Sometime in the last few years it became officially Not Cool to talk about nostalgia anymore, or to admit a sincere emotional connection to products of capitalism and consumer brands.
But Toys R Us announced that they’re going out of business this week.
And I have some emotions about that.
I have seen a sentiment expressed over and over by friends and colleagues in the last week, on my Twitter feed, on Slack chat at work, on hastily scribbled comics and Facebook posts among those of us who love videogames and happened to grow up in the 90s. A shared sense-memory. A feeling.
A particular constellation of images:
The act of buying a videogame, as a kid, at Toys R Us.
I have a lot of other memories about Toys R Us—I worked there for two years, through night shifts and Black Fridays, through arguing with parents in the bike aisle to shivering in the back of a tractor trailer at 4 AM; and the break room is where I wrote half my first novel; and the warehouse racks are where I huddled and hid as I shared my first whispered OkCupid conversations with the woman I now share my life with—but all of those are too big for me now, and too specific. I don’t have the talent to wrap my arms around them, as a writer. Not yet. Maybe someday, in a memoir, if we still have those when we’re all living as lightbulbs in the Kurzweil-Musk transhuman singularidome.
But that other thing, buying a videogame as a kid at Toys R Us…that I think I have a handle on. And since I’m now learning it’s a snapshot of 90s adolescence shared by so many other people, and since I have yet to see anyone else put the thing to paper, I think that’s what I’d like to do here.
So let’s look at this thing, shall we? Why does it stand out so much, this ritual? Why do we all remember it?
Here’s how it went:
You’d be at home, maybe you’re 6 or 8 or 10, and all the sudden your parents tell you to get your shoes; you’re going out. Probably first you have to go somewhere stupid or boring—Mom has to go put some piece of paper in the tube at the bank—but then, holy shit, she makes a left turn on Paxton Street, and all the sudden you’re going to Toys R Us.
It’s never somewhere beautiful. They never built Toys R Us’s in the kinds of places they build Targets. It was always some slightly dingy backlot strip mall, some place where the white concrete has gone all grey and beige. There’s a shady Chinese buffet on one side, and a prison not far away. I think I heard once that this building used to be a movie theater, before that shooting that happened?
You pull into the lot, and there are the big bright happy letters, and Geoffrey the Giraffe smiling down from the front of the store. The words say “Toys R Us”, except the R is backwards. Inane marketing bullshit; some middle-aged dipshit’s idea of how kids write. Whatever. Let the adults have their fun, as long as they fulfill their end of the bargain.
You go inside.
It’s white. Both metaphorically (in that it is an extremely Caucasian environment) but also literally. White floors, white linoleum floors, white drop-ceilings with corrugated holes in them, white concrete walls that haven’t been scrubbed since they were built. The whole place has that same feel as a Chuck E. Cheese’s: a corporate attempt at childhood whimsy, gone faded and rusty by having to exist in the real world, but somehow more whimsical because of that.
How the fuck can flickering fluorescent lights, like the kind they use in hospital, here be so warm and charming? Nowhere else but Toys R Us has that ever been true.
Your Mom is here for something specific. You almost never go to Toys R Us just to do so; not unless it’s your birthday. Usually when you go there, it’s because it’s, like, your cousin’s birthday, and your mom wants to go pick up a present for the jerk, but maybe, maybe, if you play your cards right and hire a lobbyist, you can earmark the spending bill and carve off a little slice for yourself.
“If you’re good, you can get One Thing.”
Those words are so powerful. A rare blank check. There’s an unspoken accord to them—you will not bring me a $300 lego set, or the pact shall be severed and the riverlands shall burn—but anything else, anything within reason, Simba, that the light touches, can be yours.
If you’re Good.
And because you’re the kind of person still reading this, probably you’re like me, and “One Thing” meant invariably,
Holy shit. I can get a new videogame.
It never comes when you expect it to, does it? You spend weeks, months, years, centuries, counting the moments between now and the acquisition of your next new videogame, skimming glossy ads and reviews in the pages of Playstation Magazine, replaying the same demos on the included Playstation Underground Demo Disc approximately six billion times, and then one day, it just happens. Mom needs to run to the bank and get a present for Justin, and bam: the planets rip out of the heavens and into alignment.
Today, you get a new game.
