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Official Article

Toy Store Dreams

As a child, no structure contained more anticipation and wonder than a toy store. Can you remember the excitement coursing through your body when your parents agreed to drive you to the magical building where action figures, stuffed animals and video games lined the shelves? The rush of spending the money you earned from weeks of chores simply could not be matched.

If you had your choice, you probably would have set up camp in a Pound Puppies play tent and never left, right? Now imagine growing up to work at a toy store, where you had complete access to these precious playthings every day. I actually lived that dream working for both Toys R Us and K.B. Toys during what I would call my "I can't believe this is a job" phase. With the approval of Photog Smurf, please allow me to share my story.

I went to church every Sunday with my family, but if I'm being honest Toys R Us was my real house of worship in the 80s and 90s. How could it not be? Do you remember the annual ads for the Toys R Us Nickelodeon Super Toy Run? The opportunity to run the aisles and fill your cart with as many toys as your heart desired was "Heaven on Earth" for any kid. I would walk into Geoffrey's house with reverence, believing I could gain his favor by buying a few G.I. Joes to increase my chances of winning the sweepstakes. Turns out that's not how the smiling Giraffe deity operates.

On the other hand, K.B. Toys was always a required stop when wandering a shopping mall. Where Toys R Us felt like a warehouse of toys, Kay-Bee (the original spelling) felt like a closet packed to the rafters with less successful toys that nobody wanted. It was never an exciting visit, more of an endurance test to see how long you could last pushing through crowded aisles to get a look at some discounted Incredible Crash Test Dummies figures. Still seeing their Toy Soldier logo always put a smile on my face, imagining what outdated stock they had sitting around.

OK, all that set-up was meant to clue you in to the fact that when I found out my buddy Matt was working at a newly opened K.B. Toy Store in 2001, there was no way I wasn't getting in on that action too. Unfortunately Matt was kind of a flake and even though he promised many times to talk to his manager and set-up an interview for me, it never happened. Not willing to wait, I marched into the store one afternoon and found the entire staff in a meeting with the Regional Manager.

I kind of hovered around and when they were done, I told him I was there for a job. He asked about my retail experience, which was non-existent, but when he heard I had been working at Disneyland prior to seeking this opportunity, I was in. "Disney has the best reputation for customer service in the world, that's what we need here. How would you like to be assistant manager and teach us a few things?" JACKPOT! The Mouse's seal of approval earned me a red polo shirt and my ticket to the world of Bionicles, Bratz Dolls and Pokemon.

My first days on the job were spent unloading boxes of toys from trucks at Midnight while Weezer's Green album played on a constant loop and of course, learning how to work the cash register. I also have a distinct memory of flipping through the first issue of an exclusive reprint of Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis during a slow morning and thinking it was crazy to reboot such an established character. Another part of the job was processing returns for broken items and this was where I met my first crazy customer. 

There was this lady that would come in with her 5 year old son on a weekly basis to return the toy they had bought the previous week and buy a new one. Each time she would explain how the toy had "just fallen apart" and she was not happy with the quality of our products. It cracked me up. I talked to my manager about it, but he said there wasn't really a policy against it. What a scam she was running!

I also learned that die-cast metal cars were the most shoplifted item of all. Each night as I straightened the aisles, I would find 5 to 10 empty packages of Matchbox of Hot Wheels cars stuffed behind the pegs. I guess they were easy to hide in a pocket, making them a prime target and I assumed it was kids using the 5 Finger Discount, but as I learned later, Die-Cast collectors are mostly middle aged men. More to come on that.

About a month after starting at K.B. I got news that I was being moved to a new KB Toys @ SEARS store opening up in a nearby mall. I was opening it up with another guy named Joe who had just been promoted to Manager and was very excited. We had fun stocking the shelves with WWF and Lord of the Rings action figures to get things ready for our grand opening. But just a week after our department opened, we got some shocking news, Joe was going back to the old store and I was being made Manager of KB Toys @ Sears!

Apparently the other manager, along with my friend Matt had been fired for stealing company property and they needed Joe back at the old location. Whoa. We were told that the store cameras caught the duo after hours eating candy off the shelves and pocketing the AA batteries meant for demo toys like jumping toy dogs and robot dinosaurs. As crazy as that was, being made a Manager after just over a month was inconceivable! I literally knew nothing about running a store, but luckily another Assistant Manager, Brian was staying on with me and he knew it all.

The toys of this era were not really my speed, but one of the most sought after items during my tenure was a talking Boo doll from Pixar's Monsters, Inc movie. I would get 5-6 calls daily asking if we had it, but it was rarely in stock. Even more frequent were the visits from the obsessive Matchbox and Hot Wheel's collectors. They would call and ask if we had gotten a new shipment in, then spend an hour digging through the bin of carded cars to find a rare one. I had never seen such devotion to a toy outside of my own childhood mania over Marvel super hero action figures in the 90's.

Soon an awesome promotional opportunity was announced, that I was really excited about. To help drum up more awareness of K.B. Toys @ Sears, we were scheduled to have live toy characters in the store to entice kids into buying stuff. I had heard about costumed Masters of the Universe characters showing up at Toys R Us and Universal Studios back in the 80's, but now I was going to experience it first hand and run the show. RADICAL!

First up was Barbie.  Basically this skinny blonde college student showed up one morning carrying a garment bag and I walked her to the storage room to "get into character". She emerged in a flowing pink gown as I announced over the SEARS loudspeaker, "Hey kids, come meet Barbie, the girl who makes dreams come true." Business was a little slow, so I made small talk and found out she had been a model for conventions like the E3 electronics expo, luring video game nerds to booths with her charm. I'd be lying if I said I didn't imagine a romantic lunch at the food court with Mattel's blonde beauty, but I guess she had a date with Ken to get along to.

