My children have had the eye opening pleasure of growing up in a world dominated by enormous retail chains supplying our society with everything from junk under five dollars to junk over five hundred dollars. No chain dilates my kids eyes quite like retail toy stores. Bright lights, furry mascots, and toys for as far as their little eyes can see. I was, I believe, lucky enough to grow up just prior to the blitzkrieg of WalMart and Toys’R’Us. McDonald’s and Sears were the foremost chain stores in my town (I had not heard of Geoffry and his long necked kin quite yet)
Because of this, those small, corner shops started before our parents were born, by people usually from our neighborhoods, were where we went. These gems of retail are now lost to our society. Search as you might, what most of us grew up with are now as lost as El Dorado, the city of gold. Despite years of extinction at the hands of fuzzy mascots and two story racks of toys, there is one store that remains vivid in my memories…Burns Department Store.
Burns was a family owned store which quietly sat on, ironically, Burn St. A typical department store for the time. One large open area with different colored carpeting designating which department you were destined to have to follow your mom into next. There was one main walkway extending through the entire store. A beige tile, speckled with flakes of brown and gold grout. Every few feet, an offshoot broke from the main line to a different section of the store. It had reminded me of what a Tyrannosaurus Rex spine would have looked like (Land of the Lost was big in my house).
The “spine” also had “ribs”. Each “rib” led to a different department. My mom usually took “rib” three into the Woman’s section. Hanging blouses, silky garments and other items made to make an 8 year old blush (although, some of those bras looked like they would have made an awfully good holster for my six shooters). One “rib” led to the kids department. From my perspective it only contained miles of clothing and footwear calling out to my mother to have me try on. It was a section I entered with arms crossed in quiet dissension because of the looming “church” outfit or corduroy pants I was going to have to try on.
It took about 30 minutes (which to an 8 year old boy is somewhere north of forever) before we got to “rib” six. “Rib” six is noteworthy because it led to any young kid’s idea of heaven. Down “rib” six lay the greatest collection of toys ever assembled in one place (it was to toys as ‘The Towering Inferno’ was for ensemble casts).
Because I had the benefit of growing up in a time when kids weren’t leashed to their parent’s wrists and not even MSNBC worried about child predators, there was always a good chance your mom would release into the store and to your own devices. Thanks to my Constitutional right to protest, my mom was more than happy to let me venture down “rib” six while she sorted through i-Zods and Wranglers. I non-chalantly walked toward the toy section until my mom was out of view or distracted by something on a circular clothing rack then took off at escape velocity (it was never a good idea to run full boar in view of a parent, you were lucky enough to be released from their clutches, best not to push your luck by running in plain sight).
Howard Carter, upon entering the tomb of King Tut, did not lay his eyes on as beautiful a treasure as the Burns’ toy department. Burns’ toy department was the kind of place Spanish conquistadors sailed the globe in search of. I had found my El Dorado. The speckled walkway split into two lanes winding around the center toy shelf and flanked on either side by packaged toys. There was a ramp that led down to the heart of the toys. I always broke to the right as the walkway split (left side equaled girl side which equaled cooties.)
An oasis of action figures with spring loaded karate chopping arms, Star Wars figures with miniature weapons (with a shelf life of about 2 hours once getting home with them before I lost all of them), two headed dragons made from bullet proof plastic, robots that transformed into sports cars, and mounds of Lego’s. Kenner, Mattel, and Hasbro were all represented on the shelves. An assortment of plastic weapons hung from the boards with all those nifty holes for hang rods.
I would make my way down the shelves full of toys like my mom made her way through the shoe department.
At the end of the glorious aisle of Taiwanese made treasures was a set of glass doors wrapped in aluminum with an ‘EXIT’ sign glowing above them. As if the architect of the building was instructed by God (or a really smart marketing director), the doors allowed sunlight to bathe the toys with sunshine that only enhanced their appeal.
I would make the turn and head into the adjacent aisle (before leaving I could have sworn one of the Masters of the Universe told me to buy him). I had to walk through the girl’s section. Partly out of the flow of the toy department and partly out of curiosity. I wanted to see what it was the sugar and spice and everything nice sex played with. Barbies, baby dolls with pacifiers, and a cascade of pink filled the shelves (my first instinct was to ignore curiosity and run). My walk through Cootieville, USA didn’t take long and before I became nauseous, I was out.
El Dorado didn’t end there. Where the walkway originally split, off to the side, was a set of wooden steps leading to a second floor of toys. Waiting up the old creaky stairs were rows of games, sporting goods, and toys from my parents’ childhood (I wasn’t sure who this Flash Gordon character was but ray guns and spaceships made him okay in my book).
I was in heaven (who needs Angels and harps when you have Carbonite Han Solo and the Go-Bots). If I were lucky enough, I could pluck one of hundreds of goodies dangling in front of my wide opened eyes and bring it to my mother where she would ‘OK’ a purchase. If I were denied, I could at least buy myself some extra time in the department by reminding my mom she had not yet taken a stroll where the purses were hanging.
Eventually we stopped going to Burns. I thought, at the time, paging through the JC Penny Christmas catalog, with it’s 20 plus pages of toys and the building of KayBee and Toy’s R Us, outclassed Burns’. It was not until later, when Burns closed their doors for the final time did I long for that speckled tile and slowly sloping ramp leading to the toy department. While these new stores give their patrons plenty to gaze at, I miss lazily wandering through the intimate toy department at Burns. Looking for my favorite action figures. Seeking out another ‘Batteries Not Included’ remote controlled vehicle.
Sadly, amidst two stories of Hannah Montana toys, over sized mascots, and train track designed carpeting of today’s retail toy titans, my El Dorado is lost again.