You head down the aisles with Mom, greeting smiling store employees, avoiding eye contact with the other kids. Not all of them are going to get toys today, and many of them will scream and holler and cry, and there will be arguments with their parents, bitter screaming struggles on the cold linoleum floors, and though you sympathize with them, though they are Your People, these kids, you can’t be seen to associate with their rabble. Not today. Today, you’re on Mom’s side. You’re all, ho hum, mother, seeth thou these poor sods? What sort of person acts like that, in public no less? Savages, the lot of them!
Mom takes you into the LEGO area, with those plush blue carpets. It’s always the LEGO area where you get presents for your cousin, because it’s the least common denominator, the white bread of toys; every kid likes LEGO, or at least no kid actively dislikes them, because there’s barely enough toy there to dislike.
Mom says, okay, pick something out for your cousin; you know what he likes better than me. And you think about that for a moment and realize: huh, yeah, you suppose you DO know what your cousin likes, don’t you?
This is parenting, you’ll realize one day. Teachable moments, that ask you to empathize with the desires of another human being in order to learn why giving feels good.
You pick something your cousin will like, you and Mom agree that it’s a good selection, and into the cart it goes. And with your civic duty to your fellow man now complete, the moment of truth comes. The eye contact. The holding of breath.
And Mom says, almost casually, “Do you want to go pick out a game?”
There is no starting pistol in the history of the universe that has ever sounded so loud as that particular combination of syllables; no Olympic sprinter who has ever run so fast as a young nerd who is standing in the aisle of a Toys R Us and has just received The Good Word.
Now you run, and Mom follows, and soon you find yourself in the game aisle, and you know it’s the game aisle for two reasons:
Reason number 1: It’s wider than every other aisle. It doesn’t need to be. There’s no reason for it to be. It simply is. Perhaps out of reverence.
Reason number 2: Because it is the site of the holy mecca, the singular destination, the visual which—thanks to days like this—will be forever inscribed in your psyche, locked away in that part marked “nostalgia”, bound to the very concept of “videogames” for the rest of your mortal life:
The wall of white tickets.
Let’s take a minute and take about this wall, shall we? Because it’s a very weird thing. No other store does this. Target, Wal-Mart, K Mart, whatever; they all keep their games in glass cases. Gamestop or KB, they keep empty boxes on shelves, and the actual discs in locked drawers behind the counter.
But not Toys R Us. At Toys R Us, they have the wall of white tickets in blue plastic pouches. Every pouch is tied to a single, specific game, depicted with a small poster above it: a single still image, and text in the plainest monospaced Helvetica. And every ticket in every pouch is tied to a single specific physical disc within the store. When all the tickets are gone, all the discs are gone. If there is a ticket left, there is a game left. And that game can be yours. If you choose that ticket.
Why does this image stand out in the mind so much? I’ve never figured it out. Why aren’t the shelves at Gamestop or Target as memorable? What is it about the ticket wall at Toys R Us that makes the synapses in my brain start firing?
I think it’s the uniformity, right? It’s like something out of a fantasy novel. A little back room in an old house where there are a thousand tiny doors, each of them absolutely identical in every way, but each one opening to another world. If they all looked different, if they were windows rather than doors, if there was a proliferation of colors, something would be lost. But the enforced uniformity, something about that creates an air of mystery.
Nightmare Before Christmas. The forest full of trees, with gateways to the other holiday towns. The way each is unique, but all adhere to this spooky Halloween forest theme.
That’s the ticket wall at Toys R Us. It’s a series of gateways, laid out perfectly before you in Willy Wonka fashion, and you never know what’s behind any one of them.
And you won’t know, not until you get the game home and put it in the PS1 and push the power button, and listen to the Sony boot-up chime, and hold your breath as the title screen fades in.
You won’t know what that experience is like, what the world is, what stories you’ll find there, what adventures you’ll have, what formative experiences will race across your soul, what memories they shall one day form within your mind, what aching nostalgia that you’ll long for the rest of your days to recreate, like a drug, and it’ll never be as good as the first time.
You won’t know, until you choose.
And so the act of the choosing takes on this massive, powerful significance. Because the stock rotates at Toys R Us! Not all of these games will be here the next time you return, in a day, a week, a month, a year, a century. They will not sell Jet Moto forever. Crash Bandicoot 2 will not always be here to select. One day all of these tickets will fall like autumn leaves and blow away in the winds of time, and be lost forever, and even right there, right then, at 8 years old, you can FEEL that.
