Saturday, March 13, 2010

I needed to buy a toy pony. So off along Broadway I walked through mixed sunlight, rain showers, and cherry blossom snow, to Corporate Toy Store. In retrospect this was a bad idea. I should have walked straight up Main to the Granville Island Toy Company, where I later found a hand painted, made-in-Europe, anatomically correct pony for $10. But I was laboring under the misapprehension (which I despise when applied to my own industry) that Big = Massive Selection & Cheap. So past the Mr. Tube Steak cart blocking the front door and into the store I went.

Dust everywhere on the floor. Foam chips, packing-carton remnants, and little bits of broken-off pallet, as if a winter tide had just retreated down the aisle past the Star Wars Lego sets and Dora the Explorer.

Big bins of sad-looking stuffed toys with the day's current deliveries -- shrink-wrapped skids and broken boxes of toys -- shoved up against them, so that in order to reach a stuffed bunny I had to turn sideways and grope between the skids and the wall, grabbing blindly with my hands.

A sad and cheaply made penguin thrown on the floor, dust and cardboard adhered to his limp velour wings.

Two aisles of pink. Ridiculous dolls with cotton candy colored hair and enormous eyes.

"Grooming sets." "Feeding sets."

Lots of poorly made animatronic things that take batteries and speak. Bewildered parents picking up creatures that wriggle and writhe and enunciate a few fixed tinny phrases. Canned laughter.

Stuffed animals that only "come alive" once you log onto a website and input the secret alphanumeric code on the tag stapled onto their foot, which you then have to feed and "tend."

Walls of brands. The entrepreneur in me suspects that Toys 'r Us makes money selling shelf space to toy manufacturers, and not by providing anything resembling even basic customer service. In fact, during the whole half hour I was there, I didn't witness a single floor employee interacting with a customer. What I did observe was employees angrily stuffing toys onto the shelves without speaking, or quickly walking through the aisles, avoiding all semblance of eye contact.

No sign of anything I loved in childhood. No Tinkertoys, no basic Lego blocks, no Tonka trucks or Mouse Trap Game or cartoonish stuffed animals, cartoonish in the sense of being simple, largely undefined, like Charlie Brown, and therefore susceptible to the personality of their owner coming to inhabit them and so bringing them to life.

Deeply disturbed at capital's alternately hyperspecialized and cargo-cult approach to cultivating young minds, I walked out onto Broadway, down a side alley, and cried. Grieving, I suppose, for the PBS-Upper West Side approach of my childhood, the Sesame Street-Harriet The Spy-Owl Magazine approach of treating young minds as sophisticated, pliant, and culturally valuable, and therefore supplying, or trying to supply, complexity and quality, even in the context of a basic economic transaction.

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