto the floor and that was my final time on register for 18 years.

Christmas Eve of that same year, just two months later, imagine my surprise when I was laid off. I was pretty upset about it, to tell you the truth. Not angry upset but sad upset. Fortunately I still had friends on the inside and I continued to stop in the store to shop through January and February. Eventually my friend Brett Elston was going to go back to school, and he was the day shift electronics associate. With him going back to school, they didn't have anyone during the day that could work the shift, so he told management that I would be perfect for the position. In March I received a phone call from them asking if I wanted to come back. I of course said yes.

Who has this many bikes? No one!
I worked in electronics for many years there. I did ticket maintenance on game systems dating back to the Game Boy/Color, Nintendo 64, and PlayStation. I was there when the PlayStation 2 launched. I built the playable displays that housed the GameCube and the original Xbox. We sold Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Sega Saturn games when I started. Brett and I built the Game Boy Advance display which was available at Toys "R" Us pretty much before anywhere else.

Eventually our store had a bit of a management shake-up for reasons I can't recall. We were given a temporary manager to help us get through the mess named Daniel. He could be an intense guy at times, but he's a really nice guy and I became friends with him pretty fast. Daniel saw potential in me and he was the one who promoted me to the store receiving specialist position. It came with full time hours, better insurance, and a pay increase. It was a position just under being a supervisor, which is something I never wanted because being a supervisor... honestly, it kind of sucks.

I continued to be SRS from that moment to present day. The position has a new name currently, but it's still the same thing. Circumstances in the store have led me to have to do other things not relating to the position, but that's still my official job title.

Cuddly plush animals are always popular.
Before this past Christmas, we were made aware that Toys "R" Us was declaring chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was a scary time for us because we didn't know exactly what was going on, but we were assured everything would be okay and that no stores were closing. Then after season we got word that 180 stores were going to close. At my store, we were very concerned that our store would be on the chopping block because, well, it's usually pretty dead in our store outside of the holidays. We were miraculously spared, but our friends at a store relatively close to us in Cape Girardeau, MO were not so lucky. They received word that they were going to close, but we were going to remain open.

Then, after about a month of thinking that everything was okay, I saw an article online saying that Toys "R" Us was going to close all of its stores. All of them. I went to work the next day with that on my mind. I didn't want to tell anyone about it because I didn't want to ruin their spirits, but one of the other associates came in a few hours after me and told everyone anyway. Thanks, Larry.

The seasonal section always has to be full.
Since that day, things have been pretty tough for me and everyone else. We get through the days, but I'd be lying if I said it's rare to make it through the day without someone crying or tearing up. It's hard. It's hard to see something you've devoted nearly two decades of your life to crumble around you. It's hard to walk through an aisle and remember things like "this used to be where the G.I. Joes were when I was little." It's hard to not fall apart when you see a child's face beaming as they hold onto a toy that you put there. And to see people working there who haven't been there a fraction of the time I have who are choked up about all this is a testament to how much we love our jobs. I work with people who haven't even been there a year who are visibly distraught. The other night one of my co-workers told me this is her happy place.

I won't pretend that it has been all good times at Toys "R" Us. There were actually a lot of bad times. There were many times when I wanted to leave because things were so bad. This very website was born out of me trying to figure out a way out of retail. It's certainly not all good. But for it to end like this, knowing that at the end there will be nothing, that's truly heartbreaking. Our store will be dismantled piece by piece. Fixtures we stocked with toys will be sold off. Merchandise will be liquidated. Then, in about two months, the doors will be closed once and for all. The lights will be turned off, the floor will be empty, and no child will ever again roam the aisles and have their imagination captured by colorful plastic toys that we provided.

So, in closing, I say to all my work family: Josh, Jordan, Joe, Adam, Emiley, Jeff, Emily, Jimmy, Michael, Carmen, Leisl, Anna, Brad, Brandi, Charlene, Larry, and Kim... I love you all. You are all my friends. You are all my family. I have grown attached to each and every one of you and I am truly blessed to have worked beside you. To Emiley specifically, thank you for turning this store around. You saved it and made it a fun place to work once more. Without you we wouldn't be the team we are. And to the 60+ people on my Facebook friends list who I never would have met had it not been for this very store, thank you for being a part of my life. You're incredible people.

You know, a lot of good has come from this place. Store 8927: I had a good time.

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