Now the big news for me was our next celebrity appearance, my childhood hero, SPIDER-MAN! I can't express how psyched I was to have the wall-crawler coming to our store and I'll admit, I went a little bit overboard. When I took him back to the dressing room, I sheepishly asked if I could take pictures of him pretending to change from Peter Parker to Spider-Man, inspired by the cover of Amazing Spider-Man 262 above that I had always been fascinated by. Guess what? He was all in!

I documented his whole trip through SEARS, heading down the escalator and he even knew all the iconic poses. Eventually we landed at our store where I got on the loudspeaker to announce, "Now is your chance to meet, the amazing, the sensational, the spectacular Spider-Man!" We got a few kids to swing by, but mostly I just got to bother him with my questions. He revealed that in addition to being the official Spider-Man for the West Coast, he also performed at Universal Studios as the Arnold Schwarzenegger T-800 in the Terminator 2 live 3-D stunt show, which I had seen in person.

The final bout of ridiculousness was me asking him to sign a lenticular Spider-Man trading card I had brought with me as if he was the real deal. Then I put on my home-made web-shooters and Spidey ski mask to have a silly string web war with my idol. Yeah, this day was just for me. It was so much fun being Spider-Man's sidekick for an afternoon and maybe even more wish fulfillment than running a toy store.

I only stayed on for a few more months at K.B. Toys, but in that time I survived the after -Thanksgiving Black Friday sale and we actually became the highest selling K.B. Toys @ Sears location in the state. Not without controversy of course. At that moment the hottest new toy were Razor scooters and they had sold out everywhere leading up to the big day. We had a strict policy about not holding toys for customers, but one of the employees had made the promise anyway. 

When a lady vying to be the world's best aunt burst through the crowd claiming she had a Razor on hold, I had to tell her we were sold out and weren't allowed to hold on to products like that anyway. She was furious and started shouting how terrible we were, then making offers to other customers walking away with the scooters in hand. It was madness, but we made it through victorious.

My final memory of working at K.B. Toys is so indicative of the time, I just have to share it. I had been a huge fan of The Tick cartoon series on Fox Kids, so when I heard a live action series was coming to prime time in 2001, I was thrilled. Unfortunately I had to work on Thursday, November 1, but was determined not to miss the premiere, especially because I knew it may never air again. Being that this was the era before streaming video on cell phones or tablets, I had to improvise.

Since it was a slow night, I called my buddy Colin from the register phone and asked him to hold the phone to the TV while he was watching. At moments without dialogue he would narrate the physical actions of the characters and describe the look of re-imagined heroes like Liberty Lass and Bat-Manuel (that name still cracks me up). In retrospect, I could have just had Colin pop in a VHS tape and hit record, but experiencing the show this way actually made it even more unforgettable.

Of course I was sad when I began to see all the K.B. Toys stores go out of business over the last few years. It really was the end of an era in toy shopping that we'll never get back again. Yes, Geoffrey the Giraffe is still hanging on, but even a lot of those TRU stores are going away for good. I'm sure that soon we'll be adding toy stores to the ranks of video rental and record shops, so enjoy it while you can.

Speaking of which, I know at the top I teased that I also worked at Toys R Us (which was awesome), but that was Christmas 2007 and I don't think counts for nostalgia purposes. I'll just say that I spent a lot of time re-organizing the action figure aisle and digging through newly arrived boxes for Marvel Legends variant figures to add to my own collection. Still, to have worked at the "Big 2" was a true childhood fantasy fulfilled on many levels and I'm so glad I got the opportunity.

So what are some of your favorite toy store memories from growing up? Were you a Toys R Us kid or Kay-Bee soldier?

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @hojukoolander where I'm always sharing my latest retro-finds and posting old commercials from VHS tapes on my YouTube page.

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DirtyD79 Posted on Aug 18, 2017 at 10:55 PM

When I was a teenager I remember me and my brother got kicked out of a toys r us for riding bikes around the store and playing football in one of the aisles. Needless to say we got kicked out. Ironically several years later my brother would end up working at the toys r us we got kicked out of.

As for KB what I liked about them was they were a decent place to get models and stuff like paint and glue for them. Toys R Us was decent too but they were kind of out of the way compared to the KB I normally went to.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Jul 22, 2017 at 05:21 PM

@NLogan KB was a way to shop for "retro" toys, but after just a few years of the line's release.

@Vaporman87 My complete disregard for conventional employment led to many adventures, that's for sure

KB was a discount heaven for those of us who had less mainstream taste. For example, all The Shadow figures found nowadays have a KB Toys price tag on them.

Author's Note: I mistakenly called Captain Liberty from The Tick "Liberty Lass" in the article. I got her mixed up with a fictional heroine from Mark Hammil's mockumentary Comic Book The Movie. My bad.

NLogan Posted on Jul 22, 2017 at 02:02 PM

Live Spider-Man for the win. Toys R Us was my favorite but the chance at some older stock still hanging on the shelves or in the discount bin by the doors kept me coming back to Kay Bee.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jul 22, 2017 at 07:39 AM

I'm pretty sure you've had the most retro-privileged life of any person on Earth. A person could make 10 childhoods out your one.

But as far as both TRU and Kaybee (or KB) are concerned, I was more of a KB kid. I think because we didn't really have a Toys 'R Us nearby for most of my childhood. However, there was a Kaybee Toys in the nearest mall for a long time. Later I came to appreciate KB for their well worn stock. It became a hunting ground for me in the late '90s when the new Godzilla movie was soon to arrive, and the King of the Monsters and Godzilla Wars Trendmasters toys could still be found on the occasional KB shelf. I was fetching good money for those on Ebay, while bolstering my own collection (man, I've been a member of Ebay for almost 20 years. That's insane).

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