I don’t know how you feel about re-gifting, but I’ve dipped into the “Just the Clax” archives and recycled a column from November 2011. The article is only seven years old, but since it mentions two famous stores that both closed this year, I wanted to bring it back to pay tribute to the architects of my childhood empire of toys.
“There are four ways you can know that the Christmas season is upon us these days. First, the calendar switches from July to August. Second, the illuminated Harding campus becomes visible from Jupiter. Third, the Little Debbie Cherry Cordials snack cakes go on sale, and at least one person in America gets excited. And most important of all, the Toys R Us holiday catalog arrives in Sunday’s paper.
Looking through the 80-page insert (with its slightly irreverent logo, “Toys to the World”), I couldn’t help rewinding my brain to 1978. At age six, there were three things I looked forward to in life: hot oatmeal, the next ‘Star Wars’ movie and the Sears Wish Book. Our neighbor worked for the famous retail giant, and every year in late November, he would quietly put an advance copy of that massive Christmas catalog in our mailbox.
A thousand full-color pages of toys, and I had it before anyone else. This made me the most popular kid on Amalfi Drive. It was a short street, so it didn’t take much.
Young people who have grown up with the internet may have trouble understanding the cosmic annual event that was the arrival of the Wish Book. While Saturday morning commercials provided tantalizing glimpses of the wonders available each Christmas season, no kid could fully claim that he had seen the Promised Land before eyeing the riches inside that four-pound tome.
Picture after glossy picture of board games, Lego sets, action figures, Slinkies, guns, swords, basketballs, super heroes, G. I. Joes, stuff for girls (I skipped those pages), electronics, disguise kits, Big Wheels, bikes, scooters, Weebles and enough Star Wars bling to stock a galaxy. Looking through that enticing volume, I could picture myself on December 25, “plunging into the cornucopia,” as little Ralphie says in “A Christmas Story,” “quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”
The toys in this book shaped our destinies. For the budding English teacher, there was Speak and Spell. The future electrician had Lite Brite. The upcoming traveler and karate expert needed the Kick and Go. Junior politicians could ask for the Sit and Spin. Destined to be a primatologist? Get a Monchhichi Monkey. It was a glorious book.
By contrast, I found the flimsy Toys R Us pamphlet that fell out of Sunday’s newspaper somewhat lacking in gravitas. You can’t drop it on the kitchen table with a resounding “thud” to let your parents know they had better start saving money. You can’t dog-ear hundreds of pages while making that first-draft, go-for-broke Christmas list. And you definitely can’t put a brown paper cover on it and pretend it’s your math textbook. Like some people did. Other people.
However, it was comforting to know that some things haven’t changed. On page one of this year’s Toys R Us wish leaflet, I found a “Muppet Whatnot Kit,” a generic puppet complete with assorted wigs, noses and eyes. It’s the Jim Henson version of Mr. Potato Head, but it brought back memories of that banner year when I got a Kermit the Frog toy, a Muppet board game and “The Muppet Show Book.” I pulled that book down from the shelf just now and read the inscription: “For Michael, Christmas 1978, from Papa.”
And it amazes me that over 30 years later, Toys R Us still devotes a few pages to Star Wars, with a Tie-Fighter on the cover. 1978 was also the year I racked up on Lucasfilm products, with an inflatable, glow-in-the-dark lightsaber, a Millennium Falcon ship and a 12-inch-tall Darth Vader action figure complete with cloth cape. It’s on the shelf now, too, still in the original box. I’m accepting bids through next Thursday.
So, what if the new toy catalog is full of violent video games, expensive Android Smartphones, something called an iPod Shuffle and not a single page dedicated to Shrinky Dinks? I still think I’ll dog-ear a few sections and slip it under Mom’s bedroom door, just for old time’s sake.”
Toys R Us closed its doors in June 2018, and the venerable 130-year-old Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October. But take heart, my children. Walmart will fill the vacuum by expanding its toy department by 30 percent this year. Let the list begin.