I went into FAO Schwartz the other day. And I ran out screaming in about two minutes. Now, granted, this sounds like a New York story, but as the Biggest Toy Store in the World, FAO Schwartz sets the tone and direction for the entire industry. It’s also a big old tourist magnet, so moms, dads, and kids alike can be forgiven for thinking that this joint represents the state of the art for kiddie diversions.
What it really represents, of course, is the Hollywoodization of your child’s playtime.
Lemme backtrack. When I was but a lad, my sisters and I knew Christmas was really on its way when the FAO Schwartz catalog, thicker than a phone book, got wedged halfway in our mail slot sometime in October. This was our version of Sears mail order; we’d dutifully pass the book around, study it with a mixture of awe, care, and outright greed, and circle everything in it that we wanted to see under the tree. We knew that, if we were lucky, we might get one or two of those items, but that wasn’t the point — it was the sheer panoply of toydom on display that was a delight. To my small, wiffle-cut mind, it seemed that the collected toymakers of the world had conspired to have it all listed in one massive slab; the variety, the kinds of play represented were a little mind-blowing.
Fast-forward more years than I care to think about. I walk into FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue and the toys I see are these: “Babe” dolls. “Rugrats” games. “Bugs Life” tchotchkes. If it’s from Nickelodeon, Disney, Universal, or some other corporate conglomorama, it’s there, jammed in your face. I went looking for a Lissi doll for my 2-year-old; it ain’t common, but it’s not rare, and it’s certainly the kind of thing that would have been listed in the old catalogs. Sorry: Once I staggered past the Mulans and Tommy Pickleses, I found row upon row of bland dolls produced under the Schwartz in-house brand name.
The lesson seemed pretty clear. If I want to find toys on which my kids can bring their own sense of play to bear, I’d better find a neighborhood toy shop that hasn’t been run out of business by Toys R Us. Or search for it on the Web. Or, heck, build it myself. But if I want something that comes with its personality already defined and prepackaged by a mammoth entertainment corporation — if I want to indoctrinate my kids in the brand-naming of their imaginations that, face it, is part of modern American life — I should go to FAO Schwartz. That is, if I can hear myself think over the sounds of selling out and cashing in.