You have to choose. And then you will have chosen. And one gateway to the fae will open, and a thousand others will seal shut forever.
But it doesn’t feel painful. It’s not a Sophie’s Choice. It’s the exact, perfect opposite. It’s the sentiment the phrase “a kid in a candy shop” was coined for. It’s a feeling of limitless possibility laid out before you, and all you have to do is reach out and grab it.
But that’s not all you have to do, is it? Because this is only the first half of the ritual. Once you have the ticket, you have to do the other part. And that part is:
You have to take the ticket up to The Booth, and give it to The Guy.
So you walk that long, slow walk up the aisles, toward the electronics booth, and for your Mom it’s just one more errand within an errand, a stupid little detour and ugh I don’t know why they do it this way. But for you it’s different. For you this is a pilgrimage. That trip to the electronics booth is the longest walk of your young life, and the whole way you cradle that ticket like it’s the last copy of The Bible in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
It’s ludicrous, honestly, but you feel SO protective of this ticket. Normally if someone handed you a piece of paper, you’d do the little kid thing, which is to fold it in half twice and jam it in your pocket. But you wouldn’t dream of that, with this ticket. It’s too important. What if you folded the paper in half, and The Guy wouldn’t accept it? Or he gave you the disc folded in half? What if you sneezed on this ticket? Or spilled something on it? Or dropped it? Jesus, who the hell knows what could happen. You can’t risk it.
You worry about these and other things, and then suddenly, you look up, and you’re there, standing in front of that big blue counter, and there’s a guy with a red shirt and a bald head and a name tag that says John smiling at you from the other side.
And you hand him the ticket, like you’re turning over gold.
And he looks at it.
And he says something like, “Final Fantasy Nine? Aw, boy. That’s a great choice.”
Holy crap. Has he played it? A grown-up who plays videogames? And you managed to pick the same one? It must be good, then. You really did make a great choice. It’s destiny, this game.
Now John reaches into his pocket, and he pulls out a big ring of keys on a lanyard. And he turns to the giant steel door to his left, that impenetrable bank vault entryway, and he unlocks it. And he opens it.
And for just a moment, just for a blink of time, through that open door, you see a Narnia-like wonderland of countless games, just sitting there, just anyone could grab them, there are boxes and boxes of the things, they line every wall, it’s like a fucking armory in there.
The door shuts. John’s inside, you’re outside. You can kind of see in there, through the little glass window in the wall, but not really. Mostly you just stare at the door and wait. What’s John doing in there, anyway? Fighting a dragon? Spinning up a lathe? Etching the disc himself from some kind of big machine Sony gives out? How does this work? Why do they do it this way? You know it’s different than how other stores do it, but you’ve never stopped to think about why.
Just when your young mind starts to touch upon the answer—that it’s probably some kind of anti-theft measure—the door swings open, and John steps back out. He hands you the game. It’s yours now. There’s some sort of other thing that happens; your mom waves a plastic talisman and they exchange some sacred words, the greetings of their native lands, these Adults, but none of that matters to you. The game is yours now. You own it. And soon you’ll get to play it.
On the car-ride home, you’ll rip that bastard open. You’ll tear the cellophane off with your fingernail, a straw, your goddamn teeth if you have to, and your Mom will roll her eyes and ask, “Why don’t you just wait?” and you’ll ignore it, because it’s true what mister William Smith says, parents just don’t understand. You’ll run your finger along the etched metal of the disc art, and pore through the manual illustrations like you’re unraveling a sacred codex. And then you’ll go home, and you’ll play it.
And that’s that.
It’s not a remarkable series of steps. There’s nothing really all that exciting about it. You go to a building, take a ticket off a wall, hand it to an associate at the electronics booth, exchange currency, and he hands you a consumer entertainment product.
But it’s the ritual that makes the experience. It’s these steps, which you have done before and will do again. This is what the best parts of childhood are made of, and it is more pure and more nostalgic and more powerful than any hackish feckless mercenary shotgun blast of pop culture like Ready Player One could ever hope to muster with all the money in the world.
That’s what Toys R Us was, to me: a spirit of transportive enchantment, bubbling up through the very firmament of crusty everyday tedium, to carve out a place in the heart through arbitrary rituals that nonetheless become the stuff of memory.
That’s what magic is.