Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Toy Store Story

The missuz and I went shopping for Christmas gifts for our grandchildren yesterday morning. We have a 5-year-old granddaughter and an almost-one-year-old grandson. (We also have an almost-born granddaughter, but she'll have to wait another year.) Since toys and other things to play with seemed to be at the top of the list, we headed for the toy store.

The toy store is the one that used to advertise with a giraffe, and whose middle initial is Yah. When our own kids were of toy-buying age, this was one of our family's favorite stores. As grandma and I were wandering the aisles yesterday, I made several observations.

1. We have barely set foot in the toy store - in any toy store - for about 8 years. Those 8 years represent the gap between when we stopped needing to buy toys for our own children and when we started needing to buy toys for our grandchildren. Seriously: can you imagine not going to a toy store, especially one of the largest toy-store chains in the nation, for eight years?

2. The classics never die. And I happily blame this on the baby boomers. Seriously, there was a time when I wanted desperately to buy Lincoln Logs for my own kids, and I couldn't find them anywhere. There was a "progressive" faction during the 1980s and 1990s, that insisted that all children's toys had to have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • plastic
  • educational
  • electronic
  • covered with stickers, which parents had to apply from a sticker sheet the size of a gas-station road map (and this was scarier than "some assembly required")
  • so utterly safe as to suck all the fun out of them
Thanks to the baby boomers who want their grandchildren to enjoy the same toys they enjoyed as tykes (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), much of this "progressive" silliness has been rolled back and replaced with common sense. You can now buy a giant barrel of wood Lincoln Logs or Tinkertoys again. And metal Tonka vehicles. And do you remember that Fisher-Price telephone with the four wheels, wobbly eyes, and little yellow leash so the rugrats could pull it around the house and make the eyes wobble as it rolled along? It's still there.

The classic plastic ones are still around, like Easy Bake Ovens, Legos, and Frisbees.

3. Some old classics have been improved or redesigned for the new century. That Fisher-Price telephone is now available with a dial or touch-tone buttons. Some Easy Bake Oven alternatives use the family's microwave oven instead.

4. Not everything needs batteries anymore. For a while, it seemed like every toy in the store came with a limited set of features, all of which required batteries to power blinking lights, sounds, or moving parts. It's gratifying to see the toy world going retro. Not relying on electricity or electronics can free a child's imagination.

5. Some of the new toys are stupendous and will join the classics in the hall of fame. The wooden Brio train sets that came over from Europe ten years ago have been imitated over and over, so they're now affordable to everyone. Most of the imitations are compatible with Brio.

6. The Thomas the Tank Engine franchise and the Disney's Cars franchise are merrily going head-to-head. I wish them luck and hope they both win, because that means the children will win, too.

7. There's still a lot of garbage on the toy store shelves. I can't believe some of the junk that toymakers try to shove off on consumers, nor can I (sometimes) believe that people actually buy this junk. Oh well, the marketing department has never overestimated the gullibility of the American (or Canadian, or ...) consumer.

(Well, there have been a few massive failures, such as Baby Uh-Oh and the Stinkor action figure, but only a few.)

8. Red rubber balls will never go out of style.

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