Harrop: Romance of downtown toy stores has faded over years

Movies like to haul out the traditional scenes, but Amazon and ‘gift suites’ are now the present.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

A fixture of family Christmas movies is worldly-wise children recovering some of their innocence. “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) provides an early example.

The new animated film “Klaus” (on Netflix) does not stray from this theme. Children living on an icy island seek a workaround to their toyless Christmas, the work of mean, greedy adults. But one children’s fantasy remains: that the toys would come from a shop in the woods run by a Santa Claus figure named Klaus.

In other holiday movies, parents buy the dolls, trains and games in an old-fashioned downtown toy store. The store inevitably casts a warm glow on the dark street outside as snow falls gently.

That vision was perfected in “Home Alone 2” (1992). Separated from his family, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) ventures into Duncan’s Toy Chest. There an elegant Christmas tree overlooks a jumble of counters and toys spilled out for the trying. (Chicago’s 1888 Rookery Building provided the appropriate Victorian exterior.)

Kevin’s cynicism temporarily fades as he tells a kindly gentleman behind the counter, “Mr. Duncan must be a pretty nice guy letting all the kids come into the store and play with all his toys.” The man is Mr. Duncan, of course.

All hail the Main Street toy store. Nowadays, the bulk of toys are bought online or in big-box stores situated on strips outside downtown. Gone, however, is Toys ‘R’ Us, driven into bankruptcy by both Amazon and the hedge funds that buried it in debt. Though toys were the chain’s specialty, its stores were little more than vast warehouses that piled boxes on cold metal shelves.

And where are the toys made? Movies and ads obscure the fact that 88 percent of toys now sold in the United States are manufactured in giant factories in China.

Despite the massive changes in retailing, humans — and not just children — retain an almost primal need to venture downtown to see the holiday windows, perchance to shop.

Successful downtowns understand that they must play to their strengths. One is the psychological value of conveying a sense of a community. Main Street America is also coping with empty storefronts, but its shopping districts know to fill these unoccupied windows with wreathes, snowmen and such. (No one bothered doing that to the abandoned Toys ‘R’ Us store in my town, which glowers over a four-lane highway.)

These city and town centers know that tourists and local shoppers are drawn by their lively streetscapes packed with stores and restaurants. In some places, tourists are essential to the stores’ survival, according to Mark Cohen, a retailing expert at Columbia Business School. (A cab driver in Dublin told me that he often flies to New York for Christmas shopping.)

Recognizing the power of the tourist dollar, merchants are operating pop-up stores in hotel lobbies to capture sales before visitors even venture outside. In New York, for example, Nordstrom sells clothes at the JW Marriott Essex House. Bloomingdale’s retails Baccarat crystal and French chocolates at the Loews Regency.

And to bring the idea of intimate toy shopping — and economic inequality — full circle, the Conrad New York Midtown now rents out a suite full of giant stuffed animals and toys, courtesy of nearby toy emporium F.A.O. Schwarz. It costs $3,000 a night. “Mr. Schwarz” lets children play with his toys. He also lets parents buy them before they even leave the suite.

Back to “Klaus.” For all the modern themes threading through the film, the Christmas fairy tale about the making and delivery of toys survives intact. And that includes a white-bearded Klaus and his helpers hammering toys in a snow-covered workshop.

But there is a high-speed sled race.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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